Vintage Postcard. Source: Author’s Collection

It sometimes seems as though I am only Wing Chun aficionado who doesn’t have a sideline in the Filipino martial arts. On a cultural level we can thank Bruce Lee and his high-profile relationship with student and friend Dan Inosanto for what might be seen as one of the most profitable partnerships in the modern martial arts. One of the local clubs that I do ethnographic research at teaches Wing Chun and Kali classes side by side. It is not all that unusual to look over and see the FMA martial arts students doing a bit of Siu Lim Tao, or the Wing Chun instructor illustrating some point with a stick and knife. Nor is this arrangement all that unusual in the modern martial arts landscape.

I suspect that the attraction between these different fighting systems works because they have affinities that stretch beyond the cultural history of the 1970s.  As always, generalizations are dangerous as we are discussing two very distinct, and vastly complex, phenomenon.  But it seems that the physical realities of Wing Chun’s swords, and the knives of the FMA, have conditioned both systems to emphasize a type of short-range infighting. While traditional Chinese fencing is very distinct, it seems to me that it is often Wing Chun instructors with the most interest in weapons that are drawn to the FMA. Cultural history and pedagogical issues aside, there are really only so many ways to use knives of a certain length, or any configuration of medium sized paired weapons. It may well be the vast arsenal of blades offered by the FMA that has caught the eye of so many stylists from other systems.

This is in no way a new phenomenon. Americans have been fascinated by Filipino weapons since at least the turn of the 20th century. Sailors and solders brought them back in large numbers as prized souvenirs of a tour in the pacific.  Those with more money and less time to travel could actually order ethnographic arms, including kris and bolo knives, out of department store catalogs during these same years. And as this post makes clear ephemera, such as postcards and newspaper articles, satisfied those on a more modest budget.

I spend a fair amount of time searching auctions and antique stores for postcards or photos showcasing the Chinese martial arts. Such images, while not unheard of, are relatively rare, which is why it’s such a big deal when someone comes up with a new one. What I encounter much more frequently are image of Filipino weapons, soldier and traditional warriors. Usually I just ignore these.  But after a chance encounter with a newspaper article, I decided that perhaps this is the right moment to consider what they mean.

Moro weapons from a postcard circa 1900.

The article in the second half of this post caught my eye for a couple of reasons.  The first was that it was a lengthy attempt to lay out the connections between various fighting knives, class distinctions and ethnic groups in the Philippine islands. As such we might actually thing of this as a very early attempt at hoplology, but without Burton or Draeger. The other thing that caused me to really focus on this piece was that it was published in the Democrat and Chronicle, a local paper from Western NY that I grew up reading. Given the hometown connection, how could I not dig a bit further?

Needless to say, Rochester NY wasn’t really a hub of Filipino immigration in the late 19th century.  Rather than this being a matter of local interest, the paper must have been devoting so many inches of column space to the detailed classification of Filipino fighting knives because of the raging American-Philippine War. A careful reader can actually detect the outlines of America’s foreign policy in the region in this article. At the time we were still in a defacto alliance with the Moro, though that would change within two years.

Whenever we discuss martial arts history it is important to make an initial separation between two different subjects of inquiry.  The first is the practice of a set of physical techniques, supported by a community, and everything that goes along with that. Equally important, yet conceptually distinct, is how these practices have been imagined by society as a whole.  

For instance, it is difficult to talk about the spread of the Japanese martial arts in North America without noting the role of films like the Karate Kid as harbingers of their widespread and final acceptance as “safe” youth activities. Ultimately, it is impossible to fully distinguish our two subjects as how one understands or imaginings an art will impact the way that it is practiced. Still, for the sake of conceptual clarity it helps to pursue these subjects as distinct lines of inquiry at first.  

Within this sort of framework an interesting disjoint begins to emerge.  If we ask about the globalization and widespread practice of the FMA (or most other Asian systems other than Judo) within the United States, we often end up looking at the time period of the very late 1960s through the 1980s.  It was also at this time that the Chinese martial arts started to gain traction with the general public.  As such, we hear all sorts of talk about the “discoveries” of this period, as though no one had ever heard of these things before.  

