This article is from Martial Arts of the World an Encyclopedia by Thomas A. Green a noted Anthropologist.
Southeast Asia consists of contemporary Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. These countries occupy both peninsular and island landforms, with China to the north and India to the west. Many of the distinctive cultural institutions, including the martial systems, were shaped by Indian and Chinese civilizations. The influence of Indian religions, in particular, is highlighted by the labeling of Southeast Asian civilizations as Hindu Buddhist.
Although information regarding the earliest cultures in the area is sketchy at best, archaeological evidence indicates that the area was populated gradually and undramatically. Early immigrants of Malayan stock formed the core of the indigenous population. The earliest cultures owe a debt to southwestern China, and the religions were animistic. Much later with the arrival of Hinduism and Buddhism (Mahayana, followed a few centuries later by Hinayana) from India and, beginning in the thirteenth century, Islam, many of these indigenous practices were absorbed into the imported religions. Animistic principles may still be seen in Southeast Asian martial systems.
The earliest history of the region (from Chinese sources) notes an Indian presence in Annam (coastal "Indochina"), Cambodia, and Thailand and on the islands of Java, Sumatra, and Celebes by at least the third century A.D. Although influence came in from various regions of India, Indian cultural features were restricted to the elite members of society, exerting no more than minimal influence on the culture of the folk until the popularization of Hinayana Buddhism in the thirteenth century.
The major cultural centers, dating to the second century A.D., were located in the Mekong Delta (Funan, in the Chinese rendering of Khmer), along the eastern coast of modern Vietnam (Champa), and in northern Malaya (Sriksetra).
Indianized Funan comprised the dominant sea power of the era. From their stronghold south of contemporary Hue, the Chains (an Indianized culture of Annam, Vietnam) waged virtually constant land and sea campaigns against their Chinese neighbors, which were met by retaliatory campaigns. The Vietnamese in the tenth century entered into a struggle with the Chains over the territory south of Tonkin. With the eventual Vietnamese victory, the Indianized Chain culture was supplanted by the Chinese‑based Vietnamese culture.
In the area of modern Indonesia, the early cultural influences came from India. The process of Indianization can be traced to approximately A.D 450 and to Taruma in west Java.
Sriksetra (in central Burma) was the capital of the Pyu. This state was destroyed by invading Thais from Nanchao in the northeast before the Burmans appeared on the scene in the ninth century. To the east lay the territory of the Mons, whose sphere of political influence spread into the area of contemporary Thailand. Eventually, Mon cultural influence extended to the Burmans, Khmers, and Thais.
After the fall of Funan to the Khmer in the sixth century, Srivijaya in southeast Sumatra became the dominant sea power in the region. Maintaining strong ties with India, while cultivating the favor of China as well, the kingdom built a commercial empire by controlling the Strait of Sunda and the Strait of Malacca.
The Tibetan Burmans, who ruled from the city state of Pagan, arrived in central Burma (now Myanmar) in the ninth century by way of the Shan hills. After absorbing the surviving Pyus, whose state had been crushed by Thai invaders just before the Burman arrival, they eventually subjugated the dominant Mon culture, absorbing from it both technology and Hindu Buddhist culture.
The thirteenth century brought turmoil to the region due to Kublai Khan's conquest of China and subsequent expansionist agenda. Chinese campaigns into Burma, Vietnam, Champa, and even Java led to the collapse of empires such as the Pagan and realignments such as those in Indonesia that gave rise to other states such as the Majapahit political entity of eastern Java, which retained preeminence in the area through the fifteenth century. The growth of the Islamic sphere of influence on the Malay peninsula, especially in centers such as Malacca, and into Java led to Majapahit's demise in the sixteenth century.
On the mainland, the thirteenth century saw the development of the Thai into a major political force. By the end of the next century, unification of Siam (now Thailand) and the establishment of the kingdom of Laos had been effected.
Struggles between Siam and Burma continued well into the nineteenth century, while within Burma itself the Thai Shans strove to conquer upper Burma. Internal struggles between Burman and Thai groups continued into the sixteenth century, when the Burmans ultimately prevailed.
