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History of KunTao Silat

History of KunTao Silat – part one

How kung fu adapted to the jungles of Indonesia

KunTao Silat the American Martial LifeStyle

{copyright Joe Judt circa 2005}

They stood across from each other on the fighting floor; the dust stained with blood of martial heroes who had measured their skill in an arena where there are no rules. One, a savvy silat exponent, well trained in his petjut or ‘whiplash’ style. He had fought Kun Tao men before, and when he saw his opponent strike a familiar palm out pose, he knew he faced Bagua Zhang. A fearsome system, but one he had faced before. It would be a tough fight, but he was familiar with the style and strategies, and that combined with his hidden toe-knife led him to believe he would be the one to walk away today. ‘Know your enemy’ he thought, ‘isn’t that what the Chinese always say?  As sudden as a crack of thunder they engaged, the petjut man immediately realized something was wrong. He expected his opponent to be evasive and use decoy tactics. Instead he felt an overwhelming force break down his body at a point that he thought was his strongest. The unorthodox strategy caught him off guard. The last few seconds of his life felt like he was falling down a cliff, bouncing off the jagged rocks. His last thought – ‘that wasn’t any Bagua I ever saw.’

The history of martial arts in Indonesia is replete with stories like this one. Stories of martial cultures clashing, and testing each other in a violent crucible.  Practitioners and styles meeting in violent clashes where the orthodox and unorthodox fought not just for supremacy, but for their very lives. Masters of Shaolin, BaGua, Xing-Yi, Five Families Fist and other Chinese styles collided with Indonesian Silat styles like Tjimande, Tjikalong, Petjut and Soeti Hati. Sometimes arts merged into new forms, other times they remained hidden from the public keeping to their orthodoxy. But it is hard to hide from the  evolutionary force of combat. Even if you stuck to one ‘pure’ method, players quickly learned about other arts from fighting them.  Some  styles remained ‘pure’ Chinese kung fu or Indonesian Silat. Others  were the true forerunners of mixed martial arts, absorbing and  reinterpreting knowledge gained from teachers and bloody battles on the Kendang, or fighting floor.

To understand the effects of this environment on kung fu styles is to understand a world that has been destroyed and will never exist again.

The Dutch ruled Indonesia for 150 years. During this time, they controlled the cities, but never truly controlled the countryside. It would be hard to imagine a more violent, dangerous place. 17,500 islands, 27 ethnic groups, 6 major religions, 3500 separate languages.

A land of untold riches and incredible beauty contrasted with incredible strife between colonial rulers, the indigenous peoples and immigrants from China and elsewhere that all lived side by side for hundreds of years. The potential of extreme violence was a harsh truth that people dealt with by training to protect themselves. To live in Indonesia was to face an unrelenting Darwinian struggle for the survival of the fittest. In these islands literally thousands of indigenous fighting styles existed side by side with arts brought by immigrants from China and Europe. This crucible faced unique pressures that forced sudden radical change on the arts practiced there.

The blade, as a central part of life, was very different from the ‘civilized’ matches of the Chinese ‘wu lin’ or martial forest. Living in Indonesia meant kill or be killed, live by the knife or die. The other factor was secrecy.

Because of the premium on knowledge, instructors often held back, causing students to reinvent the arts through fighting experience. Finally, the tropical environment itself created an influence that impacted the choice of strategies and training methods. Techniques that work well on tundra or city streets, can suddenly be useless in the slippery mud of the jungle. This unique, never to be repeated crucible caused some Chinese arts to blend with the elusive indigenous Silat styles, creating a composite art that is neither fully Chinese nor fully Indonesian. Referred to as Kun Tao Silat, it gains it’s influences from many Chinese and Indonesian arts, and while it has roots in Shaolin and Wu Dang martial arts, it has evolved into it’s own, unique, bladed kung fu.

Two knives two seconds: death of a thousand cuts

Steve Gartin has been ‘playing’ Kun Tao Silat for over 40 years. A seasoned practitioner, he has been exposed to a wide variety of knowledge and practitioners. A senior student and recognized disciple of Willem De Thouars, of the famed De Thouars family, as well as U. Un Surya, a master of Internal Kun Tao from Indonesia. Gartin knows a thing or two about this mysterious, and often misunderstood Chinese – Indo – Dutch martial art.

