Where Did Kuntao Originate?
Kuntao is a Hokkien Chinese dialect word for “Fist Way” or more colloquially, "martial arts". Generally Kuntao refers to martial arts with an origin in China. Although the specific use of this term throughout Southeast Asia denotes specific subsets of martial arts throughout the region all either an art from mainland China, an art influenced by Chinese martial arts or even non-Chinese martial art in regions where "Kuntao" became the generic word for martial arts. In the United States, some schools, including the authors, give a specific meaning to the term Kuntao, a set of attributes that define the art in a way that the absence of some or all of these attributes mean the art being observed is "not Kuntao."
So where did the term Kuntao come from?
“Hokkien is a Southern Min language originating from the Minnan region in the south-eastern part of Fujian Province in Southeastern Mainland China and spoken widely there.* Waves of migration from this area to SouthEast Asia created a Chinese diaspora.” It is from this diaspora that various martial arts found themselves labeled as “Kuntao” (or Kuntau or various other romanizations) for several distinct reasons that could include: 1.) Martial Arts with Chinese origins prior to WW2, 2.) Martial arts with modern Chinese influence, and 3.) Silat styles that may or may not have Chinese influence, but still use the word Kuntao in their name as a “general term” for martial arts. In other words, Kuntao has many meanings depending on when and where the term was applied to a school of martial arts, and does not denote a single point of origin for them all or even guarantee that all schools of martial arts using this word are the same thing. This is because the word Kuntao came from the Hokien dialect of Chinese, and Hokien became the lingua franca of the Chinese diaspora in SE Asia.
“However, In Southeast Asia, Hokkien historically served as the lingua franca amongst overseas Chinese communities of all dialects and subgroups, and it remains today as the most spoken variety of Chinese in the region, including in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and some parts of Indochina (particularly Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia).** “
This second point shows that the use of Hokien terms does not demonstrate Hokien heritage exclusively to the martial arts labeled as Kuntao. On top of this, you must then consider;
“The Betawi Malay language, spoken by some five million people in and around the Indonesian capital Jakarta, includes numerous Hokkien loanwords due to the significant influence of the Chinese Indonesian diaspora, most of whom are of Hokkien ancestry and origin.”***
So, not only did the Chinese diasporia use Hokkien as a common tongue, the local Malays often adopted loan words from the dialect as well. Which is why, prior to the adoption of Behasa in Indonesia, you would find the term Kuntao used in some regions as the generic word for martial arts in general, specific styles in general, styles recognized as Chinese in origin or certain specific styles of Chinese or non-Chinese origin. Sure, that’s not confusing at all, but it does explain the many, many schools who are legitimate schools in their own right, who use the term “Kuntao”, but are not referring specifically to same thing when we discuss Kuntao Silat.
Also note, there can be a variety of romanizations that include Kuntau, Kuntaw, etc. Because of the wide usage of the term, today you see it used with arts that are very different from the old school Kuntao styles.
Where Did Kuntao Silat originate?
As noted in the book "Weapons and Fighting Arts of Indonesia" by Don F Draeger, Indonesia is a place where great cultures met. It was at times a violent crucible of conflict and a place of unity and beauty. In the history of our school, much of the stated "lineage" is limited to a few generations and many of those stories often don't provide the kind of historical certainty that people who study Japanese or Chinese martial arts expect. It seems that the story or history rarely went very far back, and served to thank parent, Uncle, grandparent or village "uncle" for sharing the art. The idea of "branding" a lineage was less important than the usefulness of the martial art. This isn't to say there are not systems that have documented histories in Indonesia. Just that for many, it isn't documented as studiously as countries where the culture put more emphasis on such things. So let's get into the details.
What we know about the origins of Kuntao Silat.
Both Malabar Kuntao Silat and American Kuntao Silat had their origin with Pak Steve Gartin. He studied intensely with both Dutch-Indonesian and Indonesian teachers. On the Dutch-Indonesian side, the primary influence came from Pukulan Pencak Silat Serak and to a lesser extent silat styles such as Cimande, Bondo Waso, and others. The Kuntao influence included teachings that have been traced back to "pre-Islamic" Shangdong long fist as well as a branch of the internal arts from Hunan province. His Indonesian teacher practiced a pure form of Kuntao referred to as "Maempo" or "To play" and integrated advanced body mechanics with unique training of the practitioners body/mind to develop specific attributes associated with the highest levels of what we speak of when we refer to Kuntao.
The base of our Kuntao Silat art, supplies the basics, the foundation, the highly efficient beginners skills that come from the Dutch-Indo lineage, while the advanced study comes from our Indonesian teachers art of Maempo. This combination of skills, enhanced by the high-level martial artists that come to study it keep the art alive. For its origin lives with every practitioner. Kuntao Silat is a living art, it only exists when you are practicing it. Every generation serves to keep it alive, as a practical heritage that in turn, helps keep those who practice the art and their friends, family and country, alive.
Note: Some of these ideas were first presented by Dr. Phillip H Davies in the Journal of Asian Martial Arts. His scholarly work around Silat and Kuntao is well worth seeking out if you have an interest in such things.
*(all)Source: Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hokkien