Most Indonesian rulers had become Muslims by the end of the sixteenth century, with the exception of Pajalaran in eastern Java (until the seventeenth century) and Bali. Bali resisted Islam, remaining the only Hindu‑Buddhist civilization in the archipelago. In the areas that have become contemporary Indonesia and Malaysia, Islam absorbed previous influences (particularly indigenous animism), which appear in popular religious practice and the martial arts.
In mainland Southeast Asia, notably in what became modern Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos, Hinayana Buddhism remained dominant. Even more than in the Islamic states, the absorption of indigenous practice produced lingering effects on many native combative systems.
The intrusion of European colonialism into the region had minimal impact on traditional combative systems, beyond driving them underground in some cases. In the period following Japanese incursions in World War 11, some practitioners incorporated that nation's martial arts (e.g., karate and jfid6) into native martial systems.
The martial arts in Southeast Asia coexist with dance and drama in some cultural traditions. Indonesia, Myanmar, and Thailand, for example, maintained at least into the late twentieth century dances that incorporate forms also seen in their combative arts. Among the Shan tribes of Myanmar in the early twentieth century, dance embodied and was likely to have been a vehicle for the practice of the indigenous boxing and weapons systems, and traditionally both Muay Thai (Thailand) and Lethwei (Myanmar) boxing matches were preceded by martial dancing. Pentjak silat (Indonesia) and bersilat (Malaysia) utilize musical accompaniment during practice and exhibition. The role of silek (silat) as an element of west Sumatran folk drama as recently as 1998 has been well documented.
Archaeological evidence in the form of physical representations of human combat from the Khmer Empire (A.D. 802‑1431) that have been found in the thousands in association with the Temple of Angkor Vat (Angkor Wat), built in the first half of the twelfth century by Suryavarman 11 (r. 1113‑1150), and the walled city of Angkor Thom and its Bayon Temple, built late in the same century by jayavarman VII (1181‑1219), suggests a long history of martial arts. Although contact from India came early on in Khmer history and exerted profound cultural and religious influence, the statues and relief figures portrayed more closely resemble Chinese boxing stances than any known arts of India. While it is clear from the historical record that Chinese contact began as early as the state of Funan, the early history is murky enough to render the Chinese images a continuing mystery.
Contemporary martial arts in Cambodia remain uninvestigated. The logical assumption is that, given the flow of peoples throughout the area and Cambodia's strong associations with Thailand and Vietnam, nations whose martial roots (primarily Chinese) and traditions are better known, Cambodia shares a common heritage.
Similar points can be made about Laos, whose founders trace their origins to the migrations, beginning in about the eighth century A.D., from the Thai kingdom of Nanchao in southwestern China. Kublai Khan's incursions in the thirteenth century prompted mass migration of the Lao into the area of the modern state of Laos. Despite the absence of research, it is possible to speculate that indigenous martial systems based in Chinese wusbu and Thai arts survived into modern times.
Silat is the primary martial art of Indonesia. The system is based on indigenous Indonesian combat arts with primary influence from India and China. Silat employs striking with both hands and feet, throws, and locks. A variety of weapons regarded as specifically Indonesian and Malayan (e.g., the kris‑a double‑edged stabbing dagger) are integrated with unarmed techniques in silat curricula.
Most sources contend that silat originated on the Indonesian island of Sumatra during the period of the Menangkabu kingdom. It then developed and proliferated from the seventh through the sixteenth centuries, becoming a network of systematized arts by at least the fourteenth century. Ultimately, silat is an amalgam of indigenous Indonesian martial traditions and imported traditions from India, China, and the Middle East. The earliest non‑Indonesian influences are likely to have been introduced in the area of the Sumatran seaport of Palembang during the period of the Srivijaya Empire (seventh to twelfth centuries A.D.) by Indians and Chinese who landed at the seaport. Until relatively late in the twentieth century, the styles of silat were extremely localized, with each village or teacher having a distinct style within the general pattern.
