Michael J. Ryan has has been kind enough to share with us some of his field notes from a recent hoplology project which he had the good fortune to participate in. The focus of these exchanges, interviews and workshops were some of the lesser known traditional fighting systems of South East Asian and the Polynesian cultural area. Such work is valuable as it extends the discussions that we have been having in the field of Martial Arts Studies beyond the confines of East Asia and the post-industrial West, asking us to instead consider how well our theories function in a comparative context or on a truly global scale. More prosaically, this project sounds like it was a lot of fun and I am very jealous that I could not be there.
Preliminary Observation on the Contra-Expeditionis and Born of Blood Lab
Dr. Michael J. Ryan (SUNY Oneonta)
Over eight days, members of the Immersion Labs Review (ILF) conducted a five-day contra-expeditionis on the combative arts of Polynesia followed by a three-day lab called “Born of Blood” in Central California. Below are some of my preliminary observations regarding both events. By way of introduction, the Immersion Labs Foundation (ILF) is a privately funded non-profit foundation that seeks to archive and document regional endangered or dying combative art forms. It also aims to examine and explore any core commonalities or variations in armed combat as it has developed around the world. In other words, we are continuing the project of hoplology first laid out by Sir R.F. Burton as “the science of all combat both human and bestial” (1884). To date the ILF has conducted four overseas research expeditions, hosted three labs, and held one contra-expeditionis. Both research projects conducted in February of 2020 began from the fact that both SE Asia and Polynesia, as well as SE Asia and India, share a long history, genetically, culturally, and linguistically.
The first migratory wave across SE Asia and the South Pacific occurred around 40,000 years ago. Then, around 3400 years ago, a Neolithic population emerging from Taiwan migrated at first to the Philippines and across the Pacific Ocean. Sailing far and wide, they reached as far North as Hawai’i, South to New Zealand, and as far West as Easter Island. Finally, a more recent wave of peoples moving across the Pacific occurred from 1200 to 800 BC when Austronesian speakers began building large double-hulled canoes and making much longer trans-oceanic voyages colonizing Hawaii around 800 AD and New Zealand around 1200 AD.
Connections between the Indian sub-continent and SE Asia date back to at least the 6th century BC when there is documentary evidence of trading routes existing between India and Thailand. Proceeding a latter more profound dissemination of Hindu culture throughout SE Asia, a Hindu presence in SE Asia emerged by 110 AD in the Bujang valley of Malaysia. Taking advantage of the valley with an easy access to the Strait of Malacca to the West and the Bay of Bengal to the East, both Indian and South Chinese established trading networks here. From these ancient and at times long-standing routes of the movement of peoples, technologies and ideas across South Asia and the Pacific we became interested in exploring any connections as they relate to the movement of bodies in conjunction with material technology in the context of armed aggressive social interactions and the language used to describe these concepts or movements. From this beginning, the Polynesian contra-expedtionis began.
We coined the term contra-expedtionis to indicate a research project where a team brings key informants to the US. and interviews and trains with them here. As part of the contra-expedtionis, members of the ILF group would meet at a public park or a Yoga studio. Lectures, semi-formal and informal interviews, demonstrations, and hands-on instruction were the main form of data collection. Sessions were held daily for over five days. Usually, a six-hour session was followed by a group lunch. After a three or four hour break, we would meet again for three hours.
A group of five researchers and two cameramen filmed, interviewed, and trained with ambassadors of the Maori nation of New Zealand, exponents of the Kalis Illustrisimo from the Philippines and Ata Mushtaq al Ansari who demonstrated Tjimande silat. Coming right on the tail-end of the contra-expeditionis and acting as a continuing research project, “The Born of Blood labs” went 13 hours a day from Friday morning to Sunday night. Each of the nine ambassadors in attendance was given a three-hour slot to present and teach their art as they saw fit. During off-hours, many of the ambassadors either took part in other labs, engaged in impromptu friendly exchanges outside, or made themselves available for in-depth ethnographic interviews.
