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The Fighting Art of Peisai Diri
By Quintin Chambers and Donn F. Draeger
(Kodansha International Ltd., 1978, 128 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
The blurb on the inside of the front cover of Javanese Silat: The Fighting Art of Perisai Diri, states: “This is the only full-scale training manual in English to organize, illustrate, and explain the fighting art of Perisai Diri.” Since it was published in 1978, that may well have been true at the time, though undoubtedly by now there are others on this art.
The two authors are no slouches when it comes to martial arts expertise. Chambers also co-authored, Stick Fighting: Techniques of Self-Defense (Kodansha International Ltd. 1981) with with Masaski Hatsumi, the founder of Bujinkin Organization and headmaster of nine Japanese martial arts schools. Draeger’s biography and bibliography are even more impressive. He “was an internationally known teacher and practitioner of Japanese martial arts…[who] helped make the study of martial arts an acceptable topic of academic research.” (1) Between 1961 and 1982, he authored or co-authored fourteen books, importantly for martial artists of all schools, Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts, co-authored with Robert W. Smith.
Javanese Silat is a straightforward instruction manual, containing the basic background of the art, its principles, and instruction in its techniques. While Silat has a long history among the Maylay peoples of the Indonesian Archipelago—and the island of Java in particular—the particular version of the art discussed in the book is relatively recent. Called Perisai Diri, or PD for short, it was developed by R. M. S. Dirdjoatmodjo, who was the art’s spiritual master until his death in 1983.
The authors launch into their brief history by saying that their intention is not to relate the full spectrum of Silat and PD legends but to distill them down to a single one that highlights Silat’s “powerful intellectual stimulation and guiding moral principles.” (p. 9) This involves a youth who observed a fragile flower caught in an eddy on the lip of a waterfall. The current continually swept the flower to the brink, only to circle it back to safety. From this, the youth determined that the best combat techniques embody the ability to remain light and agile in order to keep away from opponents, while simultaneously offering the opportunity to destroy those opponents. (p. 9–10)
Truthfully, the history discussed in this book is somewhat limited, Those seeking a more thorough—though poorly written—exposition of PD, should check out the Wikipedia page on the subject. (HERE)
But the principles relayed by the book are well stated. They begin with the idea that the defensive response is paramount, requiring agility, flexibility, speed, adaptability, clever maneuvers, and the use of proper stances and angles. The authors write that the Silat exponent “should reflect on…its three different levels of application: (1) Purely as a response to physical attack already launched, a countertactic; (2) as a response to a physical attack being launched but not yet fully developed, a simultaneously blended but overriding action; and (3) as a response to an impending attack, literally beating the foe to the punch.” (p. 11)
Thus, Silat is similar to Tai Chi in that it is primarily a defensive art that requires initial energy from the aggressor to give the Silat exponent something to which he can respond. But also as with Tai Chi, if the aggressor is reluctant to initiate an attack, there are feints and other resources the exponent can utilize to draw out the opponent initiation of energy.
Following these principles is a chapter on the background of PD, which the authors say is a system is modeled on the movements of animals and that responds to attacks “with a bewildering sequence of posture changes and displacements that make liberal use of of both linear and rotary actions applied, out of preference, from upright postures. All displacement movements are highly staccato in nature, and there is an easily discernible and unforgettable rhythmic, pulselike flow of action as the exponent moves and changes posture. (p. 13) PD is, in addition, a somewhat deceptive art. Often the exponent will approach a combat situation casually, though usually maintaining a focus on an inverted triangle superimposed over the opponent, with it’s vertex at the groin.
Technically, all these elements impart six principal attributes:
1) Maximum technical precision
2) Optimum speed in reflex action
3) Unfailing reaction appropriate to any emergency situation
4) Maximum physical strength
5) Enduring patience
6) Everlasting tranquility
A chapter on spirituality follows, in which PD is described as a Muslim martial art. While adherence to Islam is not required, the authors state, it is helpful. That might be, though I am not knowledgeable enough in Silat to determine if that statement is accurate. But being longtime practitioner of Tai Chi, I can say that one must delve into Taoism to understand some of Tai Chi’s more profound meanings, so maybe Silat does require adherence to Islam to comprehend its deeper aspects. A series of verbal descriptions accompanied by photos are included that demonstrate the proper way the PD adherent makes praise to Allah.
Stances and postures come next, taking in those inspired by human anatomy and animal movements. Next is a chapter on weapons and vital areas. Weapons, here, does not mean actual weapons of any sort, but instead refers to the both physical and psychological resources and the vulnerabilities of the human body. These might be the natural vulnerabilities—akin to the ways joints can be overextended as well as to the “cavities” utilized in the Chinese martial arts. They also can be the ways a person is protected, not just by blocks and parries but by a range of things, from his attitude to the clothes he wears, which can both protect from strikes and inhibit movement. It also can mean taking advantage of the terrain and noting whether it is sloped or rough. Thus, the PD exponent is trained to take in all aspects of a potential combat situation.
More obviously, weapons refers to specific anatomical tools—the way the fist is formed or which part of the foot executes the terminus of a kick, for example. These discussions are accompanied by photos of fist and hand techniques and different kicks and other strikes against specific targets, all of which are pretty standard throughout the Asian martial arts. PD kicks, however, are limited to no higher than the solar plexus. Next is a chapter on training exercises, describing the ways in which series of techniques are to be performed rather than demonstrating specific techniques.
Then comes the lengthy chapter on specific training exercises, and this is where this book varies from the usual martial arts instruction manual. It seems that PD doesn’t employ katas or forms but focuses instead on techniques, either alone or in a series too short to be termed a kata or form. These techniques are flexible in that they can be mixed-and-matched as a situation requires. What the following pages here show, instead, are a number of training exercises that impart the art’s combat techniques, often requiring two, or sometimes more, people who engage in one another using those techniques. The two practitioners face off and trade roles as aggressor and defender as they use various attack and defense maneuvers against one another. Each series of attack and defense is described with text, and there are numerous photos to show what is going on.
The final chapter is on self-defense applications against specific situations, and the material here is pretty standard fare.
I definitely learned something about Silat, and I only have two complaints regarding the book. First, the writing style, though not faulty, is somewhat stiff. This, however, in no way detracts from the content. The second complaint is that the black-and-white photos are too small to adequately depict what is going on between the combatants. However, on the plus side, PD’s founder, Master Dirdjoatmodjo, participated in the development of this book, and there are many photos of him demonstrating the techniques.
(1) “Donn F. Draeger.” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donn_F._Draeger