Within the variety of styles, however, there are elements in common among Indonesian silat and its derivatives of Filipino sitat and Malaysian bersilat. In general, silat is characterized by the following. While all systems are based on the use of weapons, training begins with instruction in empty hand tactics and progresses to armed techniques. Until the latter part of the twentieth century, silat remained strictly combative, avoiding the compromises needed to make the transition to sport. Outside self‑defense situations, silat has been an element of local celebrations (e.g., weddings, village festivals). The prominence of aesthetic factors in silat and its close association with genres of Southeast Asian dance‑drama often have caused silat to be mistakenly categorized as dance by outsiders.
In traditional styles of silat, the concept of supernormal power coexists with the physical techniques. Although the primary contemporary religion of Indonesia is Islam, and most of the practitioners of silat are Muslims, supernaturalism in this area has been influenced by Buddhism, Hinduism (particularly in Ball), and especially animism. Also, Islamic Sufism supports a belief in Ilmu (Indonesian; science, esoteric knowledge), a supernatural power. The last half of the twentieth century saw efforts to standardize silat through modern federations such as Persatuan Pentjak Silat Selurah Indonesia (PPSI).
Kuntao is most commonly considered to be a generic term for Chinese martial arts practiced in the archipelago and on the Malay peninsula. The most common translation of the term is "fist art" or "fist way," although there is no standard written form for the art among Chinese ideograms. Donn Draeger and Robert Smith trace the term to Hokkien dialect from the southeastern coastal province of Fujian.
Kuntao was developed and has remained largely confined to Chinese communities in Southeast Asia. Secrecy has traditionally been an element of the training. Therefore, kuntao and silat have pursued separate lines of development despite the proximity of the practicing communities.
Kuntao encompasses the range of traditional Chinese combat philosophic, from the "hard" Hokkien and Shantung styles to "soft" Tbay Kek (taijiquan [tai chi ch'uan]). In general, however, the movements are circular rather than linear, and the practice of imitating animal movements and attitudes has been preserved from Chinese boxing. The systems incorporate both unarmed and armed techniques utilizing traditional Chinese weapons. Kuntao is strictly combative; there is no sport dimension.
Malaysia's principal martial art is bersilat, the form of silat practiced on the Malay peninsula. While bersilat is regarded by some as distinct from Indonesian silat, there is a close relationship between the two systems dating from at least the fifteenth century. The Indonesian origin is reinforced by tradition, which attributes bersilat to the Malayan folk hero Hang Tuah, who moved from Menangkabu in west Sumatra to Malacca, Malaya, in the late fourteenth century, bringing with him both the kris and silat.
Like its parent art, bersilat is subject to considerable local variation. Also like Indonesian silat, Malaysian bersilat utilizes hand and foot strikes, throws and locks, attacks to vulnerable points in the body, and traditional Malay and Indonesian weapons such as the kris. Modern bersilat, however, exists in two forms: silat pulut, a dance like performance that may have derived from kuntao, and silat buab, a combat form not publicly displayed, which was probably influenced by Menangkabu pentjak silat, according to the small body of scholarship devoted to the art.
The primary combative arts of this area, beyond certain modifications required to enable practitioners to survive practice sessions, have retained their martial character rather than having been converted to sports or martial "ways" for achieving self‑improvement. The systems are not discrete, but actually are elements of thaing (generic for "defense" or "all‑out fighting") rather than separate disciplines. Grappling and striking, even techniques disallowed in other martial arts (e.g., biting and eye gouging), are incorporated into thaing.
Bando may be loosely translated as "way of steel discipline" (Dunlap 2000). The term commonly is used to refer to unarmed fighting arts. There are nine primary styles of band6, each associated with a major ethnic group: Burmese, Chin, Chinese, Indian, Kachin (or Jinghpaw), Karen, Mon, Shan, and Talaing.
The styles are composed of animal systems or forms. Generally twelve animals are incorporated into the style, but there are exceptions, such as the Kachin system, which uses sixteen. Each system incorporates both striking and grappling developed in imitation of the characteristics of the animal that inspired the system. The tactics of each animal may be used separately or fused, as called for in a given situation.
The animism that is an important element of many of Burma's religious systems (especially that of the Kachin) has been given as an explanation for the organization of combat techniques around animal characteristics. Given the long influence of both Indian and Chinese cultures on Burma, however, and the presence in both of animal forms of martial arts, there are alternative explanations.
