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80. Martial Arts in the Philippines during 1927-1937 & 1946-1950 CE

NOV. 2, 2023


This week Pete enters the HHE Podcast dojo to discover Martial Arts in the Philippines during the period of the Chinese Civil War. Discover the fast and furious fighters of Eskrima, learn about the rough-and-ready origins of their art and the sometimes-fatal fights that came with it, and find out how today’s art is a rather more civilised affair.

The Republic of the Philippines (Filipino: Republika ng Pilipinas) is an archipelagic country, meaning it’s an archipelago, which is from the Greek meaning ‘a bunch of islands’. In this case, a bunch being over 7,000 islands.

It’s In the Pacific Ocean, so head to Australia, North to Papua New Guinea that looks like a Turkey then North Again and a little bit West and there’s a long chain of islands – that’s the Philippines. Or you can start in Tawian and go South, it’s up to you.

The Flag is a nice one, horizontal bands of blue and red, with a white, equilateral triangle at the hoist, so with the point poking from the flagpole into the flag like an arrow. In the triangle is a golden-yellow sun with eight primary rays, each representing a province.[a] At each vertex of the triangle is a five-pointed, golden-yellow star.

If it’s flown upside down, it means they are in a state of war, which was pretty embarrassing when in 2016 Facebook inadvertently declared war on the Philippines when it celebrated Independence day with the flag, unfortunately upside down.

National Anthem is Lupang Hinirang" ("Chosen Land") also informally known by its incipit "Bayang Magiliw" ("Beloved Country"). The incipit of a text is the first few words of the text, employed as an identifying label. The music was composed in 1898 by Julián Felipe, and the lyrics were adopted from the Spanish poem "Filipinas", written by José Palma in 1899.

Interestingly it’s had English, Spanish and Philippino incarnations.

Size-wise it’s 300,000 square kilometers, or 116,000 square miles, which is a bit over half a France – which is 1.8 times bigger.

The population is 110 million souls compared to France’s 68 million, so plenty of people. And you may hear the people calling themselves Pinoy – a word coming from the ‘pino’ at the end of ‘Philippino’ and a Y which is used as a diminutive in Tagalog.

There are between 130 and 190 different languages spoken around the country, but the official languages are Philippino, which is a specific version of Tagalog and English, although it also used to be Spanish but not any more which gives you a small clue as to their history.

The capital city is Manila, which is one of if not the most densely populated city in the world. And perhaps not unrelated, famously congested, with traffic seeming like it’s in endless gridlock.

Interestingly, Manila is not related to the envelope of the same name. Manila envelopes are made of Manila paper, which was invented in the United States in the 1830s. During a cotton and linen rag shortage, papermakers started recycling manila rope, used on ships, as pulp for making paper.

But why are Manila ropes so called? They are made from and named for Manila hemp aka abaca, which is a plant in the banana family that is mostly found in the Philippines.

But ironically, although Manila the city is named after a Philippine plant, it’s not this one. The city was originally named Maynilad, and is derived from the nilad plant which could once be found growing profusely in the area.

So despite all these coincidences, Manila envelopes have nothing to do with the City.

It’s a tropical maritime climate, so it’s hot and humid, expect vegetation, sweat and rainy seasons, but it is also home home interesting geographic features including plenty of gorgeous tropical beaches, the world’s longest underground river - the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River which was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 – and the chocolate hills - large mounds or conical hills that look like the landscape has been studded with giant 50 metre high Hershey’s kisses. These are conical karst hills, created by the uplift of coral deposits and erosion.

Economically it’s a dynamic emerging economy, transitioning from agriculture to services and manufacturing. But one of it’s biggest exports is people. There is a stereotype of philippino maid, and lots of health workers – especially nurses. In the US, 30% of the foreign born nurses were Philippino.

In 2016 a 3 million Philippinos were abroad, officially, unofficial numbers going up to 10 milliion. In fact, 9% of the GDP is personal remittances – people sending money home from abroad, totaling $31 billion in 2021.

The most popular sport is… basketball, which is perhaps surprising, until we come to the bit in the history where it was run by the Americans for a while.

Of course, given the topic of martial arts, it would be remiss of me not to mention one of the most famous Philippinos of all time. Manny Pacquiao, known as Pacman is considered by many to have been the best boxer of all time. He has been champion at 8 different divisions and is the only boxer to hold world championships across four decades (1990s, 2000s, 2010s, and 2020s). After his boxing career, he then went into politics and is was a sitting Senator in the Philippines until 2022 when he entered himself, ultimately unsuccessfully, into the race to become president of the Philippines.

