The Enduring Knife Culture in the Philippines
Long before the balisong made its debut in Hollywood through the efforts of Dan Inosanto and Jeff Imada (the balisong was once dubbed “The Nunchaku of the 80s”), the Filipino butterfly knife had already been featured in Philippine cinema during the 1960s. It was the late actor Eddie Fernandez who had used the balisong in many of his films. Such glorification of the knife on the silver screen is an indication of an innate and enduring blade culture among Filipinos.
The knife, in earlier periods of Philippine history was an integral part of a man’s daily wardrobe. Filipino martial arts (FMA) teacher and writer Krishna Godhania told of an article in his possession titled “The Father of Philippine Boxing,” the story, which was about a certain Eddie Tait reads, “…there has been a gradual discarding of the deadly knife without which the average Filipino once thought himself hardly dressed.”
A typical Filipino knife technique
Growing up near a slaughterhouse, I personally witnessed the bloody havoc that ensued from alcohol fuelled knife fights. Before and shortly after the declaration of martial law in 1972, the carrying of knives and handguns were quite a norm among urban Filipinos. One event that was ingrained in my mind as a young boy was when my mother’s compadre barged into our house one afternoon seeking refuge after his hand was hacked in a knife fight. I can still remember his blood spattering the floors of our living room. I myself started carrying a knife when I was 11-years old.
Blade culture was already flourishing in the Philippines when the Spaniards came.
The notes of Antonio de Morga Sánchez Garay (1559-1636), compiled in his book “Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas,” describes the “balaraw,” a bladed weapon of pre-Hispanic Filipinos, Morga wrote, "The weapons of these people are, in some provinces, bows and arrows. But those generally used throughout the islands are moderate-sized spears with well-made points; and certain shields of lightwood, with their armholes fastened on the inside. These cover from top to toe, and are called carasas [kalasag]. At the waist they carry a dagger four fingers in breadth, the blade pointed, and a third vara in length (about 11 inches), the hilt is of gold or ivory. The pommel is open and has two crossbars or projections, without any other guard. They are called bararaos [balaraw]. They have two cutting edges, and are kept in wooden scabbards, of those of buffalo horn, admirably wrought. With these they strike with the point but more generally with the edge. When they go in pursuit of their opponents, they show great dexterity in seizing his hair with one hand, while the other they cut off his head with one stroke of the bararao and carry it away. They afterwards keep the head suspended in their houses, where they may be seen; and of these they make a display, in order to be considered as valiant, and avengers of their enemies and of the injuries committed by them. . . "
Analyzing Morga’s account, the noticeable use of the natives of precious materials such as ivory and gold in the construction of fighting knives is a good indicator that a sophisticated blade culture already exists during that period. Praising the aesthetics of the balaraw, Morga described it as "admirably wrought."
Filipino fighters throughout history commonly expressed veneration to their blades through ornamentation. A portion of the book “Jungle Patrol: The Story of the Philippine Constabulary” by Vic Hurley tells of the weapons of the members of dreaded Pulahanes cult of Samar, the part reads, “The bush opened again after a while, and Captain Cary Crockett came back to the beach. His men were carrying trophies of the chase now; great crescent-shaped blades that were heavily weighted toward the point. The knives were without guards, and the handles were of carabao horn and heavily mounted with silver. The edges were as keen as razors. These were the talibongs of the hillmen – the great fighting bolos of the fanatical mountaineers.”
Another Philippine blade that the Spaniards and American colonizers found formidable is the Mindanao kris.
A 1969 movie poster of Eddie Fernandez
The Mindanao kris is said to equal the temper of the finest blades of Toledo and Damascus. The bladesmiths who forge these amazing blades also practice spiritual purification rituals similar to those observed by the katana makers of feudal Japan. The Mindanao kris is notorious for its ability to cut through the barrel of a Springfield rifle with one stroke.
The short knife is a favorite back-up weapon of a number of Filipino generals during the Philippine American War as indicated in the chronicles of Gen, Leon Villafuerte published in Orlino Ochosa’s book “Bandoleros: The Outlawed Guerillas of the Philippine-American War of 1903-1907,” it reads, “We arrive at 10 a.m. in Cavite in uniforms with our daggers and pistols, accompanied by Captains Winfield Scott Grove and Rafael Crame and Dr. Dominador Gomez.”
The carrying of a blade is still an enduring practice among Filipinos in some areas of the Philippines today. In one my visits to Batangas (the home of the balisong knife), I have met men who still carry this unique Filipino blade both as a tool and self-defense weapon.