Bansbay refers to traditional Burmese systems of weapons use. The training embodies both unarmed techniques against weapons and the means of wielding weapons in combat. The most common weapons are stick, sword, and spear. The sources of banshay are said to be both India and China. Among the Shan, weapon systems appear as "fight dances"; one type uses a pair of Burmese swords and the other a stick with flaming ends. The latter is sometimes practiced in pairs. History records that in about 1549, Burmese soldiers practiced sword dances in their encampment while laying siege to the Thai forces at Ayuthia. The nature and purpose of the dances were not recorded, however.
Lethwei (Burmese "boxing") shares many characteristics with Muay Thai (Thailand). As in Muay Thai, kicks, including knees, are used along with hand and elbow strikes. Unlike Muay Thai, however, competitors fight without gloves, using only hand wraps as protection for the fists; head‑butts and grappling are permitted. A sport form of the system has existed since at least the eighteenth century. Currently there are matches divided into four rounds, judges, rankings from youth to professional grades, and even a national governing body. Matches traditionally have been associated with festivals and held in sandpits. Musical accompaniment is sometimes used; in fact, in the past at least, the Shan dance called Lai Ka (fight dance, or defense‑offense) was a form of training for bare‑knuckle fighting. According to Faublon Bowers the assumption is that dancing and fighting are so closely related that ability in one entails ability in the other. Boxing was popular among the hill tribes: the Kachin, Karen, Shan,and'Wa.
Rather than existing as a separate art, Burmese wrestling, called naban (grappling), is integrated into other combatives. Grappling is most developed among the Chin and Kachin tribes, who are Himalayan in origin, and is said to have been derived from Indian wrestling rather than from Chinese grappling.
Muay Thai is the most widely recognized of the martial arts of Thailand. In its contemporary form Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, is known as an international sport. Precise information is lacking on the system's origins because of the destruction of Siamese records in 1767 during one of their continuing conflicts with Burma (now Myanmar). As a combative system, however, it has figured prominently in the legends surrounding the centuries of conflict between the two countries. For example, in the late eighteenth century, a tradition maintains that Thai boxer Nai Khanom Tom (also Nai Khanom Dtom) was given the opportunity to fight for his freedom after being captured in a battle against the Burmese. He affected his release by defeating a dozen Burmese boxers. Other versions of this legend vary in their particulars, but in all versions, the Thai triumphs. In documented contemporary encounters, on the other hand, Muay Thai experts have fallen to the larger Burmese fighters.
One proposed date for the origin of Muay Thai is 1719, the year Prince Phra Chao Sua (also Seua) established martial competitions at Ayudhya. Prior to this time, it has been suggested that the empty‑hand techniques of the art were embedded as military defense (likely to be synonymous with lerdrit, a military unarmed system) in the armed system of Krabi‑krabong. Thai martial tradition claims Phra Chao Sua was himself a Muay Thai fighter who saved the country from invasion by defeating an opposing army's champion.
During this early period, hands were wrapped, but no gloves or other protective equipment were used. In fact, on occasion wrappings were gummed and broken glass was embedded in the surface. Rounds, weight classes, gloves, and groin protectors were added early in the twentieth century. Rules covering fouls, such as the prohibition of throws, biting, or striking a downed opponent, have changed little over the past two centuries.
Krabi krabong is at present the most vital Thai armed tradition. The Thai developed armed combat skills both in their own campaigns and as mercenaries for the Khmer Empire.
By the early sixteenth century (1503) the Thai had developed "military science," as demonstrated by the compilation, at the orders of Siamese King Rama Tibodi II, of a "Treatise on Victorious Warfare" that outlined military strategy and military tactics. Almost a century later (1593) the extremely successful Thai king Naresuan, who led his forces into Burma, Cambodia, and Laos, appended twenty‑one rules of combat to "Victorious Warfare." Naresuan was a legendary swordsman, having allegedly single-handedly routed Burmese forces by killing the Burmese crown prince with a sword thrust. It is tempting, therefore, to suggest that his tactics influenced Krabi‑krabong. Naresuan's rules, however, focused on mass warfare, and unlike contemporary Krabi krabong practitioners; he fought while mounted on an elephant.
