By: Rey Carlo Gonzales

Since the 1970s, the Philippines has endeavoured to nationalize the native martial art of Arnis as a beacon of national identity. Since then, it grew popular and was even featured in Hollywood films. In 2009, Arnis officially became the Filipino National Sport and Martial Art. Central to the intercourse between nation and Arnis are the various Arnis practitioners who understood its articulation as a national symbol as an expression of nationalism. This reflects what Partha Chatterjee (2001) argued as the nation’s way of ‘culturally re-equipping’ itself for postcolonial self-regeneration by drawing from what Anthony Smith (1999) described as a ‘mythical golden age’ which celebrated a nation’s self-idealisations. Ironically, Arnis is also being marketed to  foreigners. This paper analyses how Arnis teachers rationalize the commercialisation of Arnis abroad. It argues that such practice reinvigorates the postcolonial anxieties its nationalisation sought to address, and led to its reformulation as an expression of nationalism.


I. Introduction

In Yekaterinburg, Russia, a statue of the Philippine national hero Lapulapu who is frequently represented in Arnis to embody nationalism and martial skill stands gallantly, with sword and shield, though ill-dressed for Russian weather. This mysterious statue acts as a testimony to the admiration and passion of Russian followers for the Filipino martial
art of Arnis de Mano (also called Escrima and Kali, among others). Presently, the Arnis market in countries like the United States, Germany, and Russia is massive. Arnis teachers in the Philippines earn more from their foreign students than from local ones. Moreover, many teachers laud the enthusiasm and dedication of foreigners studying Arnis, while lamenting over the lack of those qualities by Filipinos themselves.

Since the 1970s, Arnis has been appropriated by the state as part of its nation-building program. Following traditions of expressing nationalism in the Philippines, Arnis is represented as a direct link to the pre-Hispanic past, and thus proof of a unique Filipino national identity, distinct from though not entirely devoid of later foreign influences
from subsequent colonizers. Deeply embedded within the fabric of the country’s struggle for independence, the argument Arnis uses to understand its place in the nation is that it was actively used against foreign invaders the Spanish, the Americans, and later the Japanese.
The increasing popularity of Arnis outside the Philippines, however, poses a dilemma in the Arnis community. If Arnis was a superior cultural tool to match the superior military technology of foreigner invaders, it was thus ideally reserved for Filipinos. Yet, it’s commercialisation in the postcolonial period has seen the opening of markets abroad which have proven to be more reliable sources of income for Arnis teachers.

Taking mainly from oral interviews of Arnis teachers and students, this paper examines how the commercialisation of Arnis is rationalised in the Philippine postcolonial setting, and argues that the way in which Arnis teachers have rationalised the expansion of Arnis
abroad has reconfigured their understanding of expressing nationalism that exporting Arnis consequently markets Filipino culture and instils Filipino culture and values on foreign students. This work is informed by arguments made by Chatterjee (2001) on cultural re-equipment, and Smith (1986, 1999) on the ethnie. Additionally, it draws from the views of Gellner (1964), Hobsbawm (1992), and Anderson (1991), on the modernity of the nation.

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II. Arnis and its Road to Nationalisation: a Historical Background

   The Philippines formally gained its independence only at the end of the Second World War. Officially however, the Philippines traces its independence to 1898 during the Philippine Revolution against Spain, mostly due to its symbolic relevance doing so not only antiquates the Philippines more, it also implies that independence was won from the Spaniards rather than received as a gift from the United States. The 1898 Treaty of Paris between the US and Spain snuffed out any ambitions of the Philippines for establishing its own government. Between 1898 and 1946, the Philippines was a US colony. In 1935, it became a US Commonwealth and was promised independence in 1945. This was, however, interrupted by a three-year Japanese occupation (1942-1945) during the Second World War, eventually causing independence to be granted only in 1946.
The 381-year (1565-1946) period of colonisation developed strong anti-colonial sentiments, similar to those emphasized in the 1955 Bandung Conference attended mostly by newly independent former colonies. Anti-colonialism became a salient and consistent feature in various articulations of Filipino nationalism, and manifested itself in the way Filipinos argue for a unique national identity by setting themselves apart from foreigners or foreign adulteration of a pre-existing culture. For example, the Philippine Declaration of Independence (Philippines, 1898) argued that the Philippines had a pre-existing sovereignty which was only stolen by the Spaniards when Ferdinand Magellan arrived in 1521. Likewise, the government, under the leadership of Manuel Quezon in 1935, actively sought to appropriate local symbols into national ones such as creating the national language of Filipino based on Tagalog as representations of the uniqueness of Filipino nationalidentity.
A similar strategy of nationalism can be seen during the presidency of Ferdinand Marcos (1965-1986). His platform of creating a Bagong Lipunan (New Society) aimed to embrace the original Filipino culture understood to exist before the coming of the Spaniards. To this end, he personally claiming to be a practitioner himself spearheaded the project of nationalising the native martial art of Arnis de Mano as a beacon of national identity.

   The National Arnis Association of the Philippines (NARAPHIL) was formed in 1975 and was funded by the national government. It mainly promoted Arnis in sports and cultural
performances and encouraged Filipinos to learn a martial art that was ‘uniquely’ their own. This was hence in keeping with the principles of the Bagong Lipunan. Pop culture also contributed significantly to the state-appropriation of Arnis in the 1970s. There was much fervour over the meteoric rise of Bruce Lee in the early 1970s. Way of the Dragon (1972), The Game of Death (1973), and Enter the Dragon (1973) all came out in 1972 and 1973 respectively, propelling Chinese Kung Fu’s popularity. Driven by the popularity of these films, Enter Garote (1974) and The Pacific Connection (1974) were released in Philippine cinemas mainly as an Arnis-featured response to Chinese Kung Fu. The fact that Enter Garote phonetically mimics the title Enter the Dragon is only telling of the Filipino attempt to engage Arnis with the more globally popular Kung Fu as an assertion that the Philippines too has its own martial art garote being another term for the cane/weapon.

Mainly, it is along Marcos-styled nationalism that Arnis went on to be officially declared as a national symbol in 2009 (Philippine Republic Act 9850, 2009). Subsequently, other national Arnis organizations were formed following the aims of NARAPHIL such as the Arnis Association of the Philippines (ARPI), and most recently, the Philippine Escrima Kali Arnis Federation (PEKAF). Arnis has come a long way since its nationalisation program started in the 1970s. Today, it exists as a training curriculum in both the Philippine national police, and the military. It is part of the curriculum in schools and universities as advocated by the Department of Education, Culture, and Sports (DECS). It holds the honour of being played as the first sporting event in the Palarong Pambansa (National Games or National Olympics), and is also being played in the Southeast Asian Games. The longstanding endurance of Arnis as a symbol of national identity reveals the advocating of Arnis as an intangible heritage drawn from a precolonial past, and serving as proof of a unique national identity.

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