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Nunchaku: History, Technique and Use in Filipino Martial Arts

I think Bruce Lee made the nunchaku famous. Watching him flail away at attackers with the scary looking weapon, on screen of course, was quite impressive and created quite a nunchaku craze in the 1970s and a good part of the 1980s. I was a pre-teen in the early 80s and also began training in martial arts back then, so I was affected by the craze. I certainly had my own pair of nunchaku and got many bumps and bruises until I learned to respect the weapon. “Respect the weapon” is a fairly common phrase in martial arts circles and it means to be careful. You learn a lot training with weapons.

The weapon itself consists of two sticks about a foot or a foot and a half long, connected by a chain or rope that’s about three-five inches. The wielder swings the weapon in various patterns for fun or self-defense.

Needless to say, it can be unwieldy. It takes some practice to learn to use the thing safely and effectively. The fact that it’s unwieldy is why it really isn’t my favorite weapon. I’d rather use some Eskrima sticks, they’re more versatile and easier to use and more easily found in street situations.

By the same token, they can be used, with some modification to movement, like an Eskrima stick. In fact, in Filipino martial arts, all weapons can be used the same way; the weapon changes, not the principles.

Here we will explore the origin of the nunchaku, some basics in terms of technique and how it is used in Filipino martial arts specifically.

By Marxer001 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

History of the Nunchaku

People in the martial arts world like to debate things. One thing debated is the origin of weapons, particularly Okinawan weapons, for some reason. Here, I’m going to go mainly by what I’ve heard of the origins of the nunchaku during my training, maybe explore a bit of what else is said about its origin.

I had heard, from the beginning, that the nunchaku originated in Okinawa, after the Japanese had taken over the island in 1609. The Japanese outlawed weapons, so the natives had to “improvise” to protect themselves. The handiest and best hidden-in-plain-sight weapons would be farming tools; the peasantry, essentially, developed fighting methods using their farming implements. One of these implements was the nunchaku. It is said that the tool, or weapon, was used to thresh rice; it was used as a flail to break grains from husks.

Now, people debate whether this is true, but no one can give proof of the actual origins of the weapon. To me, this story holds credence, because other Okinawan weapons have obvious farming tool origins; for instance, the Kama. The Kama is the same thing as a sickle, used to harvest crops by cutting them down in the field. To me, it’s logical that the nunchaku could have been another farming tool turned into self defense weapon like the Kama. Or, also, like the Filipino Bolo. The Bolo is one of the primary weapons in the Philippines, even used in World War Two against the Japanese invasion of the Islands, but also long before that. It is equivalent to a machete, also used to cut down crops or to cut down bush to make your way through the jungle.

It has also been said that the nunchaku is a copy of the Chinese two-sectional staff, which is a weapon basically of the same structure as the nunchaku. This is also plausible, because much of Asian martial arts have their origin in China.

At any rate, I still consider the farm implement story legitimate, seems plausible that the people, being restricted would resort to veiled ways of keeping their weapons of self-defense.

Doug Smit, Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Nunchaku Techniques

For this section, I’m mainly going to stick to the way the nunchaku is used in Filipino martial arts. My weapons training is primarily in the Filipino arts and I understand the principles of these systems.

The main principle of the Filipino arts is that all technique can be translated, across the board, empty-handed or with various weapons. So, what you can do with an Eskrima stick, you can also do empty-handed, with a knife or with a nunchaku. If you know the Eskrima lines of attack then you will know how to swing a nunchaku.

Here are some good basic lines of attack used in Filipino Martial Arts.

Also, tricks done with the weapon are different than actual self defense applications with the weapon. For instance, even with the fancy Balisong (Butterfly Knife) you would not use fancy tricks with it in a real self-defense situation. You’d open it with two hands and proceed to defend yourself; no fancy flipping it for show. The benefit of the Balisong is that it can be hidden and used when necessary.

So, same with the nunchaku. Actually, self-defense application of the weapon is kept very basic; because it needs to be. The video below is a good example of this.

As already stated, if you understand the basic lines of attack in Eskrima, then you will understand how to swing a nunchaku. To put simply, you can swing it downward and diagonally, inwardly and outwardly, in a figure-eight pattern; you can also swing it horizontally; you can swing it upward and diagonally in a figure-eight pattern. And, of course, you can swing it vertically.

The weapon builds up tremendous momentum because it is a flexible weapon. For this reason, it has the advantage of doing maximum damage with less effort on your part. I think the video below shows how this is so, and also the value of having good control of the weapon to use it with ease and skill.

As you can imagine, if someone came at you with a knife, and you are coordinated and accurate, you could have the attacker disarmed and disabled quickly. The other thing you might notice is that the weapon gives you a decent reach advantage. If you want to keep someone away who has a knife, a nunchaku would be a good tool to use. However, if the attacker has an even longer weapon than the nunchaku, you no longer have this advantage. Another advantage to using the chuks is that you can spin it into another strike, into multiple strikes, swiftly if you are skilled at using the weapon.

listerineman, deviantART. Some rights reserved.

Bruce Lee, the guy who made the nunchaku famous, was said to be a natural at using it. His main student back in the day, Dan Inosanto, a black belt in Kenpo Karate and practitioner of Filipino arts, said that Bruce never used the weapon but picked it up one day and used it like he’d already been studying one of the Filipino styles. But I think that’s a testament to the fact that if you know some very sound and basic principles, and trust your own instincts, you can quickly pick up the use of the nunchaku.

The nunchaku continues to be a favorite among martial artists and is still admired by audiences for its flair when wielded by a skilled practitioner. Like Bruce, the thing’s become iconic.

Featured image: By T4LLBERG (http://www.flickr.com/photos/t4llberg/5828882565/) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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