What martial arts could have been brought to Northern Philippines by Limahong

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Perry Gil S. Mallari

Perry Gil S. Mallari

Piratical raids were common in the Philippine archipelago before and after the arrival of Spain.

Philippine pirates were fearsome fighters and the raids they’ve had conducted may have affected the development of the fighting arts of certain provinces in the country. These marauders possessed combat skills of the highest caliber and to defend against them, one must be armed with equal fighting prowess.

Chinese pirates too, sailed the Philippine seas. The notorious Chinese pirate Limahong conducted several raids on the Philippines during the last part of November 1574—first on Ilocos Sur and then on Manila. Though he inflicted great damage to the city during two invasion attempts, Limahong failed to conquer Manila.

After his force absorbed huge casualties, the pirate retreated north, “Limahong lost no time decamping from the bay. He sailed to Pangasinan and there tried to establish a colony but was driven from there by his nemesis: Juan Salcedo. Some of his men escaped to Igorot country, where they sired a mestizo breed among the highlanders,” wrote the late National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin in his book Manila, My Manila.


This episode of Philippine history is worthy of close scrutiny for researchers of the Filipino martial arts for two reasons: first is the extreme effectiveness of the fighting techniques of the Chinese pirates, and second, the possibility that those techniques may have made their way to the indigenous martial arts of Northern Philippines.

Author Rosario Mendoza Cortes in her book Pangasinan 1572-1800, offer an estimate on the number of men that Limahong may have left behind, “The number of Chinese families left behind may be estimated from the report that Limahong’s force had originally consisted of sixty-four war junks but when he fled, there were only thirty ships. Of course many had been killed in the battles in Manila and Lingayen, but just as many might have escaped or chosen to remain in Lingayen.” Another part of her book reads, “It is significant that among the towns of Pangasinan during the Spanish period, only Lingayen had a community of inhabitants of Chinese descent sizable enough to have its own local government.” Cortes noted that in 1787, the mestizos de sangley of Lingayen constituted twenty-eight percent of the town’s population.

Now, let’s examine as to what kind of martial arts could have been brought to northern Philippines by these Chinese pirates.

David Bannon, Ph.D., wrote an excellent article on the August-September 1996 issue of Kung Fu Magazine titled Kung Fu on the High Seas: The Martial Arts of Asian Pirates. Bannon’s story contains several accounts of survivors of Chinese pirates’ raids —the first two that we will examine are from a British woman trapped with her 12-year old son in a British ship overrun by pirates and the other from one John Turner, a European chief mate of the ship Tay captured by the female pirate Ching Yih in 1806-7.

The following is the British woman’s description of the pirates’ way of fighting: “One bloodthirsty savage did not hesitate to leap on the back of the poor soldier, dragging him to the deck where they remained entangled for a period. How ghastly the spectacle! Still my heart shivers as I recall with what ruthless glee the Ethnik [i.e. heathen] twisted his hands around the soldier, under his arms, around his neck, like a snake . . . each time the valiant man pushed himself away, the pirate was on him again. How he fought the despicable leech! But to no avail . . . finally after what seemed only moments, the savage pinned our soldier to the deck, and holding his arm in a backward manner, twisted until the soldier fainted from the grinding pain. It was only then that the pirate took out his dagger . . .”

Bannon has the following hypothesis on what martial art the pirate could have had used based on the woman’s account: “Like a snake,” the woman wrote. Her description could easily be construed as Mongolian wrestling or Ming Dynasty Shuai-go (known to modern martial artists as Shuai-chiao) techniques. Interestingly, the pirate did not rely on his weapon at first, but was equally comfortable with unarmed methods, which clearly outmatched the valiant British soldier.”

If the fighting technique the British woman described resembles grappling, Turner’s account depicts a sophisticated striking art, “Two of the men from our vessel were attacked by one pirate, s short hot-blooded man with furs across his back. He missed the man with the first blow of his oddly-shaped sword, which stuck in the wood. Rather than attempt to retrieve the blade, he knelt and wheeled about the men and stuck out his foot in an odd gesture that I can only describe as like a baboon or some other simian. His shoulders were hunched over, and as he screamed in a tongue unknown to me he twisted his body so that his arms touched the deck and his short, powerful leg crushed the knee of the man. The other man lunged with his saber, but as quick as he moved, the savage little pirate leapt back and to the side, spinning and leaping from his crouched demeanor. Catching the man’s elbow at the conclusion of his lunge, he applied his full weight on the unfortunate’s arm, snapping it clean through the bone. I can still remember the sickening sound as the detestable pirate stood over his victim, plunging his fist again and again into the helpless form…”

On Turner’s account, Bannon has a profound comment, “It is unlikely that this pirate was practicing the famed Monkey style, since it’s founder Kau See, did not devise the style until about 1842-43 while imprisoned for inadvertently killing a Ching conscription officer. However, Turner’s descriptive account provides an interesting clue to an alternate style that may have preceded Kau see’s Monkey Style in parallel development.”

Bannon wrote that despite their malevolent nature, the Chinese pirates were dead-serious in their martial arts training, “Those who refused to train were left ashore with provision for three days. Those who stopped others from training attracted the death penalty.”

Another eyewitness account included by Bannon in his article was that of Richard Glasspoole, fourth officer of the East Indiaman Marquis of Ely, who was captured by the pirate Ching Shih in September 1809. Glasspoole’s description of the pirates’ training reads, “They are practical in training, and used only those methods —such as wrestling, grabbing, and kicking below the knee —that give immediate result against an opponent.”

Surprisingly, despite the significant population of mestizos de sangley in Lingayen plus the fact that the Philippines has traded with China long before the coming of Spain, there were no known records of organized Chinese martial arts training in Pangasinan. The province though was believed to be the birthplace of a simple style of arnis called cinco tero (five strikes). On the other hand, the highlands of the north, where some of the men of Limahong retreated, boast of proud wrestling traditions among them is bultong. But one can only make a wild guess whether the martial arts of the Chinese pirates may have had made their way to these fighting traditions.

Originally published in fmapulse.com

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