Kali vs Silat

Kali vs Silat

Kali vs Silat. These arts are gaining popularity due, at least in part, to their use in various movies such as The Hunted, the Bourne movies, the Raid movies, and others. Often, people hear about Kali and Silat in the same sentence or paragraph and assume they are closely related.

They are related, but more like cousins than siblings. And, depending on which specific systems you’re talking about, sometimes, they are distant cousins. The terms Kali and Silat don’t refer to specific systems of martial arts. They are umbrella terms, like Karate and Gung Fu.

There are many systems of Karate, such as Shotokan, Goju-Ryu, Shorin-Ryu, and many lineages even within those systems. There are many systems of Gung Fu, including Wing Chun, Tai Chi Chuan, Hsing-I, White Crane, and more and, again, many lineages within those systems.

Kali and Silat are no different.

Kali, along with the words Eskrima, Arnis, and others, refer to martial arts from the Philippines in general. Outside, It also includes systems of Filipino martial arts in China, Okinawa, and Japan.

Silat is an even broader term, which refers to a vast host of systems from all over Southeast Asia. However, the regions best known for using the term Silat are Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Southern Philippines.

Kali vs Silat - Silat Harimau

Silat Harimau

When we start discussing Filipino and Indonesian martial arts, terminology gets a bit tricky. There are several reasons. First, it comes from so many languages and dialects spoken throughout the region. Seconds, we should not ignore remnants from previous influences such as Spanish and Dutch colonial rule. Let’s look at the words Kali and Silat.

Kali System


The term Kali, common in the US and gaining popularity in other regions, is not common in the Philippines, and quite a bit of controversy surrounds the history of the word.

Some claim it is derived from the word kalis, which is a type of sword from the Southern Philippines. Some claim it is an old word and means “to scrape.” Others claim it’s a hybrid word which comes from the words kamot or kamay, meaning “hand” and lihok, which means “motion.”

Personally, I favor the latter and, based on the relative obscurity of the word in the Philippines, I believe it probably originated with Filipinos who immigrated to Hawaii. In the Philippines, the terms Arnis and Eskrima, sometimes spelled Escrima, are far more common.

Arnis and Eskrima

The term Arnis is more common in the Northern Philippines and the term Eskrima is generally preferred in the Central and Southern Philippines. The words Eskrima and Arnis are bastardizations of the Spanish terms, esgrima and arnés.

Esgrima means “fencing” and requires little explanation. Fencing means “to fight with swords,” and is still in common usage today. The word arnés, which translates as “harness” and was an old Spanish term for armor. It relates to leather and wood armor Filipinos wore while training with live blades.

Kali and Filipino Martial Art Skills

The Philippines consists of over 7,000 islands, 2,000 of which are uninhabited island. While the official national language is Tagalog, more than 175 tribes with distinct cultures and languages, not to mention dialects of those languages, exist in the islands. Commonly individual ethnic groups developed their own fighting methods.

On the whole, Filipino martial arts tend to train with weapons, usually from day one, and they tend to be weapon-based, meaning all their motions, even in their empty-hand training, derive from the motions they use with their primary weapon. Many are blade-based and use a blade, either a knife or sword, as their primary tool.

In the Northern and Central Philippines, which the Spanish governed for centuries, the practice of Espada y Daga, sword and dagger, is common. The swords are generally light weapons which is suitable for slashing and thrusting.

In the Southern Philippines, they favor sword and shield methods. Their swords tend to be heavy, which is suitable for hacking through limbs and necks.


The term Silat, to varying extents, is used throughout Southeast Asia. It is most commonly associated with Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Southern Philippines, though.

The term Pencak Silat specifically refers to Indonesian martial arts.

There are over 300 officially recognized systems of Pencak Silat on Java alone. Java is one of nearly 1,000 uninhabited islands in Indonesia.

While Java is one of the larger islands in the archipelago, it is safe to assume most of the inhabited islands have at least one system of Pencak Silat. Pencak Silat systems cover the entire spectrum of martial arts specialties. From training empty-hand striking, to joint locks, grappling, throwing, ground fighting, and a host of weapons larger and more varied than most people can imagine, there are Pencak Silat systems that specialize in each of these areas. When we extend to the use of the word Silat outside of Indonesia, the list of systems grows even more.

I don’t have anything approaching an accurate estimate of the number of Silat systems in the world, but I would guess it’s at least in the high hundreds, quite possibly over a thousand.

Kali vs Silat

Historically, there is a story of The Ten Datus who migrated from Borneo to what would later become the Philippines. Seven settled in Panay, two in Batangas, and one returned to Borneo. If this story is factual, then it lends credence to the possibility of a Pencak Silat influence in the roots of the Filipino martial arts.

Beyond that, there is Silat indigenous to the Southern Philippines so some Silat systems are Filipino martial arts.

To compare Kali vs Silat or Eskrima, Arnis vs Silat, though, is impossible. There are far too many systems of each art, and they cover too broad a scope of specialties to compare Kali vs Silat. You might compare two specific systems and, depending on which systems you compare, you might find a great deal of similarity or none at all.

It is common, though, at least in some parts of the world, to find Kali, Eskrima, or Arnis taught alongside, or blended with, Silat. Many instructors who train Southeast Asian arts cross train with others. If they find something compatible with their core training, they often integrate the two or teach them side by side.

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