June 22, 2024

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Filipino Martial Arts: Kali, Escrima, and Weapons

Filipino Martial Arts

Among the most popular and influential of martial arts practiced today are the fighting styles that come out of the Philippines, including Kali and Escrima (or Eskrima, all of which are different names for a very similar group of overlapping martial disciplines). The martial arts of the Philippines are unique in their emphasis on practicality, with little ceremony besides what is effective. This was necessitated by the violent history of the Philippines, marred both by conflicts between local tribes as well as with great international powers, such as Spain and the United States. The Filipino Martial Arts incorporate both weapons training, particularly sticks and blades, as well as empty-handed training under the philosophy that weapons are merely an extension of one’s body. Another unique concept in the Filipino Martial Arts is that anything can be used as a weapon, from a dagger or knife to a rolled-up newspaper or umbrella. This has given the Filipino Martial Arts significant cultural traction and impact everywhere from Hollywood to American Special Forces, which I’ll go into a bit more later. But first, the weapons and techniques behind the Filipino Martial Arts.

Filipino Martial Arts Weapons

Unarmed (Because hey, your body is a weapon too):

In unarmed Kali or Escrima, any part of the body can be used as a weapon. Combat involves a myriad of punches, kicks, elbows, knees, headbutts, finger-strikes, locks, blocks, grappling, disarming techniques, forearm strikes, palm attacks, and even biting. Everything is fair game, because hey, your body is a weapon too.

Blunt Weapons

Kali Sticks / Escrima Sticks:

In Kali and Escrima, sticks are commonly used weapons. Among these are the:

Baston: A short Kali stick, generally made from flexible rattan

and the Bangkaw: a longer pole or staff, often made of bamboo

Improvised weapons such as pens, umbrellas, walking sticks, or even rolled-up newspapers and magazines can be used as Kali and Escrima sticks! Fundamentally, there is little difference between using a newspaper to fight or a baston, and so similar techniques apply to both.

Bladed Kali Weapons

In Kali and Escrima, bladed weapons are of fundamental importance, as a substantial part of the martial culture of the Philippines is a blade culture. Knives, of all shapes and sizes, are common-place and normal factors of life, used for everything from cutting down overgrown vegetation, cutting open fruit or meat, or cutting through an adversary. This brings up one of the key differences between the Filipino Martial Arts and other weapon-based fighting systems, such as Japanese Kendo, Okinawan Kobuto, or European fencing: while no one walks around with katanas and sabres anymore, people do still carry pocket knives and machetes and other types of knives, all of which one learns to defend against as well as wield through the study of the Filipino martial arts. This makes Kali or Escrima particularly practical and useful martial arts to know.

Dagger: a common bladed weapon in the Filipino martial arts. Traditional varieties include the gunong, punyal, and the barong

Foldable Butterfly Knife: Called the Balisong

Swords: Espada in Spanish, and traditional varieties include the kampilan and the pinuti

Machete: Traditionally called the Golok

Spear: Called the sibat

History and Influence of Kali and Escrima/Eskrima

Kali martial arts informally began long before the arrival of the Spanish to the Philippines, as tribes needed a means of defending themselves against other tribes, either on their island or on another. It is said that there are as many styles of Kali as there are islands in the Philippines. Kali may well have been influenced originally by similar stick and sword-fighting styles from India, such as Silambam, which also involves stick fighting.

Once the Spanish invaded and colonized the Philippines, Kali was made illegal and suppressed. In return, the Filipinos began to incorporate it into their dance rituals, which allowed them to pass on the cultural knowledge and fighting techniques without meeting the ire or even the notice of the colonists.

Kali martial arts developed during the colonial period through bloody trial and error as successive rebellions from the Filipinos shook Spanish rule. As each rebellion was put down, the Filipino people reassessed their martial art, taking out what did not work and improving upon that which did.

Today, a number of systems of Kali/Eskrima are taught, with most teaching weapon training, striking, grappling, throwing, and takedowns. Kali is geared toward teaching lightning-fast movement, efficient footwork, and practical self-defense.

In popular and military culture, Kali martial arts has also been influential. It is used by US Special Forces, by the Russian Spetznaz, and by Indian Special Forces as well. Hollywood movies have portrayed Kali as well, from brief flashes in Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon to more fully fleshed-out appearances in The Bourne Series with Matt Damon, Mission Impossible 4 with Tom Cruise, and the Star Wars prequel trilogy.