by Rene J. Navarro
Here is one of my essays on arnis de mano as it was integrated into our own culture. The usual arnis vocabulary is Spanish. Sometime, along its evolutionary path, the native masters developed their own language and movement. Is there an attempt to study our native martial arts among the organizers of our ethnic/indigenous movements? Perhaps I haven’t looked in the right places, buti I’ve not found any serious effort in this direction.
Arnis: The Language of Combat
Consider different words translated from the original language to English. Very often, the meaning is lost because the English equivalent does not quite carry the import of the original word. To convey the connotation of a word, it may be necessary to go into an extended footnote. It gets worse when as in acupuncture or Arnis de Mano a mere number is assigned to designate a point or a strike.
In acupuncture, numbers are often used in the West to designate the meridian point. Stomach 25 is lateral to the navel or Conception Vessel 8. That does not say much really. But if we look at the original name of Stomach 25, we realize that it is “Tianshu” and that Conception Vessel 8 is “Shen que.” Tianshu is the Axis of Heaven — meaning the North Star, thus making an allusion to the macrocosm and the division of the body into Heaven and Earth. Shen Que is Spirit Gate — the place where the Spirit makes its entry to the foetus. Now that no doubt implies much, much more than Conception Vessel 8. Knowing the meaning of the original name is indeed important in understanding its meaning. We can go on with a many more examples in acupuncture.
In arnis, the same problem arises. For example, in the Tagalog region, “Tagang San Miguel” means the sword strike (Taga) of Saint Michael (San Miguel). It is basically a diagonal downward strike from right to left usually with the left foot leading. It’s often given the number “1” in the alphabet of strikes. The different implications of the name are lost because the number is not adequate to carry them. True, “1” may refer to “1 o’clock” and using the pattern of man, it is the left shoulder. But “Tagang San Miguel” refers to more than that. It refers to Saint Michael as well and the posture he assumes in Philippine iconography. It is in short a strike that describes not merely the trajectory of the blade or stick but also the dynamics of the body, the way the shoulders are angled, the way the whole movement flows in a powerful fusion of different elements. He is also, as everybody knows, on the logo of the leading street drink called, well, Ginebra San Miguel, not the popular beer but a potent gin also called cuatro cantos or four corners referring to the square shape of the bottle.)
Another example: “Tagang Buhat Araw” means a strike (Taga) coming from (buhat) the sun (araw). It is in the system of Arnis Lanada of Porferio Lanada number 8 in the sequence.; in the system of Balintawak arnis of the late Venancio Bacon it is number 12. It is also number 12 in Lapunti Arnis de Abanico, the system founded by the late Filemon Caburnay and Johnny Chiuten. But “Tagang Buhat Araw” implies a whole world of meaning. It is not only that it is a vertical downward strike coming from above, it is also a strike that requires that the sun be behind the practitioner; and the opponent should not see it because he gets a glare from the sun that’s directly shining on his eyes.
Still another example: “Sungkit.” This word describes a movement that includes a poking gesture, but not merely a poke, it’s really a flick basically of the wrist, that imitates the act of pulling down a fruit with a hook. I don’t think there is an English word that is the equivalent of the original here. Perhaps “pluck” may be used, with an asterisk of course. Most of the popular systems of arnis do not include it or many other names in their abecederio (alphabet of numbered strikes).
“Panastas”has an affinity to “sungkit” in that the tip of the stick or the blade is the focus of the trajectory. “Panastas” however refers to an entirely different technique. It mimics the act of unravelling a thread from a cloth with a knife or blade. Therefore the target is not the eyes; it could be any other part of the body but the direction is usually upward vertical. “Panastas” likewise suggests that it is not really a stick technique but one for a bladed weapon such as a knife or a bolo.
“Sungkit” is different from “Saksak” which is a thrusting movement. “Saksak” means not just a flick of the blade which would blind or nick but a deep forced entry into the body or face using the tip of the weapon.
We can go down a long list of words that graphically depict the concept behind the strike.
Imagine if numbers were employed in tai chi chuan to represent the movements in the form. It is difficult enough to conceive of “Peng” as “Ward-Off,” but say, we call “Peng” as number 1. Or “Rollback” as number 2 and so on down through the 8 core techniques. It’s even worse if we just numbered all the movements in sequence, from 1 to 108. In the Sword form of the Yang Family, we can appreciate the imagery and allusiveness of “Monkey Presents the Peach of Immortality,” “Seven Stars of the Big Dipper” and “Immortal Points the Way.” There are limits to translation, as many experts have realized. “Yin-Yang” will always be “Yin-Yang,” Tai chi chuan will always be Tai chi chuan, not Grand Ultimate Fist, Qi will always be Qi, not simply energy or vitality.
When I studied arnis with the legendary Amante “Mat” Marinas in the early 70s, it was at first basically learning the “numbers” of the different strikes. Dan Inosanto and Porferio Lanada were likewise using “numeros.” Each of the 12 strikes had a corresponding number. Every now and then, Mat would tell me the Tagalog names, apparently drawn from the Luzon region, including Manila, Bulacan, Batangas, and Quezon. I learned later on that he was giving the names used in the book “Mga Karunungan sa Larong Arnis” by Yambao, the first book ever on arnis de mano.
The book “Karunungan” is written in Tagalog. At this writing (June 2004), no English translation has been done on it, as far as I know. Mat gave me a few pages of the book when I wrote an article about him in 1973.
