Kali and Silat: What’s the Difference and What’s the Same?

The Internet has brought us a lot of knowledge from all over the world, right to our fingertips. The problem is that along with easy access to global knowledge comes almost limitless accompanying bunk and misinformation. Perhaps no where is this more pronounced than in martial arts circles and websites. One particularly contentious debate is on Kali and Silat: What’s the Difference and What’s the Same?

Just Google the terms “Kali” and “Silat” and you will find countless opinions and origin stories. Ask readers on any martial arts forum what the differences are between these systems and you will likely get even more confused than before you began your search. So let’s try to keep things simple and say less than what most sites claim to speak authoritatively on.

Kali and Silat: What’s the Difference and What’s the Same? To start with, there are many claims in the Silat world that Filipino Martial Arts have Indonesian origins. Is this true? A definitive answer seems far from clear. What we can say for certain is that the Filipino Martial Arts should be looked at more as cousins to Silat than children. Still, martial arts partisan politics are a very real thing, and you will hear many schools and teachers say otherwise.

As a historian, the safest claim I feel we can make is that Filipino Martial Arts could be considered the Filipino expression of the mother art that FMA and Silat both evolved from. Silat, on the other hand would be the Indo-Malay expression(s).

What is important to note, beyond partisan claims, is that the systems are so similar in so many ways that such origin stories and claims are quite believable – regardless of whether they are true or not historically. Those similarities are the focus of interest for those of us interested in cross-training and mixing martial arts styles. In fact, largely credited as the “founder” of modern “Mixed Martial Arts” (this is certainly debatable), Bruce Lee (Sifu Li, Jun-Fan) and Guru Daniel Inosanto famously cross trained in Inosanto’s East Asian Martial Arts like Kali and Silat, along with Lee’s Wing Chun – noting the clear similarities of close quarter techniques.

As far as differences go, FMA focus from the beginning on bladed and other impact weapons arts. The U.S. Marines and Navy SEALs, have all recognized the authority of FMA with respect to edged weapons and close quarters tactics. Empty hand skills in FMA are quite sophisticated, but they do not derive from Silat enrichment, they derive from the weapons techniques in FMA themselves. Virtually everything you can do with weapons in hand can be translated to empty hand in FMA.

As for the FMA terms Kali, Arnis and Eskrima, you will find many opinions throughout martial arts schools and websites on this as well. Even within the FMA “scene,” there are many very dogmatic uses of each term. One teacher will say the correct word is this, another will say the correct word is that. What does seem to be the case is that in different parts of the Philippines, different terms have been historically used to describe the FMA of the region.

Kali, Eskrima or Arnis? What’s the Difference

There has been so much shared knowledge and cross-training in different lineages of the FMA that it is difficult to speak of regional purity of stylistic differences any longer. For all intents and purposes, unless your teacher tells you otherwise, it is safe to think of Kali, Eskrima and Arnis as the national martial art of the Philippines. The three are roughly interchangeable umbrella terms for the traditional martial arts of the Philippines, that emphasize weapon-based fighting with sticks, knives, bladed weapons and various improvised weapons.

There are many additional names beyond Kali, Eskrima and Arnis for the FMA, including Estoque (Spanish for rapier), Estocada (Spanish for thrust or stab) and Garrote (Spanish for club). In Luzon they may go by the name of Arnis de Mano, Pananandata (use of weapons), Sinawali (Pampanga, “to weave”), Sitbatan and kalirongan (Pangasinan), Didya and Kabaroan (Ilocos region). In the Visayas and Mindanao, these martial arts have been referred to as Eskrima, Kali, Kaliradman and Pagaradman. For all intents and purposes, Kali, Eskrima and Arnis all refer to the same family of Filipino weapon-based martial arts and fighting systems.

Some say Kali derives etymologically from one word, while another teacher, school or website will claim another word origin. I have even heard some Silat schools say that Kali is from an Indonesian Bahasia term for “river.” This, however, seems more coincidence than anything approaching a historical connection.

What we know for certain is that Eskrima (also spelled Escrima) is a Filipinization of the Spanish word for fencing, Esgrima. Their cognate in French is Escrime and is related to the English term skirmish.