The curriculum of Krabi krabong consists of training in six different weapon categories: staff, gnow (bladed staff), single sword, double sword, mai sau (wooden club worn on the forearm), and the combination of spear and shield. In addition, Krabi krabong utilizes empty‑hand techniques that are said to be the battlefield ancestors of modern‑day Muay Thai. Practitioners train in pairs, using full contact and live blades.
Before each training session, match, or demonstration, it is required to perform the dancelike Wai Kru ceremony. The Wai Kru are ceremonies that show respect for the master teacher (Kru, Khru, or guru). Although the dances' structures and names vary from locale to locale, all are an integral element of Thai culture and permeated by the Thai variant of Buddhist beliefs. There is, as Faubion Bowers notes, an intimate connection between dance and combat throughout Thai tradition.
The likely origin of the Vietnamese people was southern China. Throughout the country's turbulent history, contact with and interference by China have been a fact of life. The Chinese Han dynasty overthrew the Vietnamese Then dynasty, itself probably a Chinese family, in 111 B.c. In A.D. 39 a revolt led by the Trung sisters gave a brief respite from China's dominance. Chinese rule resumed in 44. Eventually, in 939, Vietnam regained independence, although China held sway over Vietnam's rulers until the French era.
Vietnam's history has been one of southward expansion, of internal geographical division (either because of formal administrative divisions or because of informal power assumed by regional viceroys), and of attempts to assert the control of the central government over the actions of local leaders. There has been little peace in Vietnam's evolution.
The political situation in Vietnam, therefore, both kept the martial arts systems in the nation closely tied to Chinese fighting arts and prevented the kind of systematization and nationalization that have prevailed within many other traditions. One effect has been considerable confusion about the martial arts of Vietnam and a dearth of knowledge, particularly in the West, regarding the history of the subject.
The Vietnamese martial arts (vo thuat) have remained responsive to local imperatives, as distinct from the standardization developed in Japan or in the People's Republic of China. Even after the reunification of the north and the south, a universally accepted body for the classification and standardization of martial arts has yet to emerge publicly in Vietnam. Thus, there are an indeterminate number of schools, some practicing family traditions, others based in regional tradition, most clothed in secrecy, with skills perpetuated orally by transmission from teacher to student. The aura of secrecy that often attends martial arts was intensified when Vietnam was conquered and colonized by France (1859 1954). During the colonial period, martial arts were driven underground and were taught secretly (primarily within families, some maintain), transmitted with caution from teacher to student.
There is considerable discussion among Vietnamese martial artists themselves as to whether any of the Vietnamese martial arts truly developed independently of Chinese influence. Confucianism and its Mandarin civil service influenced military arts at the elite levels by the institution of formal military training in an eleventh‑century academy of martial arts in the capital, Thang Long City (now Hanoi). In order to graduate in the military sciences, candidates had to pass entrance exams, followed by a minimum of three years' study before graduating. This climate also produced, in the sixteenth century, treatises such as Linh Nam Vo Kinh (On Vietnamese Martial Art).
In the eighteenth century, major schools of Chinese boxing, primarily Cantonese, were noted in Vietnam by names such as Hong (Hung) gar, Mo gar, Choi gar, and Li gar. It is claimed that these styles elaborated on the styles of various monasteries; among these the most commonly mentioned was Wo Mei Shan Pal.
In twentieth century Vietnam, Vovinam, Kim Ke, and Vo Binh Dinh have been regarded as the most popular systems. In addition, numerous Sino‑Vietnamese styles have been reported, such as Bach My Phai (Bak Mei Pai or Baime1quan, Chinese for "White Eyebrow Style"), yongchun (wing chun or Ving Tsun), and Melhuaquan (Plum Blossom Boxing). These styles were popular among Chinese who lived in Vietnam, especially in the Cholon section of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).
