by Marcella Cheng
The contemporary health and fitness craze of these recent years has seen a resurge of interest in martial arts in hopes of relearning the ancient ways of reconnecting with one’s body. While gym-goers might be more familiar with the more sport-heavy Muay Thai, few know of the beautiful but deadly martial art whose home is rooted deep within Indonesia’s history; Pencak Silat.
Being a practitioner of Taekwondo and Karate myself, I took a strong interest in researching the more secretive martial art that originated from my birth country, Indonesia. Like many ancient practices, Pencak Silat’s true historic origin appears to be an elusive mystery, though most have recorded its origin from the study of animal movements. Interestingly, many legends have attributed women as the originators of the art, such as in West Java “whose Cimande style is said to derive from a woman emulating the movements of a tiger fighting with a monkey” (Clarke 2010). Indeed, unlike most Muslim countries, women are encouraged to practice martial arts in Indonesia (Fight Quest, 2005).
(All illustrations by Marcella Cheng)
Perhaps the most defining traits of Pencak Silat that set it apart from other martial arts, is how it uses “a beauty of action, fluidity, and quickness” in a “dancelike rhythm” (Draeger 1972), that stands in sharp contrast to its deadly movements. One of the hosts of the Discovery Channel TV show “Fight Quest”, emphasised the difference in the hand movements in particular to modern day arts; While most arts keep arms tucked in close to the body to protect it, Pencak Silat boasts elaborate and intricate twisting of hands and arms to distract the opponent. Watching these “dances” myself, I am heavily reminded of a snake charmer lulling its prey in preparation to strike.
Another curious aspect of Pencak Silat is how its practice has been shaped by its history. Pencak Silat itself is an umbrella term (much like the word Kung Fu) to encase a variety of styles and variations of the art. Maryono gives thorough examples on how it is practiced in different areas: as a sport and recreation for the Sundanese, and in West Sumatra as a public dance form and self-defence for their travelling youth. Interestingly, the more deadly and military aspects of Pencak Silat seem to have flourished during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia, in which the art was either suppressed in many areas, or mixed and encouraged with Japanese martial arts such as Judo, Jujitsu and Kendo. Later during the Dutch occupation of Indonesia, Pencak Silat evolved yet again to a more brutal, guerilla style warfare that proved far more deadly in the terrain compared to clumsy firearms of the enemy. These aspects of Indonesian history have shaped Pencak Silat into the mesmerising martial art it is today.
All illustrations by me (Marcella Cheng)
Pencak Silat, 2008, television program, Fight Quest, Discovery Channel, USA, 28 January.
Clarke, D. 2010, “What is Pencak Silat”, viewed 28 Jan 2017,
<< http://southerncrossbujutsu.com.au/pencak-silat/what-is-pencak-silat.aspx >>
Draeger, D. 1972 “The Weapons and Fighting Arts of Indonesia”; Charles E. Tuttle Company Japan, p.33.
Maryono, O. 1999, “Pencak Silat in the Indonesian Archipelago”, Rapid Journal Vol 4 No.2, << http://www.kpsnusantara.com/rapid/rapid1.htm >>
Maryono, O. 2002, “The Militarisation of Pencak Silat during the Japanese Occupation and the Era of Revolution”, Rapid Journal Vol 6, No.
<< http://www.kpsnusantara.com/rapid/rapid10.htm >>