Finally Pete and Ryan enjoyed delicious San Miguel, available in all good supermarkets (in the UK at least).


50,000 years ago it’s early early man. Homo luzonensis, also known as "Ubag" is an extinct species of archaic human from the Late Pleistocene. The remains are not many - some teeth and fingerbones were found in Callao Cave in Luzon island, hence Luzonensis.

Later, around 3000 BC, seafaring Austronesians migrated southward from Taiwan to populate the place.

Then come various kingdoms and communities who developed in the various islands, and over the centuries Islamic, Indian, and Chinese cultures all variously arrived and influenced the area.

1532 then sees the first Europeans (Portuguese on a Spanish sponsored expedition)- Ferdinand Magellan's expedition landed. This was quite a memorable visit for him because about a month later, he got into a skirmish with a Philippine chief (Lapulapu, chief of Mactan) where his forces were defeated and Magellan himself was killed.

Then the Spanish had another go at colonising and were rather more convincing. Miguel López de Legazpi's set out from Mexico in 1565 and established the first permanent settlement in Cebu, from whence, a colony grew, a city we’re going to be hearing more about later.

This was the first time you had something you could call the Philippines. Spanish colonial rule saw the introduction of Christianity, a law code, and the oldest modern university in Asia.

But then, due to things mostly to do with Cuba and the Caribbean, the Spanish American war broke out, which ended with the Americans coming out on top.

As a result of this, in December 1898, The Philippines were passed to the control of the United States along with Puerto Rico and Guam after the Spanish–American War.

The First Philippine Republic was established on January 21, 1899 – but the United States would not recognize them, and so began the Philippine–American War.

To break this up a little, the Empire of Japan invaded the Philippines during World War II, which was a rough affair for them as it included the Bataan Death March and the Manila massacre, plus over one million Filipinos were estimated to have died by the end of the war.

But the Japanese were expelled in the end and on July 4, 1946, the country's independence was recognized by the United States with the Treaty of Manila.

In 1965 elections brought Ferdinand Marcos to the Presidency. He started out by managing to improve the economy, which got him elected again in 1969.

But when the cry went out ‘come in Mr Marcos, your time is up’ and he neared the end of the term allowed him by the constitution, he declared martial law, saying ‘nah, I’ll stay thanks, if it’s all the same to you.’

Now with a dictator situation, can you have a guess what happens next? Yes, the classic authoritarian triplets, repression, censorship and corruption – accusations embezzling billions of dollars of public funds, along with his wife Imelda who, famously managed to curate a collection of shoes that has been estimated at around 3,000 pairs.

Perhaps related, the 1980s saw a period of economic collapse for the country.

In 1983 the exiled leader of the opposite flew back to the Phillipines and got off the plane at Manila airport where he was promptly assassinated by the army – literally on the airport tarmac – his name was Benigno Aquino Jr.

This event was just too much for the Philippine people and was a trigger for widespread civil disobedience. To deal with it, in 1986 Marcos called a snap presidential election in 1986.

He faced an opposition led by Corazon or Corey Aquino – the widow of the assassinated Benigno. When the results came in – Marcos was once again proclaimed the winner. But this wasn’t the end of the story. 30 computer technicians with COMELEC, the Commission on Elections walked out in protest at what they said was a fraudulent result.

This was the start of mass protests and boycotts which led to what’s known as the People Power Revolution which included the defection of elements of the armed forces who refused to attack their fellow Philippinos.

So eventually, Marcos and his family fled the country, leaving the opposition in charge.

After that, it was a bit of a struggle to bring back stability and growth with subsequence governments accused of corruption, an ongoing conflict with MORO separatists (Moro Islamic Liberation Front or MILF).

Although economicially it was doing relatively well, becoming one of the fastest growing economies in Asia.

Still, as the people tired of corruption, 2016 saw a landslide victory in the presidential election for a strongman character with an anti corruption platform. President Rodrigo Duterte was famous for his hardline on crime, in particular on drugs, “I will order the police to find those people [involved in drugs] and kill them. The funeral parlours will be packed.”

So you can see how he got his nickname Duterte Harry.

In 2022 there was another election and Duterte opted not to stand. Instead, the election was held and in an inspirational result – the current president is one Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos, ably supported by his Vice President, Sara Duterte.