While it is entirely possible that young children watching the Green Hornet had never heard of the Chinese martial arts, or their Filipino cousins, I guarantee you that both their parent and grandparent had. Chinese “Big Sword troops” and loyal knife fighting Filipino soldier were a big deal during WWII.  They were the sorts of stories that ran on the front pages of newspapers to sell war bonds. Yet even before Japan’s march across the Pacific, Americans were acutely aware of these combat arts because of our own history of imperialism and colonial conflict. It is interesting to note that both the Boxer Rebellion in China and the war in the Philippines dominated the newspaper headlines of 1900. Indeed, America actually had to ship soldier from the later to take part in the former. It is not a surprise that the reading public wanted to know more. Not only was the public aware of Moro Warriors and Chinese Boxers, in the early 20th century they obsessed over them.

Another cultural type also figured strongly in the American imagination of Asia during these years.  That was the proud, and unconquered, Samurai warrior. Judo was beginning to put down its roots in the West at exactly the same time that we were also coming into contact with Chinese and Filipino martial arts.  Yet while this Japanese system would thrive both before and after WWII, the Chinese and Filipino arts would have to wait for the closing of the Vietnam War to be taken seriously in the West.  This despite the fact that during the first half of the 20th century vastly more American soldiers were stationed in both China and the Philippines than ever saw Japan.

While its worth asking why the Japanese fighting arts gained a foothold while the other did not, I think the answer to our question is too obvious to require much unpacking.  Japan occupied a very different place in the imperialist hierarchy of the early 20th century than either China or the Philippines.  They were seen as conquered (Philippines), or at least pacified (China), places. Japan, however, sat victorious on the other side of the table.

Another vintage postcard (this one circa 1930) showing a variety of blade forms.

Given the awe and paradox that Japan inspired with its rapid victories over China and Russia, it is perhaps understandable that Western citizens would be curious about that country’s martial culture. It was the first Asian nation to successfully cultivate global cross-cultural desires, not just for its trade, but its culture. Soft power victories followed after Japan’s military and economic successes. As the subjects of imperialism, Chinese and Filipino culture could not generate the same sort of mystique.

Again, we can’t really chalk this lack of desire up to ignorance. The cultural and social processes behind imperialism actively cultivated a type of curiosity about the world. During the late 19th century the single most popular genera of literature in the United States was the travelogue. Americans read voraciously about life across the pacific and yearned to travel.  They attended lectures by famous writers to hear their accounts of the mysterious Orient.  Indeed, they even collected ethnographic arms or, for those on a more limited budget, postcards of Filipino weapons. 

Yet the same cultural mechanism that produced this wave of information also cultivated its own type of ignorance. In order to justify the West’s expansion across the globe, the culture and societies of so many other peoples needed to be denigrated and mentally subjugated. While some of these early travelogues have interesting descriptions of local fighting arts, by modern standards many of them are also shockingly racist and ethnocentric. 

Fed on such a diet, why would anyone seek to study the arts of the Philippines or China? It seems that for most collectors accumulating ethnographic artifacts from these areas was not really an attempt to meet another culture on equal ground. The costs of such a global system (and the world view that supported it) were immense. Yet for the purpose of our current discussion, perhaps the most relevant would be that they slowed the creation and diffusion of some of the most popular Asian martial arts by more than half a century.

For these reasons the practice of any Asian (or African, or South American, etc…) martial art in the West today is a structurally anti-imperialist act. This is not to say that every individual who has studied these fighting systems holds to liberal theories of international relations, or even that they have all been good people. Still, the active cultivation of an appreciation for some aspect of another nation’s culture, or the belief that people from different cultures can make common cause in areas of true importance, strikes at the heart of the world view that upheld late 19th and early 20thcentury imperialism. Of course, the political, economic and social systems of the 21st century have laid their own traps.  But an appreciation of what can be accomplished when people work together, or the decades that are lost when they do not, may help us to avoid them as well.

Bolo’s Part in Filipino Life

National Weapon, in One Form Another, Owned by Every Man, Woman and Child.

Written for the Democrat and Chronicle, (October 28th, 1900. Page 10.)

