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The term 'Kuntao' is a concept around which there has always been a great deal of uncertainty and debate. Is is usually described as a generic term used in much of Southeast Asia to designate martial arts of Chinese origin, the term deriving from the Fujian Chinese (Hokkienese) words for 'fist' (kun) and way or method (tao), although the term is often (see below). Kuntao is one of a number of martial arts styles found in Indonesia and Malaysia, coastal Thailand and the Western Philippines, including pukulan, silat, and pencak (these latter two generally being treated together as 'Pencak-Silat in contemporary parlance). However, the term Kuntao is not really equivalent to saying 'Kung Fu' or 'Wu Shu' (Chinese terms for martial arts) for in many cases Kuntao arts from Southeast Asia have diverged from their Chinese origins far enough to be considered distinct arts in their own rights. The relationship between Kuntao and the indigenous Indo-Malay martial arts found in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the western Philippines is far from clear. One scholar, Bruce A. Haines asserted of Kuntao, Silat and Pukulan that the terms 'refer to variations of the same Indonesian style that have developed in different geographical areas of the Indonesian archipelago'1 while Donn F. Draeger stressed the distinction between Kuntao and Silat, remarking vaguely that 'Kun-tao [sic] may have influenced pencak-silat and bersilat ... [p]erhaps the reverse is also true....'2. Draeger has also noted the existence of Kuntao systems which, with an eye towards integration into Indonesian society, redesignated themselves as forms of Silat. Bluntly, most commentators are not all that clear on what kuntao means, let alone what kind of martial arts it denotes.

The term Kuntao is in fact a loan-word used in the Austronesian language variants common to Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Eastern Thailand and the Philippines to refer to martial arts, sometimes, but not always, of Chinese origin. It derives from a Hokkienese (Fujianhua) idiom, kun tao () literally translated as 'fist way' but really an idiomatic generic meaning 'martial arts'. One encounters these same words romanised in a variety of different ways, such as koontao, kuntau and kun thau as well as kuntao. It is roughly equivalent to the Mandarin (Guoyeu) Chinese generic terms 'wushu', 'kuoshu' and 'chuan fa'. Because of a common idiomatic meaning, many commentators often inaccurately claim that kuntao is the Hokkien reading of the characters for chuan fa (), pronounced ken fat in Cantonese (Guangdonghua), and pronounced in Japanese variously as kenpo or kempo, although obviously the terminal character Tao (), meaning Way, philosophy or doctrine, is not the same as Fa () meaning rule or method.

Roughly speaking, there are four different referents for the term 'kuntao' in the Indo-Malay and Philippino usage, and distinguishing them depends heavily upon context. Kuntao can mean variously1:

  1. 'Pure' idiomatic Hokkienese, a generic meaning 'martial arts', roughly comparable to wushu or chuan fa in idiomatic terms (but not literally identical).
  2. As a loan word into Bahasa, also employed as a generic to mean martial art, e.g. Draeger's report of silat bakhti negara also being referred to as 'kuntao bali'.
  3. To refer to transitional arts which are consciously combinations of Chinese and Indonesian techniques and methods, but which still retain some (possibly, but not necessarily, a majority of) consciously Chinese elements.
  4. Totally integrated (Indonesianised/Malay-ified, whatever) styles which have completely abandoned any Chinese references apart from a vestigial use of the name. These are often indistinguishable from conventional silat, except insofar as specific movements or principles are of particularly Chinese origin.

There are, of course, many systems which would fit (3) or (4) but that opt for political or practical reasons to designate themselves as silat arts rather than forms of kuntao.

1. For a detailed sociological analysis of the meaning of 'kuntao' in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, see Dr. Philip H.J. Davies 'What is Kuntao? Cultural Marginality in the Indo-Malay Martial Arts Tradition' in Journal of Asian Martial Arts Vol.9 No.2 (2000).