When discussions of native martial arts arise, Tay Son boxing is often cited as indigenous to Vietnam. The system came to national attention in a late eighteenth‑century peasants' revolt in Vietnam. In 1773, three brothers, the Tay Son, led a revolt and divided the country between them. Their victories were attributed in part to Vo Tay Son (Tay Son Fighting Style), often known as Vo Binh Dinh (Binh Dinh Fighting, or sometimes translated into English as Binh Dinh Kung Fu). Each of the three brothers contributed to modern Vo Tay Son, and contemporary practitioners trace their martial lineages to one of the three. Vo Tay Son remains an aggressive combat art encompassing both unarmed and weapons forms. There are eighteen weapons in the curriculum, with an emphasis on bladed weapons, particularly the sword.
A less well known system is Kim Ke (Golden Cock). As the name implies, the system adopts combative features of the cock. There are strikes modeled on the spurring talons of the fighting cock, as well as high‑jump kicks to the upper torso or head, a feature that appears in other Vietnamese systems also. Actions are fast and aggressive, with attack preferred to defense. Practitioners of Kim Ke even utilize biting attacks. It has been noted that Kim Ke fighters prefer lateral attack angles.
Family systems have been described that simply use the family name (e.g., Truong Vo Thuat, Truong Family Fighting Style) as a label. Such systems are developed within lineages and generally utilize both Vietnamese and non‑Vietnamese (especially Chinese) martial arts as sources of armed and unarmed techniques.
The most familiar of Vietnam's martial arts are Vovinam Viet Vo Dao and Quan Ki Do. Both systems were synthesized from a variety of preexisting arts in the twentieth century.
Vovinam (later renamed Viet Vo Dao) was founded by Nguyen Loc (1912 1960) in the late 1930s. Traditional history within the system states that Nguyen, while in his twenties, combined elements of local schools of Shontei province, other Vietnamese styles, principles from the "Linh Nam Vo Kinh" treatise, traditional Chinese wushu, Japanese judo and related wrestling systems, and Japanese karate to create Vovinam. Nguyen began teaching his eclectic system to a group of friends in 1938 in the capital city of Hanoi. The system was developed with the practical intent of providing, after a short period of study, an efficient means of self defense. Further, as a distinctive national art incorporating what supporters have called "the best of Vietnamese martial arts," Nguyen hoped to establish a basis for national identity and patriotism among his hard pressed people. A spectacular element of the art is the existence of leg techniques in which the practitioner uses both legs to kick, grasp, and trip an opponent. The "flying scissors" techniques are the most recognizable of these Vovinam tactics. Tradition holds that these maneuvers were developed as a means to allow Vietnamese foot soldiers to attack Mongol cavalrymen during the Battle of the Red River Delta in 1284. From its creation until several years following the founder's death, the system was called Vovinam. The name Vovinam blends two words: Vo (martial arts) and vinam (a shortened form of Vietnam) to signify "martial arts of Vietnam." In 1964, Viet Vo Dao ("the philosophy of Vietnamese martial arts") was added to the name to produce the modern form Vovinam‑Viet Vo Dao.
Quan Ki Do (also Qwan Ki Do, Quan Ky Do), which can be translated as "Fist and Q1 (energy) Way," was established by Pham Xuan Tong (ca. 1981). One tradition holds that the roots of the art are in the Chinese boxing system of Wo‑Mel (a Southern Shaolin style). The main techniques derived from Chinese martial arts are based on the animal forms of the tiger, crane, and praying mantis. A Vietnamese system, Quan Ki, is reported to have been incorporated into the art to supplement this fundamentally Chinese structure.
A countertradition maintains that Tong obtained the knowledge from which he synthesized Quan Ki Do elsewhere. According to this tradition, Quan Ki Do is based on the Vietnamese styles of Vo Bihn Dinh (see "Tay Son," above), Vo Quang Binh, and Vo Bach Ninh. At least some of the elements of these arts were inherited through an uncle.
The difficult issue of origins aside, Quan Ki Do encompasses both grappling and striking, as well as a variety of stick, pole‑arm, and bladed weapons. The Vietnamese sword art of Viet Lon Guom is included along with traditional Chinese weapons in this arsenal. Also, meditation and breathing techniques are used to cultivate qi. Tong left Vietnam in the late 1960s and ultimately based his Quan Ki Do organization in Toulon, France.