What Does Kuntao Really Mean?

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).