The word sundang means bladed weapon, or sword. In some parts of the country, the blade is rounded at the end, making it primarily a hacking and cutting weapon. In other areas, the sundang is also sharp at the tip, allowing the wielder to thrust as well as cut. Sundang the noun becomes an action word, as when two people fight with blades—nag sundangan sila, meaning they were fighting with bladed weapons.
The sword in its various guises—sundang, itak, pinuti, sansibar, ginunting, dahongpalay, etc. are part of the foundation of the Filipino martial arts. Other weapons such as the stick (baston), the dagger (daga), the long stick (bangkaw), the spear (sibat), the rope (lubid), and the scarf or handkerchief (panyo) are part of the repertoire for some styles. But the most wellknown weapon of the Filipino martial arts (FMA) is the wooden stick. The sticks used by practitioners are made of different kinds of wood, such as kamagong (the wood of the mabolo tree), bahi (palm wood), yakal, and other kinds of hardwoods. The most iconic of them, however, is the rattan stick. This is the most commonly used weapon for training in all the branches of the FMA, with the exception of the unarmed styles. The stick has come to symbolize what the FMA are all about, which for most people means stick fighting. However, for many styles or schools, the stick is a substitute for a metal sword. Thus, the movements for the sword are trained for the stick as well. This is contrast to the schools or styles that focus on the stick as their main weapon.
But this column is not only about the outward, that is to say, the physical aspects, of the FMA. There is more to the practice of the FMA than just mastery of weapons and open hand combat. The practice of the FMA, as in the practice of any other martial art, requires the use of the mind and the sensitivity of the heart, and of course the skill of the hands. This column will examine the different facets of the FMA – the physical skills, the differences in styles, ethics and values in martial arts, in short the cultural dimension of the Filipino martial arts.
What does the term culture mean? From the anthropological perspective, culture is the shared beliefs and values that guide people’s behavior. Culture is shared in a community, however that community is defined. Culture is therefore extrinsic to people, it is not something that is inherited biologically. It is a shared set of ways of looking at the world and how to react to it, including the different rules and guidelines that people eventually develop over time.
Seen this way, the FMA are also a part of our cultural setting. We learn physical skills – the arts of striking, blocking, locking and throwing, using weapons and later on performing with bare hands. To learn the arts of combat however, also means learning how to handle one’s self and to control impulses. It means learning how to deal with people, how to behave in particular social settings, and how to handle emotions. Through martial training, we (hopefully) learn how to be better people. Through the FMA, we learn something more about what it means to be Filipino
The word sundang means bladed weapon, or sword. Bladed implements have many uses. They can kill and destroy. Or they can preserve and cut away the dross to get at the truth.
Felipe Jocano Jr. is an arnis master and an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of the Philippines Diliman.