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Blog - Kali: Ancient Filipino Martial Art

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Translation of a Guest Post written by Andrea Rollo –

Original post in Italian language, here.

Their charming white beaches,emerald sea and infinite coral reefs attract tourists from all over the globe. Indeed, the Philippines is a natural paradise located in the heart of South-East Asia, a favourite destination for snorkeling and diving enthusiasts. The Philippine Islands are also known for kindness and courtesy of their inhabitants: it seems almost impossible to think that their ancestors actually developed one of the most complete martial arts in the world.

Known in western countries as “Kali”,

its barehanded techniques and weapons are currently integrated within body-to-body fighting methods of many special units of armies and police. The warrior skills of the Philippines were documented for the first time by an Italian sailor, who described the arrival of the first Spanish caravels in Mactan (Cebu), one of the 7,107 islands of the archipelago, and the battle that follwed. In that battle, the famous Magellan, first circumnavigator of the globe, was killed by the local tribal king Lapu-Lapu, still considered a national hero: his bronze statue stands tall near the place of the battle.


Statue of national hero Lapu-Lapu, who defeated Magellan in the Mactan battle. (Source: Lapu-Lapu City Government, da

After establishing their domination on the archipelago, the conquistadores forbid carrying weapons to the locals. As old teachers say,  practicing the native fighting techniques, at those times known as kalis, was forbidden. The term “kalis” is still used to define a particular kind of kriss (a corrugated sword), which you can still find available as a popular local souvenir.


Filipino Master wearing traditional clothes.

Despite the strict colonial laws, Filipinos were able to circumvent the ban with a camouflage, using the martial movements for their dances and shows that – ironically – Spanish friars introduced in the country to spread Christianization.

At the same time, another solution was introducing wooden sticks instead of bladed / cutting weapons. This lead to an evolution in the fighting strategies in favour of techniques more typical of impact weapons. 

Two new names used to define these martial arts are arnis (in the North of the country) and Eskrima (central Philippines) and probably came up during those times. Eskrima derives from the Spanish word “esgrima”, which means “fencing” in Spanish. This clearly shows the 3-centruries Spanish colonial influence. This influence is even more glaring observing the “Espada y Daga” (Sword and dagger) one of the specialties of the ancient European fencing.


Two Masters practice “Espada y daga” in the water.

Kali (or Arnis or Eskrima) was perfected during the independence war: different styles secretly survived until now, taught and passed over from father to son or within families or villages. Until during the 1960-70’s, some migrated teachers opened the first schools in the United States.

Since then, the Filipino martial arts, even though not being recognised by non-experts, started to spread all over the world. Being specialised on the “cold weapons” (sticks, knives, machetes, and in some cases also whips, spears, shields and chains), Kali is one of the best armed combat techniques and – especially during recent years – it conquered the “big screen”; we can mention movies like “Mission Impossible III” or “The Bourne” trilogy, where actors use the Filipino Kali, or “300”, where the scenery of the ancient war tactics and the Spartan warriors fighting techniques were developed and reproduced by a Filipino master.


Training by the beach during sunset.

Thanks to the growing global popularity of Kali, the number of western students going to the Philippines for martial arts “study trips” increased, in order to train with the old masters in those places where this discipline originated, personally undertaking trainings that would be impossible in the normal western gyms, like combats in the jungle, the “triangle steps” on three freshly picked coconuts to develop balance and footwork, or the “romantic” beach training, possibly during the sunset.

If you speak Italian, you can learn further information on this exciting martial art, check the website

(written on March 2016)

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