Which just goes to how that no matter how humble your origins, with hard work, determination and a Father who was once President, you can make it to the top.

The Chinese Civil war
Our time period is a little odd because it’s broken into two phases. In fact, Wikipedia says “The war is generally divided into two phases with an interlude” which sounds to me like something that would be written in the programme – don’t forget to order your drinks in advance for the interlude.

So it runs from 1927 to 1937 and 1946 to 1950, with the notable event in between being the Second World War.

The two sides were the Kuomintang-led government of the Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party. But why the gap – well quite simply that whilst the Kuomintang and the Communists were fighting over who was the government China, the Japanese arrived in force and said ‘you’re both wrong, it’s actually us, we’re the government of China’ and they put a puppet government in charge.
So, it actually not being ruled by Japan was one thing the Kuomintang and Communists could agree on, so they agreed to cease hostilities to fight the common foe.

Although it should be noted they did not sit around the fire singing Kumbaya, there was no real cooperation and still fighting would break out

But when it became clear that the Japanese were going to lose the war and get kicked out of China, it was back to fighting one another, a conflict that lasted until the Kuomintang were driven out of the mainland to take refuge in Taiwan in 1949, which is the end of our time period.

And, for the realists amongst us the end of the Civil war, although if you ask the island of Taiwan, they might very well claim that the jury is still out.

Martial arts
Online the Collins dictionary defined it as “any of the forms of self-defense or combat originating in East Asia that utilize physical skill and coordination without weapons, as karate, aikido, judo, or kung fu, often practiced as sport”

Which I disagree with - restricting to Asia seems wrong as I think most people would agree boxing was a martial art, and Capoeira from Brazil, Danbe in West Africa, and fencing in Europe all qualify.

So let’s make our own definition by breaking it down into its parts. Martial is an adjective meaning ‘related to fighing or war’. Art has rather more definitions, but I think we can go with “a skill at doing a specified thing, typically one acquired through practice.”

So it’s the skill of fighting or war – but I don’t think that quite tells the whole story, because battlefield tactics, pike formations and the like aren’t things we really think of when we think of martial arts.

So I’m going to add the element of the individual here – so for me it’s the art or set of skills related to fighting between individuals, often codified into a formal set of moves or practices.

And where did they start? The oldest Martial Art in the world is hard to say, it seems likely that even early man was practicing techniques to swing a branch and bonk a neighbouring villager over the head.

But, we can try to find some candidates. From 2,000BCE a place called Beni Hasan, 300km South of Cairo in Egypt, there’s a number of tombs, and in one of them, known as tomb 15 is a wall painting depicting two men executing what appear to be a number of wrestling moves.

There are a lot of them, including various grapples and throws. It’s at least four rows of figures with 20 or more pairs of people pictures and looks to me almost like a wrestling manual – although given it’s in a tomb, it’s possibly decoration for a deceased wrestling fan.

Boxing is also perhaps an unsurprising contender, with images dating from 2,400BCE in Mesopotamia, although that’s a bas relief and looks a little bit like two guys just saying ‘here, smell this’.

Meanwhile, about the same time in China, jao dǐ was developing – a wrestling style also known as horn-butting. Described as an ancient style of military Kung Fu imitated after the actions of domestic cattle and oxen. It’s not brilliantly documented – some sources suggest fighters would wear a hat with ox horns and attempt to butt one another, others seem to think if was more of a wrestling art.

In any event, pretty much wherever you go you can find early depictions of the training for the very serious business of fighting being turned into a game or sport which makes sense, as they would provide a safe way to practice and improve your skills so that, when the time came to really fight, you had some moves to apply, without having had to be repeatedly beaten to a pulp in order to learn them.

Nowadays in the Olympics you can compete in a variety of martial arts, including Boxing and wrestling (graeco roman and freestlye), fencing, judo since 1964, tae kwon do since 1988 and the most recent addition Karate since the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo

Martial Arts in the Philippines 1927 to 1950 minus the War.
It won’t surprise you that, like pretty much everywhere, the Philippines has a home-grown martial art.

Arnis, Eskrima or Kali are all different names for what can be considered one distinctive Martial Art of the Philippines.

Kali originated from the southern part of the Philippines where the locals speak the native dialect, Cebuano where “Ka” stands for kamot meaning “hand,” and “Li” stands for lihok, “movement.” “movement of the hand.”

Eskrima originated from the central Philippines and derives fromm the Spanish term “esgrima,” which means “fencing.