“Born of Blood” is one aspect of a larger project to identify a core common understanding as well as cultural differences of armed combat arts. In this article, I draw on a typology developed by the International Hoplology Society (IHS) [Link] that classified armed combative traditions by whether they were intended to prepare an individual for the battlefield in one-on-one or melee scenarios, or if they were developed for the civilian sphere. Within the civilian sphere, combat methods were organized around on-one-on dueling, group melees, recreational and performative/ spiritual arts.
At both projects, we trained in a wide range of these combative modalities. Ambassadors of these different arts shared brief sketches of origin myths, cosmologies, oral histories, which evinced clear common roots that more than a few fields may be interested in exploring. Some investigators were interested in looking at were how these arts emerged or developed over time. Other questions explored the ideologies and fundamental concepts that informed their understanding of combat, and how bodies working in conjunction with weapons trained for different combat modalities. Both events were designed to encourage socialization and everybody ate lunch and dinner together. Through pre-planning and good fortune we were able to group styles together to more fully highlight possible connections between several arts, further provoking ideas, opinions, and observations.
Rangamamao or the grappling art of the Maori warriors of New Zealand, and the Thai battle art of Krabi Krabong, were representative of the battlefield modality of combat training. One element that I took away from my time with these arts was how the Maori warrior arts seamlessly integrated themselves into the daily lives of the Maori people. In their everyday life bodily, knowledges, religious ideas, philosophy, cultural norms of behavior, and comportment were often transmitted and refined through games. I found this particularly interesting as the historian Huizinga once speculated that games or ‘play’ forms the foundation of all social interactions of human and animals.
Taking it one step further, Huizinga felt that all culture emerges from our ability to ‘play’ to imagine and try out future possibilities. A play area is a sacred space where there is no beginning nor end, where there are no winners or losers. In play all involved suspend their connection with the real world and immerse themselves totally into this liminal world. For it is only losing oneself in play that the creative and transformative properties of play emerge. Nor can I think of another tribal battlefield art whose practitioners have agreed to share a bit of their surviving practice with outsiders.
The notion of play as central to the learning process also lived in the teaching segments of Filipino martial arts led by Mark Mikita and Majia Solderholm. Mark began by teaching us two fundamental patterns of disarms with the rattan stick. Once we were comfortable with this, he invited us, led us, and encouraged us to innovate new ways to successfully deal with the problems of someone grabbing your stick or seeking to disarm someone. In these types of situations, there are so many variables that reflective thought is just too slow. Instead, the body must intuitively grasp the situation and respond according to one’s ability to see the potential leverage and fulcrums available.
Again, and again Mark Mikita tried to overwhelm our minds to let the body take over, to “wake the body up.” As he said noted, it already knows what it needs to do. Many of the ambassadors similarly told us that what they are not teaching us anything new. “We already know this.” We are just teaching your bodies to wake up” or “we are teaching our bodies to remember” what we already know was a common refrain throughout the weekend. For me, this evoked Plato’s dialogue The Meno, where Socrates was to have said that we come into this world already knowing everything we need to know. Socrates felt it was his duty to help us remember what we had forgot. Recent findings from the field of neurology support these ideas.
Taken this way, these wide-ranging ambassadors were teaching us how to use our eyes, how to hold our bodies, how to step with weapons in our hands ready to engage with an enemy. For the ambassadors, I believe one of the goals of their teaching is to stimulate long latent neural networks hardwired in our bodies over tens of thousands of years of evolution. In other words, to take advantage of the potentialities of bodily movement used in conjunction with material technologies to engage in acts of interpersonal violence that would be seen by our peers as normal, effective, and efficient. As a hoplologist, that is what I have taken away and continue to reflect upon.