Both Arnis and Eskrima are loans from Spanish: Arnis comes from arnés, Old Spanish for armor (harness is an archaic English term for armor, which comes from the same roots as the Spanish term). It is said to derive from the armor costumes used in Moro-moro stage plays where actors fought mock battles using wooden swords. Arnes is also an archaic Spanish term for weapon, like in the following sentence from “Ilustracion de la Deztreza Indiana” by Francisco Santos de la Paz in 1712:

“Siendo tan infalible la execucion desta doctrina, que no solo consigue ésta superioridad en concurso de armas iguales, sino tambien hallandose el contrario con la aparente ventaja de venir armado de los dos arneses, Espada, y Daga; pues aun con ellos experimenta la dificultad de resistir á esta Espada sola…”

“The execution of this doctrine is so infallible, that not only does it prove its superiority in contests with equal arms, but also when finding the opponent with the apparent advantage of showing up armed with two weapons, sword and dagger. For, even armed with those, experience shows the difficulty of resisting the single sword used in this way…”

Again, there are multiple theories on the linguistic origin of the term “Kali.” One theory, popular with Silat practitioners, is that the word comes from Tjakalele, a tribal style of stick-fencing from Indonesia. There are definitely similarities between Tjakalele and Kali techniques, and Mindanao has a close proximity to Indonesia.

Guro Dan Inosanto, however, states that Kali is a portmanteau of the Cebuano words kamot, meaning hand, and lihok, meaning motion. In the Ilocano language, Kali means to dig and “to stab.” There exist numerous similar terms of reference for martial arts such as Kalirongan , Kaliradman and Pagkalikali.

According to Grandmaster Vic Sanchez, however, the Pangasinense term Kalirongan means “Karunungan ng Lihim” or Wisdom of (the) Secret (fighting arts) or “Wisdom of Kali”. In his book KALI – History of a Forbidden Filipino Fighting Arts, Fred Lazo put forward that Kali was an ancient root word for blade, and that the Filipino words for right hand (kanan) and left hand (kaliwa) are contractions of the terms “way of the blade” (kali daanan) and “without blade” (kali wala).

I cannot and will not endeavor to speak authoritatively on the matter of the origins of the term Kali. Guru Manuel Taningco has simply said that “Kali” is the old Filipino language for FMA, and this seems to be a safe, general statement. As a historian, there is simply not enough evidence to give a definitive answer on the etymology beyond that.

It does seem safe to say that there is some relationship between the Kali deriving from the pre-Hispanic Filipino term for blades and fencing, Calis. This was documented by Ferdinand Magellan’s (1480 – 1521) expedition chronicler Antonio Pigafetta during their journey through the Visayas and in old Spanish to Filipino Mother Tongue dictionary and vocabulary books dating from 1612 to the late 1800s, such as in Fr. Pedro de San Buenaventura’s Vocabulario de Lengua Tagala. The term calis was present in various forms in the old Spanish documents in Ilocano, Kapampangan, Ibanag (calit), Tagalog, Bicolano (caris), Waray (caris), Hiligaynon and Cebuano (calix, baladao – “kalis balaraw” or “dagger” and cales). In some of these dictionaries, the term calis refers to a sword or knife kris or keris, while in others it refers to both swords and knives and their usage as well as a form of esgrima stick fighting. Even in this usage, we can see a connection to Silat. As noted, however, this takes us back to the classic “correlation is not causation.” Both categories of regional systems may have these similarities and overlap due to their descent from a common parent art, rather than from one another.

So what about Pencak Silat?

As for “Pencak Silat,” it is important to realize that this means just about as much as “Kung Fu” does in Chinese. That is to say that it is a generic term for dozens of styles of martial arts that are practiced throughout the thousands of islands that comprise Indonesia, much the same way that “Kung Fu” refers to thousands of Chinese systems, ranging from grappling, to throws to locking; internal to external systems, large frame to small frame systems, and so on. Even then, this is hardly the extent of the term, as “Kung Fu” literally just means “accomplishment” or “skill” derived from much “practice” (kung) over a lot of “time” (fu). 