Arnis also from the old Spanish for Armour.

But I’m going to call it Eskrima for the purposes of this show, as it’s the name I have always known it by, but bear in mind it is an umbrella term covering various regional styles and techinques that have developed in the last few centuries.

What are the characteristics of the art of Escrima? Most typically it is associated as a form of fighting with sticks.

Many martial arts will tend to start you with open hand techniques and you might start learning weapons later. But not Escrima – they figure if the other guy is going to have a stick, you’d better have a stick from the get-go.

In fact, it is said that the Escrima student should be able to pick up any nearby object and turn it into a deadly weapon.

Some also say the stick is a stand in for a bladed weapon – a sword or machete but it’s worth noting this is a controversial point of view, I saw one interview with a grandmaster who insisted stick skills and blade skills are quite different things.

Backing up this theory is the fact that Eskrima practitioners also practice with their own deadly bladed weapons – knives, in particular the bolo knife, which is characteristic of the Philippines, are often used in Eskrima training.

In fact, as a knife fighting style, I have to warn you that it is extremely dangerous – as one article in Black Belt magazine said “Anyone who claims he can fight with knives and not get cut is not telling the truth, plain and simple. If you ever meet a teacher who claims to have been in lots of knife fights, ask to see his scars because if he doesn’t have any, he didn’t have the fights.”

So where did it come from?

There is some debate as to whether it was around before Spanish, or was largely created after the arrival of the sword-wielding Europeans.

That said it is said that around 1762 the Spanish governor general of the Philippines Simon de Anda y Salazar ordered the banning of the practice of Filipino Martial arts.

Supposedly the art was carried on in secret under the guise of dancing – a story similar to that of Capoeria in Brazil. And it is also said that a prohibition on blades is what turned Eskrima into a stick fighting form.

But, that may not actually be true and in the book “Cebuano Eskrima: Beyond the Myth suggests that such a ban on an country made of hundreds of separate islands would be largely unenforceable.

They also say that a ban wouldn’t even make sense, because when the British invaded Manila on September 23, 1762, the Spanish relied on support from Filipino native fighters – and their weapons.

There’s also another version of what happened – the 1957 book “A Body of Knowledge in the Sport of Arnis” suggested that the problem was not that the Spanish were afraid of the fighters, but that so many men spent so much time practicing, that the fields were getting neglected, so they suppressed the art in order to get people back to the fields.
The truth is we don’t know for sure, one of the problems with martial arts being that they particularly lend themselves to mythologising, with stories of the feats of great grandmasters getting embellished over time.

You only have to look at the superhuman feats attributed to the Shaolin temples to see what can happen.

In fact, when you see the massive variety of schools of Eskrima even today, it’s highly plausible to think it was quietly developed over the centuries across all the little islands.

Even more so when you think about this being a working man’s martial art – it wasn’t taught in mountain retreats to monks, but in the fields and streets of the various Philippine islands.

Even now when you see people training, it’s often just in a tee shirt, without fancy uniforms. It’s pretty obvious learning to fight predated the Spanish and it’s also pretty standard than a martial art absorbs new techniques that it comes across if they seem to work.

So I don’t think it needs a fancy origin story, as what we have today what is regarded as a highly effective fast and furious fighting style that is increasingly seen in popular culture such as the 2002 film The Bourne Identity, Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, who disarms a knife wielding assailant with a pen using Eskrima skills. Also in the 2021 film Dune, where, according to director Denis Villeneuve, eskrima is used by the characters as personal force fields rendered guns useless and prompted a return to knife fighting.

But if you want something a little more grounded, it is said that both the US military and the Russian Spetznatz special forces learn Eskrima techniques as part of their self defence training.

So that’s the overview, but what’s going on in our time period?

Eskrima in the Philippines during the Chinese civil war

In the early days, you had people in the towns and villages, passing the traditions and techniques down the family, father to son, and around the community.

For some reason, that I cannot find, apparently the art became particularly popular in and around Cebu city.

Cebu city today is nearly a million people, the 6th most populous in the Philippines. It was where Magellan first landed and was the site of the first Spanish settlement of the Philippines.

In the 1920, two brothers, Florentino and Eulogio Cañete who had learned eskrima from their father and studied under various masters, found themselves in Cebu City where they teamed up with the Saavedra family, Lorenzo “ensong” Saavedra and his nephews Teodoro and Federico.
Together they started the Labangon Fencing Club, the first Eskrima organization in the Philippines.

