Old School: Homogeneity, Diversity, and the Early Practice of FMA

On December 22, 2009, in a hotel in Manila, a small crowd mainly composed
of prominent Filipino Martial Arts (FMA) teachers, practitioners, and enthusiasts,
gathered together for a conference organized by the Philippine Sports Commission
and the office of Philippine Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri. The purpose of the
gathering was to formally announce the passing of Republic Act No. 9850—a law
which declared Arnis as the national sport of the country. The drive to nationalize
FMA had been already in motion even during the presidency of Ferdinand Marcos in
the 1970s and was, for the last thirty-five years the subject of tense cultural and
historical debate. This drive was part of a larger, national movement that sought to
define and reinforce Filipino identity starting from 1946 after the country gained its
formal independence.
‘We are entering new frontiers. I’m very excited,’ the senator exclaimed in
the forum, ‘if this happens, it will be the first time in Philippine Arnis, Kali and
Escrima that we will have an alliance.’ Zubiri went on, ‘I shall humble myself. I
shall go to all of them—if I have to go to the four corners of the Philippines—to beg
and appeal to our grandmasters to join in. That, I shall do.’1
The anticipation and willingness of Zubiri—one of the most politically
influential individuals in the country—to beg and plead raises interesting questions
as to the politics at play in the cultural-political intercourse between the national
government and FMA practitioners regarding the nationalization of FMA. What was
the significance of an ‘alliance’? Why was the establishment of an ‘alliance’ through
RA 9850 such a marvellous accomplishment? Furthermore, why was Zubiri
specifically running after the ‘grandmasters’ of FMA?
This chapter examines the historical background of FMA and its early
practice among fragmented groups based on kinship. It also explores the history
practitioners tell about FMA as a way of imagining their origins and communion.
Both the exclusive nature of FMA practice and the sense of common origins later
explain the positions that FMA clubs assume when FMA is nationalized.
This chapter has three sections. The first part focuses on a description of
warfare in the country before the arrival of the Spanish in 1521. Oral tradition in
FMA traces FMA’s origins to the pre-colonial era. The same history is being
forwarded in FMA books, like in the works of Placido Yambao and Dan Inosanto.2
By examining martial practices and warfare in the sixteenth century barangay—a
pre-colonial political organization based on communities with filial ties which has
endured into the present—and following Anthony Smith’s argument on ethnic
myths, the chapter explores the past that contemporary FMA clubs pattern
themselves after and use to inform their present relationships.
It argues that martial
practices during that period did not exist in the same form they do today and
participants did not share a sense of commonality they do today. Yet, they are
celebrated by FMA practitioners as the cultural origins of FMA because they enable
clubs to make sense of their present.
Using literature on the history of FMA written by and told among FMA
teachers and practitioners, the second section examines how the past that FMA
practitioners reconstruct reflects the way they imagine their connection to each other.
Particularly, it looks at similarities and differences between the three most popular
disciplines in FMA—Arnis, Kali, and Eskrima—which are understood to be one and
the same in RA 9850. It engages these observations with the claims made in Placido
Yambao and Buenaventura Mirafuente’s Mga Karunungan sa Larong Arnis, (1957)
and Dan Inosanto’s Filipino Martial Arts as Taught by Dan Inosanto (1980) from
which RA 9850 takes its definition of Arnis from.4
The section argues that
practitioners project themselves to a mythical past beyond the reach of Spanish
historiography in order to claim ownership over FMA. Because practitioners use
Spanish history to locate FMA, they are brought to the point of first contact between
natives and Europeans in the sixteenth century. Consequently, it becomes the
historical basis for myths of ancestry.
The third and final section of this chapter examines the characteristics of
FMA circles prior to their institutionalization in the FMA club—henceforth called the ‘Old School’—by analyzing an oral history about FMA practice in a remote
village in Laguna (central Luzon) before the commercialization of FMA and
engaging this with data from fieldwork. Viewed from Marcel Mauss’ concept of the
‘gift’, the story reveals the nature of interaction between practitioners, and how FMA
knowledge is preserved and transmitted exclusively.
These characteristics explain
the way FMA clubs relate with each other.


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