Silat is the collective term for a class of indigenous martial arts from the Nusantara and surrounding geo-cultural areas of Southeast Asia. It is traditionally practiced in Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Southern Thailand, Southern Philippines and Southern Vietnam. There are hundreds of different styles (aliran) and schools (perguruan) which tend to focus either on strikes, joint manipulation, weaponry, or some combination thereof. Regional dialect names including penca in Sundanese, silek in Minangkabau, main-po or maen po in the lower speech of Sundanese, gayong or gayung in parts of Sumatra, Singapore, and Malaysia, dika or padik in Southern Thailand and silat in Southern Philippines.

In Silat, some of the better-know styles are Tjimande, Perisai Diri, Bhakti Negara, Harimau, Putrimandi, Sterlak, Lintau, and many more. There are a few observations that can be made about the different systems of Silat though. In general, Javanese styles stress intricate, fluid hand technique; Sumatran styles stress low, powerful stances and subtle, powerful kicks. All Silat styles train empty-hand techniques that can later be used with knife, sword and spear. Most styles have unique styles of small knives associated with them – badik (Bugis, Makassar); rentjong (Aceh); kerambit (Minang) on so on.

Kali, Silat and Combat

Some say that Silat is combative, while Kali is a sport. This is incorrect. Both are combat oriented and have a rich martial history in terms of application and defense against colonialism and invasion. Although there are a few styles that promote Silat as a sport, Silat is by nature a combat art. Similarly, however, though there are certainly Kali stick fighting competitions, this is merely sparring and does not represent the extent of the art or its applications. Anyone who tells you otherwise is simply wrong. Both Kali and Silat are combat arts and both have forms of competition.

In fact, many FMA practitioners maintain that the troops of Lapulapu, a datu (chief) of Mactan in the Visayas in the Philippines, killed Magellan in a sword-fight. The only eyewitness record of the battle by chronicler, Antionia Pigafetta, claims that Magellan was stabbed in the face and the arm with a spear, thereafter multiple warriors hacked and stabbed at him.

Similarly, the term “Leatherneck,” used by the U.S. Marines, derives from the fact that thick leather collars were issued to marines sent to the Philippines during the Moro Rebellion (1899–1913), an armed conflict between Moro Indigenous Ethnic groups and the United States military. Legend has it that because of the high casualty rate due to neck wounds and decapitations in battles with Indigenous Filipinos, the Marines adopted this leather armor. This is, of course, disputed by the U.S. Marines, who claim its origins are even earlier. Still, something of the Filipino claim rings very true for most FMA practitioners, and after all, that is a story the Marines would want to reject, due to the embarrassment factor. It should be remembered that the use of the term “Leatherneck” was a derogatory synecdoche for Marines – a term of ridicule by sailors during World War I. If this had merely been an archaic, abandoned part of the Marine uniform, it would hardly make sense as an insult with any real sting to the WWI soldiers. As well, one would wonder why sailors would even know of this discarded aspect of the Marine uniform, were it not in fact in recent use, just years before WWI, during the Moro Rebellion.

Not YouTube Martial Arts

One thing is for certain, you will not find the depth of either martial art on YouTube or martial arts forums. While many great schools, like TAMA Martial Arts, offer online live training, simply watching videos of techniques will only get you so far.

Secrecy is a tradition of Filipino martial arts as well as in Silat. Whether on or offline, those who take a few classes in one system or the other and think they have seen what is taught “inner door” are usually the sort of arrogant and self-deluded types who will never be shown the full range of either art.

One difference that I can attest to is that many traditional Indonesian lineages might require conversion to Islam before teaching certain dimensions of their system, or even teaching it at all (depending on the teacher). This, however, is not so much a distinction of what makes Silat what it is – it is more of a regional norm, as Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim country. As such, though there are just as many theories about the name origin of Silat, the simplest explanation seems to be that the word is derived from the Arabic term for “weapon” – Silah. Interestingly, if this is the case, then the original meaning of the word “Silat” and the word “Arnes” – as noted in the aforementioned work by de la Paz (1712), is “weapon.”

Looking to find out more about Kali and Silat: What’s the Difference and What’s the Same? Give us a call at 937-254-7035 to schedule a time for you to come in and start trying classes out! Also, don’t forget to add TAMA Martial Arts and Kali America on Facebook. Check out Kali America’s OFFICIAL website and follow us on Instagram!

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