Later on, I asked my father to get a copy of it in the Philippine National Library. With the description of Mat and my own background as a guide, I began studying the different techniques from the book. I analysed the different names and how the techniques were applied in an actual fighting situation. To me, it was a revelation to understand the names and descriptions of the strikes and movements.
I realized how different the techniques are when one studies them in the language that they were originally described. Even the counting — isa (one), dalawa (two), tatlo (three), etc. — was different. It had a different cadence and rhythm to it. Like a Philippine dance, arnis assumed a beat, a syncopation. “Bulusok ng dalawang kamay o sandata” and “indayog ng katawan” gave me ideas that a mere numbering system would not have.
When I studied Lapunti Arnis de Abanico in Cebu and Bantayan Island in the Philippines, I pressed my teachers to use the original Visayan names of the strikes. It took more time to study the names and write them down but it was a satisfying endeavour. Certainly more than a number, “Witik” has a nice rhythm to it that conveys a certain panache.
How then do we translate the original words into English? Since some words are almost impossible to translate, possibly the best solution for some practitioners is to study the art in the original language. But since not everybody can spend all the time in learning Tagalog or Pilipino, Capampangan or Visayan (one of the languages in Central Philippines where arnis is extensively practiced), the second best step is to study the different names of the strikes in the original language along with the closest English translation. Besides how many instructors are there who speak the Philippine language of the arnis style that they are teaching? Many instructors of arnis, even unfortunately Filipinos, often do not even know the native names of the techniques. The foreigner learning arnis in the Philippines will be surprised to note that many Filipinos teach arnis in English!
Which brings us back to the question: In practice, is it really necesssary to know the original names and meanings?
I have seen quite a number of practitioners who did not learn the original names, some of them seem to do quite well in practice, others don’t have have much idea of what they are supposed to do. There are also those practitioners who have learned the original names of the arnis strikes who seem to have more clarity and information in their teachings. There are also those who have been able to understand and adopt the techniques despite lack of knowledge of the original names. In practice of course, there are factors that come into play such as physical dexterity, tactical instinct, kinesthetic gifts, etc. I have played sparring with practitioners who have no idea of the names, whether in English or in the original language, but I have a strong respect for their abilities.
As a Filipino, I take pride in the beauty and symbolism of the arnis names. It gives me joy to see somebody teaching the art in my own language. It makes me feel that s/he cares deeply not only for the enlightenment of the student but also for the art and my culture.
Learning the original language of the art likewise deepens one’s understanding of the culture and may ultimately bring the practitioner to the deeper spiritual content of arnis de mano. Many of the names used, for instance, allude to environmental conditions and Filipino imagery. “Tagang Buhat Araw” is not just a downward overhead strike. It suggests nature (the sun). So does “Tabas Talahib” (cogon grass). In short, like the Chinese, Filipinos picture their movements in terms of their living conditions and cultural milieu. Movements are not just numbers or hours on the clock. As in Tai chi chuan and qigong and other Chinese arts, the names are poetic and carry meanings that cannot otherwise be conveyed with numbers.
“Tagang San Miguel” is an allusion to Michael, the revered Saint who occupies a high position in Christian heraldic iconography, along with Raphael. Here we are treading on some of the mystical and religious aspects of Philippine martial culture. For arnis de mano is not just a fighting system; it is not just scoring points or bashing heads. It is imbued with a mystical tradition — with orasyon (prayers/meditation), animism, respect for nature and reverence for the spirits who live there, healing, occult, magic, search for connection to the divine, etc. Certain movements, even the sound of the sticks, are a means of communication — conveying for instance an invitation to an opponent or a friend. The amulets and talisman or anting-anting that the arnisadores carry in their person or tattooed on their bodies (like the late Antonio Illustrisimo) contain prayers, exorcism and symbols.
The arnisador who is steeped in the Philippine tradition is usually a “hilot,” a healer who knows energetics, herbs and massage, and is connected to the nature spirits of his homeland. One such arnis master I studied with was the late Guillermo “Guiling” Tinga of Bantayan Island who as a healer used herbs, anting-anting and orasyon to heal his patients. He carried the Philippine martial artist’s amulet which has a crucified Christ on both sides of a brass metal cross. The hilots in my hometown who treated me with massage and herbs in my childhood for a sprained elbow or ankle were likewise arnisadores, although they did not announce it. I did not know it at the time but I realised much later that the prayers they muttered were probably a mishmash of Latin and possibly Hebrew and Aramaic, Jesus’ original language.
When acupuncture was brought to the United States from China in the 70s, it was almost divorced from its cultural foundation. In many schools, it was taught as an independent, free-standing course. But later, it was realised that it could not be practiced optimally without the other arts like qigong, meditation, nutrition, massage and others, that acupuncture has principles, that it was not just a mechanical needling of “points.”
To fully present it, Arnis should be learned and taught along with its related cultural foundation. But learning the language of the art can be a good beginning.
Mat Marinas said, “Arnis is communicating with sticks.” Here he was not referring to verbal language or nomenclature but to techniques. What he meant was the practitioner’s use of the stick to convey a repertoire of meaning through rhythm/beat/kumpas, deception, strategy and tactic. Language here refers to the sum total of his postures, intention, agenda expressed through movement, speed, sound and whatever else can contribute to victory, including the way the stick cuts the air or hits the opponent’s stick . At this point, we progress to the world of mastery.