Back to the battlefield arts. The Thai art of Krabi Krabong emerged into the documented history of SE Asia, when competing kingdoms produced sufficent surpluses to support and train warriors to fight in organized units. At this time, we trained with the double dha’s or single-edged type of sabers common throughout SE and Central Asia. In contrast to the Rangamamao pedagogy based on a concept of ‘play,’ the Krabi Krabong was taught with a more standardized pedagogical methods. I wonder if this is due to the influx of western colonialism or just the preferred method of the ambassador.
Other ambassadors brought their knowledge of civilian fighting systems. But what I found interesting in these approaches was how their approaches brought out the fact that the line between battlefield arts and civilian combative arts are best seen as porous and unstable, useful only for broad generalizations. At the level of weapon use, Ata Mushtaq Ansari Ali taught the kampilan as a battlefield weapon once restricted to the Moro nobility and transposed it to a more modern and relevant scenario of a cane versus knife and at times two kampilans against another.
The lab on the Kalis Illustrisimo showed us an art form emerging from older Filipino, Malay and Spanish single-edge blade fighting systems and used by villagers in launching or protecting themselves against slave raids. The idea that space is actively and meaningfully created by the body and is not merely an empty and passive non-element, came into sharp relief during these sessions. On day three, of the contra-expeditionis the Maori and the Kalis Illustrisimo ambassadors taught in back to back sessions. That day we spent hours learning how warriors sought to create and maintain the proper expression of space to take maximum advantage of the morphology of a weapon. This way of treating space as something actively created by the moving body in conjunction with a material technology in an environment was a different way of experiencing space and training concepts of distance management.
This way of experiencing space was brought up again during the Born of Blood Lab, when Romeo Macgapal, Mark Mikita and Majia Solderholm, ambassadors of different Filipino art traditions, stressed how reflective thought is too slow to respond to the sudden and abrupt changes in combat. In each lab, they encouraged us to extend the consciousness of our body out through the weapon to feel when we were in the range of attack. In Majia Solderholm’s module, we explored this idea through the sangot or the handheld sickle. The unique curved shape of sickle allowed rarely seen trajectories of attack, forcing the defender to move in new and unusual ways, again and again. Learning to evade the sweeping snaking, hooking, and arching cuts of the sickle occurred, again, through the act of play. However, this time, the idea of play took place within a stepping pattern known as ‘pendulum stepping’ that allowed two people to move continuously. In this way, an endless cycle of offense and defense without any interruptions in the flow is created.
In addition to looking at how space is actively created and felt, the Maoris and the Filipino instructors exposed us to several ideas on how to cultivate a “killer mindset.” The will to identify, close-in and engage the enemy is not an innate or universal trait and must be trained in many people. In the seminal book “Men Against Fire” (1947), Col. S.L.A. Marshall wrote how many American soldiers in WWII failed to fire their weapons during combat or deliberately aimed to miss an enemy. These findings led to developing new ways of transmitting the proper mental attitude towards killing within the US military. Many of his conclusions have been thrown into doubt or revised in later studies, but the basic intent of much of his work still stands. Much like combat instructors of the US Army today with modern weapons, previous generations of warriors taught the youth to cultivate their warrior spirit with the taiahat, patu, parang, dha, and ginunting. How they did this is a fascinating topic of exploration.
Combative systems restricted to closed groups in the civilian sphere, as we saw with Ata Mushtaq Ali al Ansari, were also reflected in the teachings of Sulieman Sharif. The art of Seni Gayong was once confined to the bodyguards of the Bugis nobility. Beginning with teaching us how to use our eyes to scan a 360-degree circle while walking, Suleiman then led us through basic combinations with the kerambit and the sarong. As the lab progressed, his knowledge of how to attack and manipulate the body became deeper and more complex.
Though tired, and in pain from the many joint locks we tried on each other, the training hall was filled with laughter. Continuing with the clan and village-based arts of Javanese silat, Stevan Plinck put on an intense, information packed lab on the clan and village arts of pre-WWII of Serak Silat. Stevan was insistent in showing us authentic ‘Pukulan’ or striking, which he feels has been distorted in much of modern US silat training. Finally, he finished off with a master’s class in the use of the parang. Not a clan or occupational based art form but a personal art, Sonny Umpad’s Visayan Korto Kadena was a closely guarded art until recently.