“Kun Tao Silat is not a term you’ll find spoken in Indonesia. It is an Americanization that allows us to respect both the Chinese and Indonesian influences of the art.”

Gartin says, “Kun Tao Silat is a unique combination of combative methods that have at their roots fundamental Shaolin and the three crowns of Taoist martial skills. But to recognize the influence you have to understand their underlying principles and how they were used on the fighting floor in Indonesia. Kun Tao Silat is an art that is constantly evolving.”

The first, most common similarity is the emphasis on stances or ‘legwork’ as it is called in Kun Tao Silat. The legwork exercises of Kun Tao Silat incorporate such common kung fu postures as ‘ma bu’ or horse stance, gong bu or forward stance, twist stances and cat stances. The differences in how they are practiced compared to many ‘pure’ kung fu styles are dictated by whom they expect to fight. The hand positions held in the stances are designed to ingrain into the student to keep their ‘bleeders’, the points most vulnerable to a knife attack’, towards the body, with the ‘bone shields’ or areas most likely to survive a cut from a knife towards the enemy.

Gartin says “This training does, at times, conflict with classical Chinese training methods like Chan San Jin or silk reeling force. Spiraling force is built into the later half of the AKTS system, as the focus early on in training during the old days of Kun Tao was to teach you the things that would keep from getting cut up in a knife fight. Once you understood these things, and you had proven yourself, then the internal training began.”

The legwork set of KunTao Silat incorporates a wide range of postures that appear in application in the sets or forms found in the style.

Everything builds upon everything else. You won’t find a KunTao Silat class practicing Western calisthenics, then ‘doing’ the KunTao. The warm ups are as much a part of the training as the forms, two man drills and applications. This is a classical sign of a Chinese art.

The legwork set is a common opening to class, presenting an excruciating yet pleasurable torture that builds the practitioners body structure and introduces moving within the styles’ ‘structure’ early on.

Other aspects of Kun Tao Silat training will be familiar to practitioners of Chinese Kung Fu styles – forms, weapons, apparatus training, two-man drills and sensitivity exercises. Perhaps the features that are most obviously different from kung fu is the emphasis on training with knives – Indonesia features a bladed culture. There was never time to teach a plethora of empty hand forms before you got to the knife. The other is the willingness to go to the ground. Most Chinese styles feature a military emphasis – on the battlefield it can be very foolish to go the ground. There are also cultural issues around rolling on the ground. It is often viewed by Chinese teachers that you are unskilled if you end up on the ground. Not so in Indonesia, in a slippery, tropical region, hitting the ground is a fact of life. But unlike modern ground fighting, the proponent usually wielded a knife. This resulted in the creation of some very unique methods. In Kun Tao Silat ground fighting, usually only one person stays on the ground for very long. Ground fighting techniques can be found in many of the Kun Tao Silat forms like ‘PaiYun’ or ‘Langka Tiga’. Moves that are often interpreted by outsiders as ‘practicing rolls’ actually feature an aggressive sacrifice throw /femoral artery slash / neck break combination.

Kyle demonstrates the crowding and “cage” effect of KTS stances.

The other unique aspect of Kun Tao Silat ground fighting is the idea of ‘crowding’. The deep, excruciatingly low postures found in the leg
work set strengthen the practitioner so that when after they throw an opponent, the opponent falls into their ‘cage’. The cage is created by crowding the opponent with leg work so that they have no room to maneuver or  apply counter throws or submissions. The low postures allow for using your shins to take your opponent’s space, while keeping him in range of your upper limbs. Elbows and fists are used to punish any incoming attacking limbs, with the ‘bone shields’ out just in case your opponent still has a knife. Limb destructions are followed by Qin Na joint locking and tearing techniques, or if truly a matter of life-or-death, a final cut of the blade. The creation of this ‘cage’ creates a unique torture chamber that those that are foolish enough to attack a skilled KunTao Silat player will remember every time it rains.

The first form of Kun Tao Silat clearly shows the Indonesian influence. While it is practiced as a ‘set’ like in Chinese styles, and features a plethora of obviously Chinese footwork and kicks, the form also clearly demonstrates Djurus – the short hand motions that are the fundamental building blocks of Indonesian Pentjak Silat.