For reasons that I have not been able to make clear, the club is dissolved in 1930 or 1931, but the ball had started rolling.

In the documentary Escrimadors, one of the masters interviewed suggests that they had a tendency to fight one another in a kind of ‘my kung fu is the best’ challenge.

They also all had own styles and specialties – might be short range, or longer range, open hand or sticks, or the Espada y Data or sword and dagger technique – and the idea was to share their skills and improve the art.

So in 1932, the Canetes and the Saavedras get together and, with a total of 12 Escrima masters, they form the Doce Pares. Doce Pares is Spanish for 12 pairs and they named themselves this after the 12 peers, or the 12 paladins.

These were the finest swordsmen of the Emperor Charlemagne of France (AD 768-814) and were a little bit like the knights of the round table, led by a knight named Roland.

They were all top swordsmen, so you can see why the Doce Pares might want to be associated with them.

The club was located in San Nicolas Town which was a relatively rough, working class area – which kind of sets the tone for the art which was developed on the wrong side of the tracks.

The first President of Doce Pares was Eulogio Cañete. Side note - in what might be a testament to the health-giving properties of escrima, he held on the presidency of Doce Pares until he died in June, 1988.

The other founders of the Labangong fencing club – the Canetes and the Saavedras, were also present and the club also had a member named Venancio Bacon.

At 5 feet 2 inches tall, he was proficient in the Corto Linear or short line technique, which is a close range style where he could get in close to his opponent. He was one of the many people who would not turn down a fight when challengers came from other groups and styles.

And Doce Pares became known as the premier escrima group or style of the time.

Unfortunately, it fell apart a bit in 1941 when Japan invades the Philippines. When the army was overrun, many of the Doce Pares headed for the hills to become guerrilla fighters.

This included Teodoro Saavedra, of the original Labangon Fencing club, who joined the guerrillas but was captured by the Japanese in 1943 and executed.

After 1945 and the expulsion of the Japanese, the Doce Pares group came back together again, and for a while, all was well.

However, Venencio Bacon became disaffected with the Doce Pares, which at that time was dominated by the Ciriaco ‘Cacoy’ Canete.

Bacon takes a few others and gather in the backyard of a watch shop in Balintawak street, a small side street in Cebu city, and there he forms a breakaway organisation, Balintawak self defence club.

So through the 1950s and 60s these two main styles of Escrima, Doce Pares and Balintawak, would call each other out to test their skills. In particular Venencio Bacon and Cacoy Canete, between whom no love was lost.

So fighters would start to have no holds barred fights they would organise between one another. These were known as Juego Todo or Death Match, where two fighters with no helmet or other protection would agree to fight, often signing injury waivers before they fought.

The winner would then gain reputation – one master described an escrimador as being like a gunfighter.

And of course, as you gained reputation, other fighters would seek you out and you would have to fight again. Another master interviewed said “you’re not an escrimador if you’re not willing to fight”

This seems pretty rough, because it was – escrima was for workers and one master admits in interview, something of a criminal element.

Pasil district was one area popular with escrimadors, and that a pier and fishport – rough places full of tough people.

And sometimes the fights were not prearranged. Venancio Bacon was walking home one night and was ambushed by an assailant. Even if he had had a waiver, it probably wouldn’t have helped as Bacon not only emerged from the fight victorious, he actually killed his attacker.

But even in the rougher parts of Cebu city you are going to experience consequences of killing someone. Bacon was sent to prison for killing the man, not getting out until 1971.

Fortunately his school was continued by his colleagues and students,

Into the 1970s, Escrima had a problem – it wasn’t really growing – partly because it was a tough game, it was dangerous and fewer people wanted to sign waivers against injury than you might imagine.

So in 1976 a committee was formed, in Cebu City of course to draft some rules for a sporting version of Escrima. Protective equipment, helmets and gloves were also designed and made.

Then in March 1979, the first Philippine National Invitational Arnis tournament took place.

At first, it was very popular for some of the wrong reasons, one master recalls “The coliseum was always full because people thought they were out to kill each other.”

It continued to grow. 1988 was the year of the first such championship held in the US. And in 1998, Escrima developed a governing body - the World Eskrima Kali Arnis Federation (WEKAF).

And, to cap its recognition, in 2009, the Philippines Republic Act 9850 passed, and with it escrima was declared as the National Martial Art and Sport of the Philippines under Republic.

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