One thing held in common by all three of these ambassadors during their respective labs was an emphasis on understanding fundamental principles and concepts. Or as Stevan Plinck repeated throughout his class, putting “principals before laws.” All three ambassadors took us through of the universal principles of moving the body in conjunction with a weapon as expressed through the cultural lens of what is normal, right, and efficient within a given set of geographically, politically, culturally, and historically situated communities, through the unique use of body appendages to inflict severe damage. Finally, I must mention a two-and-a-half-hour conversation with Mahipal Lunia, myself, and Stevan Plinck as we were treated to a demonstration of the differences between pre-WWII silat and post-WWII Tjimande silat. In what I took as a real treat, I had a ringside seat as Stevan and Mahipal compared the movement and responses of NW Indian Shastra Vidiya and Indonesian silat in the tight quarters of a hotel room.
The art of Serrada escrima has a long presence here in the US due to the late Angel Cabales opening one of the first public escrima schools back in the mid-1960s. Be that as it may, Serrada has been shrouded in secrecy for decades as many practitioners still use the art for self-defense. As recently as last year, a top Serrada man was ‘invited’ to a challenge-match. While he appeared at the appointed time with two swords, the challenger apparently had some pressing business to attend to and failed to show up. This story led me to think about MMA fighters who claim they fight to know if they could seize the last scrap of meat on a bone in a forest when opposed by another. With much respect for these athletes, I would suggest they look up some of these ambassadors at Born of Blood who train for a type of combat where one’s life may actually be at stake.
Both the semi-mythical J.C. Cabeiro and Ron Saturno, both long time students of Angel Cabales, though of different generations, demonstrated for us in both formal and informal settings their unique expressions of Serrada. Over the years, I have read several criticisms of the art as unworkable. All I can say is that what I saw from these men was a fast, powerful, and elusive. How others manifest their Serrada is between them and the spirit of Angel Cabales. Some time later, I heard a conversation where ambassadors from the Illustrisimo and Serrada systems pointed out the similarities to both arts as well as a blood link between Angel Cabales and Antonio Illustrisimo that led to Angel boarding at Illustrisimo’s house.
Out of these conversations came plans to publish a book on the history of Serrada escrima and Kali Illustrisimo. FI heard them speculation from other ambassadors as to how serrada practitioners moved their bodies as if they were using a bigger rattan stick then they do today. Finally, there were stories about how Angel used a short stick later in his life due to chronic injuries that made him lighten and shorten his weapon. It was only later that his students adopted this modification of the art. It is strange how styles develop at times.
Due to serious health problems, Kenya Prach lectured on Bokator, and an unexpected injury left Michelle Manu of the Hawaiian art of Lua unable to attend. Finally, my plane departure time meant I missed the whip and knife set of James Lew. But as I left, I heard whips crack, people laugh nervously and saw that everybody’s attention was high and laser-focused.
The contra-expeditionis and Born of Blood lab were solid successes on an intellectual, physical, and logistical level. For an anthropologist such as myself it was a unique and productive way to gather data, explore new ways of moving one’s body in conjunction with material technology, and examine possible connections and differences in the arts. Hoplology’s bar has been raised and its flag has been planted anew. Let us move forward and continue to explore these little-known local forms of combat, bringing the knowledge that previous generations have preserved and cherished to the entire world.
About the Author
Michael J. Ryan is an adjunct professor in the African and Latino studies department at SUNY Oneonta. He is interested in the persistence and transmission of combative traditions in areas undergoing societal change. He has conducted research in Venezuela, Brazil, Barbados and Italy. Ryan is the author of Venezuelan Stick Fighting: The Civilizing Process in Martial Arts (Lexington, 2016).
If you enjoyed this piece you might also want to read: Stickman doh ‘fraid no damom: Stick and machete fighting in the New world – Part 1 (of 2).