Kuntao or kuntau (拳道, Pe̍h-ōe-jī: kûn-thâu, Tagalog: kuntaw) is a Hokkien term for the martial arts of the Chinese community of Southeast Asia, especially the Malay Archipelago. It is most commonly practiced in and associated with Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore.
Over time, kuntao and silat have influenced each other to the point where the distinction between the two can sometimes be blurred. The Malaysian art of Buah Pukul is classified as silat despite its Yunnan origin, while Javanese Kuntao Harimau retains its kuntao status despite being influenced by the folk religion and indigenous culture of Java. Some traditional styles include both words in their name, such as Kedah's 500-year-old Silat Kuntau Tekpi which is categorized as silat.
There are no standard hanzi assigned to the word kuntao but the most common reading is "way of the fist", from kun 拳 meaning fist and tao 道 meaning way. This term was originally used for Chinese martial arts in general, and was synonymous with quanfa (拳法, POJ: kûn-hoat). In English, and even in its modern Chinese usage, kuntao usually refers specifically to styles brought to Southeast Asia and often does not include other Chinese fighting systems.
The presence of Chinese martial arts in the Malay Archipelago traces back to ancient contact between China and Southeast Asia. Donn F. Draeger goes so far as to call them the oldest major organised system of fighting in Indonesia, pre-dating structured teaching of silat. The Toraja, Batak, and Dayak cultures all show Chinese influence, and Chinese weapons are often depicted in ancient Sumatran art. Some pre-colonial Chinese temples in Indonesia display combative images characteristic of southern Chinese forms, and many techniques and weapons of silat are of Chinese origin. Many Peranakan families can still trace their clan history in the region as far back as the voyages of Admiral Zheng He, but most Southeast Asian Chinese were brought to the Malay Archipelago as working-class immigrants during the colonial era. In Indonesia in particular, every Chinese community had some form of kuntao, but were traditionally shrouded in secrecy. As recently as the 1970s, kuntao was often practiced secretly to avoid its techniques from being revealed to outsiders, both Chinese and non-Chinese. It was not openly displayed, and public demonstrations would hide the true forms. This changed during the latter of the 20th century, and kuntao is now taught commonly taught without secrecy. Presently, kuntao is most widespread in Java, Sumatra, Sulawesi, Borneo and the Philippines. Kuntao was introduced to the US by Willem de Thouars in the 1960s.
Both northern and southern Chinese martial arts are represented in kuntao, but the majority of systems originate from the same southern states as the Southeast Asian Chinese communities who practice them. Fujian, Shandong, Kongfu and Guangdong styles dominate. Some systems were directly imported from China and underwent little or no changes, such as thaikek (taiji), pakua (baguazhang or eight-trigram palm) and peh-ho (baihequan or white crane fist). Other styles may be a conglomeration of several different schools resulting from the suppososition that they had to adapt to the Southeast Asian weapons and environment. The sanchian form is a common fundamental to all major styles of kuntao.
Kuntao in Jakarta is predominantly of Fujian extraction, characterized by their frontal and right stances (right foot advanced). All Fujian stances are based on observations of not just animals but also humans, such as a newborn baby or a drunken man. Unlike the low stances of other systems, Fujian forms primarily switch between the ting and pa stance, both of which are designed to feel natural with normally-spaced placement of the feet and legs. Shandong styles - practiced across Java and Madura - are Saolim (Shaolin) derivatives, identified by their positioning of the thumb atop the clenched fist, as well as their left stances. Their techniques include high kicks, rolling, leaping, and both short and long arm movements. Styles of Kongfu origin are known for their rigidity and static postures. Guangdong styles are fast and energetic, employing flailing arm motions, subtle hand movements, and semiclenched formations for parrying and blocking. The internal schools (neijia) dominate in Malaysia, particularly thaikek.
The vast array of weaponry found in China is naturally reflected in kuntao, the most famous examples being the sword, sabre, staff, spear and butterfly knives. Listed below are some of the weapons used in traditional styles of kuntao. Pronunciation and spelling vary according to dialect and transliteration system used. The Mandarin word-forms are given in parentheses.
- Kiam (jian): straight double-edge sword
- Tou (dao): any single-edge blade, usually referring to the sabre
- Toya (gun): pole, usually of either wood or iron
- Chio (qiang): spear, often with horsehair attached near the blade to prevent blood from dripping to the shaft
- Tichio: short-handled trident
- Kwan tou (Guan dao): single-edge halberd named after Guan Yu of Romance of the Three Kingdoms fame
- Hongkiam-kek (ji): crescent-moon spear
- Hwa-kek: a polearm resembling the ji but with two crescent blades, one on each side of the spear-head
- Sang kau (shuang gou): hook swords
- Sanh-chat (sanjie-gun): staff divided into three sections of equal length and joined together by chain
- Liang-chat (liangjie-gun): chained stick divided into two sections, either one long and one short or a diminutive version in which both are of the same length
- Kwai (guai): traditional crutch, usually paired
- Suk piao (sheng biao): rope with a metal dart attached to one end
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