What is Filipino Martial Arts?

FMA aka Kali, Arnis or Escrima is an Indigenous martial arts of the Philippines with a significant connection to key historical events that have shaped the islands and its people. This blade based martial art has weaved its way in daily attire, writing, war, colonisation, street survival and continues to prove a fundamental utility in modern applications of combat and the arts. 


The term kali is a derivative of the term kalis meaning both ‘a sword’ and ‘to scrape’ although this term was not used by earlier Indigenous communities and/or modern Filipino's to describe the martial art. In Cebuano it is a derivative of kamot lihis.  Before the Spanish first attempted to colonise the Philippines in the 16th century, the early Filipino nation was divided into many kingdoms and thalassocracies ruled by a bloodline of Sultans, Rajahs, Lakans, Datus and Queens, all of whom had their own language, customs and spiritual beliefs. 


Early adaptations of, what we now know as Indigenous Kali, was named according to the local languages. What was prominent amongst all of them, however, was the supremacy of the sword and knife. The blade was the most important item used by Indigenous Filipinos. Often worn at their side as an item of everyday attire, men of war never removed the dagger unless surrounded by trusted family members. The majority of blades were made of iron or steel and adorned with elaborate hilts carved in wood. Hilts and casings were decorated with metals, ivory, rattan, hair and beads. Golden swords, knives, and body jewellery marked the warriors rank within their local community and were gifted by the Sultan to the most exceptional fighters. 


The importance and value of the blade spanned beyond merely being used as a weapon, many were used as ceremonial swords and daggers for local spiritual rituals. Bolos of various forms were traditionally used as tools for clearing forest brush and doubled as weapons during times of conflict. Throughout the archipelago, the tip of the knife was also used for inscribing Baybayin — a Filipino sanscrit text — onto pieces of bamboo and wood. In the northern Luzon regions Indigenous Filipinos engaged in headhunting rituals using various axes.


Indigenous Filipinos engaged in local feuds between neighbouring clans practicing a systemised form of warfare. When Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan reached the Visayan region in 1521, he met his death in a battle against Datu Lapu Lapu and his men who were armed with stakes and iron swords — most notably the Kampilan sword. The Spaniards arrived with more firearms eventually conquering the Philippines. Indigenous Filipinos were subjected to Spanish colonisation for more than 300 years which fueled the underground resistance movement and the pursuit of independence. The anti-colonialist Katipunan revolutionaries fought through armed revolt using firearms and bolos. During this period the British occupied Manila for three years - looting the wealth of the major port. Spanish and Filipino fighters joined together and gained victory over British forces despite the rebel wars that were still fought concurrently between the Spaniards and Filipinos. Gabriela Silang, a revolutionary female leader, commanded 2,000 rebel troops and mountain warriors in an effort to combat colonial rule however she was captured and executed by the Spanish. After the Cuban intervention in 1898, the Americans sought to take Philippines from Spain. Filipinos considered this an opportunity to fight for full self-determination without the prospect of a second colonial ruler. Guerilla warfare ensued for three years between 1899-1902 until resistance fighters were called to cease fire and accept US sovereignty. 


The Second World War saw the Japanese occupation of the Philippines with opposing guerilla warfare throughout the archipelago. American and Filipino forces joined together to combat Japanese forces. Filipino resistance fighters continued daily war with Japan using bolos and makeshift Paltik shotguns. After devastating losses, sickness and reduced rations, Japan was able to occupy the Philippines for more than three years between 1942-1945. This turbulent past harbored an ongoing dedication to the blade in post-war Philippines. 


By the time various Kali styles gained notoriety, the modern streets of Philippines were already well-established spaces where locals would be known to carry knives as a matter of survival from local street rivalries as well as doubling up as a tool. To this day, it is known that you are more likely to come across someone with a knife than a gun in the Philippines. The balisong, a foldable pocket knife from Batangas was part of the Batangueño daily attire that, without the knife, no Batangueño felt contentment. On the Pacific island of Palau, people referrred to Filipinos as ‘chad ra oles’ — people of the knife — because of their reputation of using knives as weapons in combat fighting. Kali was taught to families as a matter of survival and passed down through generations. Sticks made from rattan and wood were used to replace the blade in training and are still used today.


A wide variety of swords and knives are still forged in the Philippines by family owned businesses and bolos are still in widespread use for various agricultural purposes. Today Kali is one of the most efficient blade forms in the world utilised by military, special forces, and law enforcement. Unlike many other Indigenous customs in which Filipino culture has been affected by colonisation, Kali is one that has survived the test of time.