History of Modern Arnis

The origins of Arnis are difficult to trace, primarily because there are nearly as many styles of Filipino stick fighting as there are islands in the Philippines archipelago-more than 7000. The people who settled in the islands came from India, Southwest Asia, China and Indonesia. These people were very diverse in culture and beliefs. Over the centuries their cultures mixed and they developed a common method of employing sharp swords, daggers and fire-hardened sticks in combat. These highly sophisticated fighting styles have grown in popularity in the international martial arts community.

One of the earliest known forms was called “tjakalele” (Indonesian fencing). “Kali” is another term familiar to stick fighters around the world today. When the Philippines were invaded by the Spanish, the invaders required guns to subdue their fierce opponents. The deadly fighting skills of Filipino warriors nearly overwhelmed them, and they dubbed the native stick style “escrima” (skirmish). Escrima was subsequently outlawed, but the techniques did not disappear. They were preserved in secret, sometimes under the very noses of their conquerors, in the form of dances or mock battles staged in religious plays known as moro-moro. These plays featured Filipinos, sometimes costumed as Spanish soldiers wearing “arnes”, the harness worn during medieval times for armor. The blade-fighting forms and footwork were identical to those used in escrima. The word “arnes” soon became corrupted to “arnis” and the name stuck.

Historically, arnis incorporated three related methods: “espada y daga” (sword and dagger), which employs a long blade and short dagger, “solo baston” (single stick), and “sinawali” (to weave), which uses two sticks of equal length twirled in a weaving fashion for blocking and striking (the term is derived from sinawali, the bamboo matting woven in the Philippines). At age 6 Grandmaster Remy Amador Presas (Filipino arnis master and founder of modern arnis) was already learning the fundamentals of kali, the forerunner of modern arnis de mano. In Cebu, Presas studied arnis under Rodolfo Moncal, Timoteo Marranga and Marranga’s instructor, Grandmaster Venancio Bacon, all experts in arnis and the “Balintawak” style of stick fencing. In addition to arnis, Presas became proficient in Judo, Jiu-Jitsu, and Karate. When Presas first traveled his country, he took what he considered to be the most effective principles of each island style and combined them with his own knowledge of other martial arts.

Modern Arnis, as Presas terms his system, incorporates empty-hand moves based upon the same motion used in solo baston and sinawali. Unlike Kali, his system also uses low kicks and takedowns for a more well-rounded approach. Presas also insists on modernizing a particular training aspect traditional in arnis: that of hitting your opponent’s hand or arm instead of his stick-a painful practice that was tolerated because the rattan canes used in arnis were considered sacred. Presas does not merely combine techniques, he encourages the individual student to adapt arnis principles to his own feel for each technique. The method should suit the person, not the other way around. This is known simply as using the “flow”.

Reprinted with permission of Guro Roland Rivera