Arnis: A Question of Origins by Bot Jocano

Arnis: A Question of Origins
by Bot Jocano

Rapid Journal Vol. 2, No. 4
4th Qtr 1997

Taichi Works Publications
458 Jaboneros St. Binondo, Manila 1006
Arnis: A Question of Origins

by Bot Jocano

The term arnis evokes a number of reactions from people every time it is mentioned in a conversation. Some people start fanning their hands in the air, imitating the distinctive movements of the two-stick (doble baston) training method. This image of arnis is one of the most popular to the layman. A second reaction, and quite as common as the first, is the question: “Saan ba talaga galing ang arnis?” (Where did arnis really come from?) Alternatively, “Di ba, sa atin nanggaling ang arnis?î (Isn’t it that arnis comes from us?) is a question also heard. This article is an attempt to critically examine the roots of one of the martial arts of the Philippines, arnis. It must be noted that in no way does this article claim to be the final say on the origins of arnis. It is actually a preliminary look, a start if you will, into re-examining carefully the origins of an art form.

Arnis, also known as kali, escrima, baston, etc. is a complete martial art system, encompassing weapons training and empty-hand self-defense. It includes training in single stick techniques (solo baston), double stick techniques (doble baston), stick and knife or dagger techniques (espada y daga) and knife techniques (daga). Some styles may include staff and spear (sibat) training in their curriculum. Others will include the practice of medium to long bladed weapons (bolo) in their repertoire. Many styles have some form of empty hand combat, encompassing striking, kicking, locking, throwing and even choking methods. These are usually taught when the practitioner has demonstrated a reasonable degree of proficiency with the weapons of his style of arnis. Different arnis styles, from different parts of the country, may emphasize different areas of the training methods noted above. The term arnis is believed to be a Tagalog corruption of the Spanish term arnes, or harness, a reference to the decorations worn by the early Filipinos. Kali is another term used to refer to the same kind of martial arts. Different provinces may have different names for arnis, such as baston and kaliradman (Ilonggo, Bisaya), pagkalikali (Ibanag) and kalirongan (Pangasinan). These are only a few examples of the terms already recorded in different sources.

With such a comprehensive system of martial arts being taught and promoted in different areas of the country, it is inevitable that people would ask, where did such a complete martial art system come from?

One suggestion is that it originally came from another martial art system, called tjakalele. This is actually the name of a branch of the Indonesian martial art system known as pentjak silat. Another suggestion is that it was brought here from the Southeast Asian mainland, particularly during the Madjapahit and Shri-Visayan empires. Yet another suggestion is that it was propagated by the so-called ten Bornean datus fleeing persecution from their homeland. We shall critically examine these assertions one at a time.

The idea that arnis evolved or was derived from another martial art system, namely tjakalele silat, is due to linguistics. The alternative name for arnis is kali. It is widely held that this is the older term for arnis, and that kali itself emphasizes bladed weaponry apart from practice with the stick. It is not surprising that a connection could be seen between the term kali and tjakalele. However, linguistic similarity alone is not enough ground to assert that kali was indeed derived from tjakalele. There has to be documented proof that one came from the other. What form should this proof take? Authenticated documents certainly are one of the best pieces of evidence – if such could be found, and proven to be genuine. A close and thorough comparison of both styles would help, but it must be remembered that they would have changed over time, reflecting the different changes that have happened in their cultures of origin. On the other hand, one of the local terms for a bladed weapon is kalis. It is also believed that kali is a derived term from kalis. This assertion will require study before it can be validated.

Another oft-quoted idea is that kali was brought here during the Shri-Vishayan (7th -14th centuries and Madjapahit (13th -16th centuries) empires. This reflects the notion that the Philippines then was somehow an integral part of both empires. It must be noted that the archaeological evidence for the role of the Philippines in both empires is very meager. About the best that could be said is that there was commercial contact, but whether such contact also included the spreading of martial arts is circumstantial at best.