While much is heard of the bolo men in the Philippine islands, little is known of the bolo itself, and the important part it plays in the Filipino civilization. Every Filipino and Moro has his bolo. He does not necessarily carry it as a war weapon. It enters into his life and marks his social and professional rank by its shape and ornamentation. A Filipino who has improved his opportunities and risen from the laboring class to the rank of an officer in the Filipino army preserves carefully the bolos which have followed him in his upward career. At home the bolo is kept in a place sacred to itself, usually over the door of the main room. Sometimes one will see in a wealthy Filipino or Moro home as many as four or five of these blades ranging from the sundang to the ornate Kris (pronounced creese). These will indicate that the owner has risen in life from the laboring class to the landowning class, or that he has held office, possibly reaching the height of a general in the native army.

Mindanao is the home of the bolo. Nearly every bolo of any value at all comes from the island, which is next in size to Luzon.  So far as the social and professional significance of the arm is concerned the classification of the Moros of Mindanao is tacitly accepted all over the Philippines as official. The officers and men of importance in the Filipino army and government have adopted the classifications along with the weapon itself. 

How the Weapon is Made

All these instruments are made by hand. There are several bolo factories in Mindanao, mostly located in interior and mountainous towns. There are also some factories of importance in Samar and Leyte, two other large islands. Criminals are usually made to work in the bolo factories, though there are special experts paid by the towns to superintend the labor. A factory or “Fabrica de bolo” consists generally of a large nipa shed with huge pieces of iron and steel lying about to be beaten into shape. Some of this work is so ornate and beautiful that one might easily imagine that it the product of skilled mechanics. A criminal can secure his liberty very often by turning out some special piece of work. Many of the men become experts in wood and ivory carving as the handles of the bolos plainly indicate.

Commonest of the forms of the national weapon is the bolo proper which gives the generic name to all of this class of weapons. Simple in design. And without ornamentation it is primarily a weapon of war. Officially the carrying of the bolo proper indicates rank or position. Its handle is cut from carabao horn and its blade is hammered out of a piece of steel. The bolo of the Filipino does not enter onto the religious life of the owner as does that of the Moro and the native of the Southern islands of the group. In some islands it is the center of strange and secret rites. Men and women perform intricate and picturesque bolo dances, the signification of which they cannot be prevailed upon to reveal. Often a native will dance with the bolo until he or she falls from exhaustion. During the mystic dance the bolo plays a most important part, all member of the family or clan finally prostrating themselves before it and swearing allegiance to it should the marriage contract ever be violated.

In the north of the archipelago a form of bolo is used as an agricultural instrument for the gathering and harvesting of crops. Of late years these implements have become weapons of war and as agencies of death are far more effective than the Cuban machete. This particular weapon is known as the sundang, which, when carried places the owner in the laboring class. It is now the regular weapon of the private soldier in the Filipino army in Luzan and the northern islands. It is hammered out of an old piece of iron or steel, while the handle is usually of wood or horn. The scabbard is cut roughly out of two pieces of wood tied together by strips of bamboo. The weapon is curiously shaped and cunningly balanced so as to throw the weight toward the striking end. Even a light blow is terribly effective. The average Filipino is as dexterous in handling the sundang as a fencing master is with the rapier.

Campilan, Bald and Hirsute

The campilan is the regular arm of the Moro private soldier. It is about four feet long and very sharp. Its scabbard consists of two pieces of wood loosely tied together with a single piece of bamboo thread. It is carried over the shoulder and is never unsheathed for the first stroke. When necessity for its use arises it is brought down on the head with the scabbard on it.  The blade cuts through the thread thus unsheathing itself. This is a device used to disarm the enemy of suspicion.  There is a regular drill that the Moros go through with this weapon, cutting and chopping with extraordinary swiftness while continually leaping hither and thither to avoid the return of the enemy.  An individual encounter between two natives armed with the campilan presents a curious and startling spectacle. One sees the sudden stroke, hears the clap and rattle of the wooden scabbard as it lands and watches it fall to the ground in halves, as if the blow had been effective only in breaking the weapon. It seems hideously incongruous that the recipient of the stroke should go down with his skull split at the same moment. But the unsheathed steel does its work swiftly and such duels are over with the first swing that reaches the mark. The handle of the campilan is always of hard wood, usually ebony or mahogany.