The practitioner can see components from silat styles like Tjimindi, Tikalong, Tji Monyet and Serak. Also like Silat systems there is a separation between the ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ arts. Where in Kung Fu there is often an emphasis on continuous body movement and expression of power in all directions, Kun Tao Silat has adopted the entangling methods of West Javanese silat. Either the upper or lower body will seek a point of contact, then become a fixed point, allowing the opposite ‘art’ to trap and destroy the opponent. While hard to describe, the effectiveness of this method is clear to any whom experience it. And the keys to this unique strategy reside in the very first form – a unique mixture of Shaolin, Xing-Yi and several silat styles.

Most martial artists have heard the old saying that a weapon is an extension of the hand. This is backward thinking from the Kun Tao Silat player’s mindset. That same first form that lays down the groundwork for this unusual martial arts hybrid and offers a plethora of effective empty hand applications is meant to be practiced with a knife in hand. This blade emphasis is probably the most significant change imposed on Kung Fu as it adapted to the culture of the archipelago. Many Kung Fu styles like Xing-Yi or Ba Ji developed out of spear work or other military weapons work, and later evolved into primarily ‘boxing’ arts, by the time they arrived in Indonesia. The exposure to the Indonesian culture encouraged some Kun Tao teachers to put the weapons back into the hands of students right away. This time focusing on the peculiar strategies of dealing with short blades. This is not to say that ‘pure’ Kung Fu styles are in any way inferior, simply that some practitioners of Kung Fu adopted their art to adapt to their circumstances. There was plenty of pure ‘Kun Tao’ to be found in those chaotic days.

Much like the foods of Indonesia, Kun Tao Silat players are known for being a little ‘spicy’. Quick to battle to prove their point. This is where Guru Steve Gartin takes a slightly different view. Being of a fairly spiritual bent, he teaches his students never to raise a finger in anger. Safe to say, he has had a hard life, and if he could avoid ever acting out in anger, so can everyone his students.

“That spicy attitude probably helped survival a great deal in that crazy, violent time where this art developed, Gartin says, but this is a different age. Respect for individuals is paramount, especially when teaching an art where self-defense translates as permanently crippling or killing your opponent.”

Many arts emphasize techniques that are billed as too dangerous to use in a real fight, and as a result the techniques are not practiced in a way that develops the right attributes for dealing with the chaos of a real fight. Traditional kung fu styles often solve this with the use of two-man sets. Two-man sets give a sense of timing, distance, how to initiate full power attacks as well as how to escape. KunTao Silat uses this principle in a wide variety of two-man drills that isolate components of the sets and work them in motion. A unique approach is that each application is designed to completely destabilize the opponent so that they cannot recover.

U. Un Surya & Steve Gartin

The other method shared by both classical Kung Fu and Kun Tao is the use of sticky hands or drills to develop  ‘listening’ or Ming Gan. While most Chinese martial arts practitioners are familiar with Chi Sao, Sam Guat Ma’s, or Tui Shou exercises, the KunTao Silat drills look surprisingly free form. At least until you see it performed with the knives in hand. Again, the bladed emphasis changed the art to focusing on attributes that help win a knife fight, rather than the specific empty hand skills developed in kung fu. Rather practice maintaining a ground path and issuing force like in Tui Shou, or practicing trapping like in Chi Sau, Kun Tao Silat relates its ‘listening skills’ to the blade. Yet once you realize this, the Chinese origins of the drills becomes obvious, and you find other exercises in KunTao Silat that seek to impart the lessons from the classical Chinese arts, just in a different way.

This rare art offers a brief glimpse into a time where cultures clashed and fought for their lives. Out of this time came this rare and unusual art that combines attributes of kung fu and silat. Is it truly kung fu anymore? Can it be considered silat? Perhaps just like the thousands of people of mixed Dutch-Indonesian blood evicted from Indonesia, and not entirely welcome in Holland, this art they brought to us is unique, without a ‘home’ that will accept it, neither Kung Fu nor Silat.

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One Response to History of KunTao Silat

  1. Profile photo of Estevan
    Estevan February 6, 2017 at 1:15 am #

    Looking forward to part 2!!!

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