A third idea regarding the spreading and propagation of kali in the Philippines is that ten Bornean datus (sometimes nine) fled here and settled in various parts of the Philippines. They brought with them their fighting systems and taught these along with other arts in the academies called the bothoan.

A key problem here is that much of what we know about the ten datus is derived from the Maragtas of Pedro Monteclaro, published in l1oilo in 1907. Doubt has been cast on its usefulness as a historical document, especially since it records folk or oral history. Scholars such as the late William Henry Scott and F. Landa Jocano, are clear on this point – the Maragtas is a document recording folk or oral history, and not an actual eyewitness account of the events stated therein. As such, its historical value diminishes rapidly with each retelling of the story .If the original story of the ten Bornean datus is folklore and not authentic history, what are we then to make of the story regarding the propagation of kali in the bothoan? Folkloric history is useful in enabling people to identify with the art of kali, but it should not be taken as actual history.

If after having critically questioned the sources of the origins of kali, or arnis as it is known today, and through these critical analyses, have come to the positions stated above, what can we then say about the origin of kali, or arnis? Regardless of the name of the art or its sources, the fact that the early Filipinos practiced some form of combat was not lost on the Spaniards who first arrived here. Pigafetta’s description of the death of Magellan is graphic in its description of the weapons wielded by the natives. It is interesting to note that Magellan died as he was rushed by the defenders armed with spears and bladed weapons. In more recent times, Scott’s book Barangay includes a chapter on ancient Bisayan weapons and warfare. This was derived from the accounts and dictionaries of the early Spanish friars, some of whom were witnesses to the use and practice of weapons and warfare methods at the time.

To state therefore, that its origins lie outside the Philippines is misleading, for it disregards the unrecorded but no less real experiences our forefathers went in simply trying their best to survive. These experiences are recorded in the techniques of their styles of arnis. It is also quite possible that there were blendings with different styles of combat, but if so, these are quite difficult to verify historically.

A key difficulty in researching the origins of arnis is that most sources tend to be oral history or folkloric in nature. They are not exactly historical documents in the sense of being eyewitness accounts. Hence, their authenticity in this sense is always suspect. On the other hand, as folklore, they serve as a window, if you will, into how people think. Folklore gives us an idea of how people actually understand their world and their place in it.

Martial arts, in whatever form, and in whatever place, are the unique product of the people who developed them, as members of their culture. A case in point is Japanese fencing, kendo in its modern format, kenjutsu as the traditional form. Japanese fencing is a product of the technology and the values and habits of the Japanese. Similarly, it should be remembered that kali or arnis as it is also called today, is very much a product of the Filipino cultural experience. The relative informality of most practice sessions, for instance, is a reflection on the importance we place in building harmonious relationships with others.

In conclusion, it is not easy to actually trace the origins of the art of kali or arnis. Perhaps we may never actually trace it to a single key event in the lives of our forefat1lers. On the other hand, it is equally important to remember that the art itself is a continuing evolving product, subject to change and refinement over the years. What is also important is that we remain open-minded, willing to improve our understanding of the origins of this martial art. Such open-mindedness is useful inasmuch as it provides us with further insights into our identity as Filipinos.


Canete, Ciriaco. Doce Pares. Cebu City. Doce Pares Publishing House, 1989.
Inosanto, Dan; Johnson, Gilbert; and Foon, George. The Filipino Martial Arts. Los Angeles. Know How Publishing, 1980
Presas, Ernesto. Arnis. Manila. 1988
Presas, Remy. Modem Arnis. Manila. Modem Arnis Publishing Co., 1974, 1993.
Yambao, Placido. Mga Karununngan sa Larong Arnis. Quezon City: UP Press, 1957.
For references on Philippine prehistory:
Jocano, F .Landa. Questions & Challenges in Philippine Prehistory. Professorial Chair lecture: UP Press, 1975.
Jocano, F Landa. Philippine Prehistory. Quezon City: PCAS, 1975
Scott, William Henry. Prehispanic Source Materials for the Study of Philippine History. Quezon City. New Day Publishers, 1974.
Scott, William Henry. Barangay. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila Press, 1994.
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