IT was more than an implement—tough as metal, soft as petal—wielded like lightning to repulse conquerors.
Invading Mactan in 1521, Ferdinand Magellan and his men must have thought that their fabled Toledo steel swords would be more than a match more the island’s native defenders—they were dead wrong. The Spaniards never knew what hit them.
In the 1900s, American occupation forces in Mindanao particularly in the Sulu islands found themselves under constant harassment from what they called “crazy hermits” or juramentados. The native fighters would fast for days, go through special religious rites, then go forth to storm American garrisons. Even as the .445 caliber pistol was plied out in 1911 to stop seemingly unstoppable fighters, the Americans still never knew what hit them.
Looking back with pride at such points in history when their fighting mettle was unleashed in battle, Filipino Muslims, especially the Tausugs of Sulu will, with a little nudge and tug at their patriotic sentiments, likely reveal the secret that made them victorious: an ages-old martial art known as kuntaw.
Kuntaw is originally a Hukienese term, meaning “way of the fist.” The art originated in Hukien, one of the traditional centers of Shaolin temple kung fu.
For decades prior to the 15th century, seafaring experts of kuntaw must have brought and shared fighting skills in the course of their trading and commercial activities throughout Southeast Asia. The body of martial skills went through a streamlining and later turned up as karatedo among the peasants and fishermen of Okinawa.
In Sulu, kuntaw was synthesized with other Malay and Indonesian fighting systems—pencak and silat—and modified to suit the Tausug temperament.
While Okinawan karatedo wound up as de-mystified Olympic sport gaining adherents throughout the world, the Tausug fighting art teetered into oblivion in the last 30 years. Local kuntaw masters and artists flocked to neighboring Sabah, Malaysia to look for gainful employment.
Some of them eventually found work as kuntaw instructors imparting a cherished martial know-how and tradition to young Malays. The prospects of better-paying jobs overseas are luring the remaining few kuntaw experts in Sulu—once they leave, the kuntaw tradition will likely go with them.
In response to keep kuntaw alive among the Tausugs, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts bankrolled the establishment of a “school of living tradition” at Mindanao State University in Jolo, Sulu. The Jolo-based SLT kicked off the kuntaw training program with a formal launch on August 11, 2001 at MSU’s Rajah Baginda Hall.
NCCA has similarly provided assistance in the creation of SLTs in various cultural communities throughout the country in a bid to preserve and revive the nation’s traditional arts.
MSU tapped an initial batch of 25 trainees—10 unemployed graduates and 15 students five of whom are females—to go through a daily kuntaw training for five months, Three kuntaw instructors were contracted to train the students. Expectedly, the kuntaw lessons will be integrated into the university’s physical education classes to propagate the art, gain more adherents, and thus, keep the kuntaw tradition alive.
In the first two weeks, kuntaw trainees plunged into jogging, limbering, and stretching exercises to whip them into shape for the more physically challenging lessons of a martial art described by one long-time practitioner as “very defensive, quite offensive, and is, therefore, quite brutal.”
As an efficient fighting system, kuntaw relies on the body’s natural weapons for striking, kicking, throwing, and joint manipulations. The hands are used for balance, parrying and grappling techniques while legs can unleash kicks at various angles, effect takedowns, and do sweeping techniques.
Combinations of such techniques are learned through the dance-like stories of movements called langka. From August to December 2001, kuntaw trainees drilled through a dozen of such langka to condition body reflexes, imbibe various facets of the art—and perhaps, rediscover the welter of cultural legacies and influences that enriched kuntaw.
Unlike the tightly structured fighting arts like karatedo or taekwondo, there are no fixed patterns in a langka. Every individual learns to respond reflexively or move in sheer instinct, often in ways that can instantly disable multiple opponents.
For example, the serah langka focuses on close-range combat and utilizes numerous off-balancing maneuvers and hand-and-foot traps. It was named after Pak Serah of Indonesia, who was born with one arm and clubbed foot. Despite such disability, he was recorded to have killed tigers and wild water buffaloes with his bare hands.
A particular langka combines the swift moves of a crane and the low-to-the-ground creeping movements of a tiger to upset an opponent. A certain langka imitates the flicking kicks of a horse and the elusive movements of a monkey.
One langka embodies the concept of of constant change and awareness of one’s own space and the adversary’s.
Another langka revolves around the knowledge of anatomy with emphasis on nerve destruction.
Going through the movements of various langka can reveal the plethora of physical know-how that makes the kuntaw a lethally effective martial art.
Even so, every teaching/learning sessionis wrapped up with a spiritual lesson to instill obedience, discipline, and honorable conduct. Even the late martial strategist Sun Tzu admonished that spiritual and intellectual strength must be cultivated to bolster mere physical skills.
Admittedly, the kuntaw trainees won’t emerge as polished masters after a five-month journey into kuntaw. It is only expected that they learn the art’s rudiments that, in turn, they can share wit other interested learners throughout Jolo.
As the rightful heirs of a colorful tradition, the adherents can sow the seeds of kuntaw, coax it to growth, and nurture the art to another season of flowering.