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Arnis, Kali, Eskrima: Learning the History of Filipino Martial Art

by Sports Team
31 Jul 2017 | 2:10 PM

The Philippines is an island nation that's rich both in culture and history. Way before the Spaniards set foot on Philippine shores, Filipinos already had an established way of life, and part of it was having their own fighting style to defend their territories against foreign invaders. Although it's relatively obscure to the general public, martial artists from around the world know and respect Filipino martial arts as one of the most effective, fast, and lethal styles when it comes to hand-to-hand combat.

An Art of Tradition

The Filipino martial arts of Arnis, Kali, and Eskrima have long been a part of Filipino culture and are a big part of both the history and diversity of the country. You may know Arnis as just fighting with sticks, but it's more than that. As the name suggest, it's an art. It was originally developed by the natives using simple impact and edged weapons such as the kampilans, rattan sticks, swords, spears and other weapons for combat and self-defense, all of which are also often used as farm implements.

The variations have been passed on from generation to generation throughout the different regions, families, and teachers who try to preserve this "complete" martial art.

A Connection to the Past

Back in 1521, when the Spanish first waded onto the shores of the country, Raja Lapulapu and his men killed Conquistador Ferdinand Magellan with a kampilan dagger, slicing his leg and thrusting the dagger into his throat. When the Spaniards came back and took over the country, the famed sword skills of the native became one of the main reasons why the Spaniards forbade the Filipinos from carrying swords.

The Filipinos adapted to this, though, by combining their own sword-wielding skills with the Spaniards' sword skills and applying them using rattan sticks, giving birth to the art of eskrima. Eskrima is essentially stick fighting, taking its name from the Spanish word for "fencing," esgrima. They were able to continue and preserve the martial art through native ritual dances, performances, and mock battles. The arts were then passed down from generation to generation, honing the skills, speed, accuracy, and agility of whoever practiced it.

The terms Arnis, Kali, and Eskrima are sometimes used interchangeably, but all referring to the Filipino martial arts. These are three different words for the same art, and the name usually depends on the location, the region's language, and type of training. Eskrima and Arnis were first practiced using wooden sticks, but when used with bladed weapons, the art became known as Kali. Many historians, however, prefer to lump the three arts under the umbrella term Eskrima.

A "Complete" Training

Unlike other, more popular martial arts in Asia, Filipino Martial Arts starts with learning how to fight using the weapons before learning empty-handed skills. Because commoners, villagers, and farmers had limited time to learn how to protect themselves from others, Eskrima training focused on using simple, easy-to-learn, and battle-tested fighting skills.

Using a yantok, or rattan stick, a beginner must first learn how to hold, handle, and wield his weapon. It's an implement, and trainees must learn to use it as an extension of their arms.
The yantok is a relatively hard stick that comes from a vine. Naturally, vines are soft and flexible. It becomes tough and unbending when heated by fire, making it an effective combat weapon. The process of treating the rattan wood serves as the principle of the martial art and the Filipinos as well, where one has to undergo hardships first before they can know and achieve their true strength.

To this day, Arnis/Kali/Eskrima has retained a strong Spanish influence not only in the names of the techniques, but also in the impact it has on Filipino culture. Filipino martial arts continue to be a big part of a number of weapons training and hand-to-hand combat, passing on and enriching the culture of the Filipinos; thus, the reference to it being a "complete" martial art.