The hairy campilan is the mark of the officer below the rank of major. It differs from the ordinary campilon only in the detail of the carving of the handle and in the fact that a long tuft of hair is attached to the handle. This hair is dyed with vegetable dye; usually a deep red, but sometimes bright yellow or green. In former times the hair ornament was from the head of a slain enemy. It is said that even now the scalp of the dead foe is in some of the islands a source of [illegible].

Kris Weapon of Staff Officer

Among the staff officers the kris is the favorite weapon. It is from two to three feet long. One third of the way down from the tip if ripples in little wavelets of steel. It is said that this small sword inflicts a ghastly wound, and from the appearance one would choose it last of any to be perforated with. The approved kris stroke is for the body with a peculiar weaving motion of the wrist, supposed to send the blade home and spread the wound. Artistically the kris is one of the most beautiful weapons of the world. The blade is often magnificently inlaid with gold and sometimes with pearls and other jewels. In theory this is to make it flash in the light as it is brandished above the head of the charging leader, a beacon of victory. Every officer wears one strapped or tied to his belt.

Very similar in design to the kris is the terciada. One hardly ever finds a Moro child with any pretension to family and breeding who isn’t the proud possessor of one of these diminutive but deadly weapons. Occasionally they come into play in childish quarrels and the disadvantage of arming an irresponsible human with a lethal implement is sufficiently attested in the subsequent funeral, not to mention the feud that may result. The woman of the better classes takes the same pride in her punal de kris as does her more civilized sister in stylish apparel. Seldom is this weapon more than a foot long, and usually it is not more than seven or eight inches, but the blade is well pointed and sharpened. In shape it is an exact replica of the kris on a small scale: sometimes even more ornate in inlaid device. A punal de kris’ beaten blade, handle and scabbard from solid silver is no uncommon thing, and I have heard of punals beaten from gold.

The quinbasi is the knife of the private soldier. He carries it very much as the American private does his bayonet. It is his general utility blade, and not needed much in actual warfare. His whittling, brush-cutting and foraging bring it into play, and it is his table knife when he feels the need for any. Generally speaking it a utensil rather than a weapon, though by no means to be despised at close quarters. 

One of the most interesting weapons of the Moro is the talibong, a sort of headsman’s ax. It is from four to five feet long and weighs anywhere from four to eight pounds. In time of war certain companies are equipped with these arms exclusively and were used as an advanced guard. They were also used by the official headsmen in decapitating criminals. The chief use of the talibong from which it got its name was to sever the head of the victim fallen in battle. The Moro when warring with other tribes or even among themselves never took prisoners. After a battle, men armed with the talibong were sent among the slain to finish the work. The weapon has now no significance, but it is held sacred in the families of those who were once commissioned to use it. While there are other special designs of the bolo among the natives of the Philippines, the implements here in described constitutes the conventional types of the bolo, as officially recognized by the Moro. 

Filipino Cabby Has His Bolo

The distinction between the different types of weapons drawn so close among the Moros of Mindanao have lost much of their force in Luzon, and the section immediately under the influence of Manila. Still, even here the old families keep sacred their bolos though the weapons do not enter into the religious life of the people as they do further south. But even in Luzon the native without his bolo stands as a man without a trade. Every cab driver has one under his clothes or concealed among his worldly goods.

During the continuous warfare between the Moros and the Spaniards the Moro army was armed almost exclusively with bolos. There is peace between the Moros and the Americans and the greatest good feelings exists between them. In Zamboanga and Parang-Parang, the chief Moro cities of Mindanao, it is as safe for an American soldier to go about unarmed at night as it is in an American city. The Moro is not deprived of his bolo, but since peace has been established many have given their bolos as presents to the officers. The majority of natives, however, have sold them as souvenirs. They are in great demand and the various ships and transports entering these southern ports have run the price up to an abnormal point.


If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: The Purpose of “Place” in Wing Chun and the Chinese Martial Arts