We should first establish what we mean by pencak silat. Generally speaking, pencak silat- or simply silat- refers to the indigenous martial arts of Indonesia. However, the word indigenous can be misleading; Indonesia is an archipelago consisting of many thousands of islands. Because of differing definitions as to what constitutes an island, sources disagree as to the precise number, which ranges from nearly 9,000 to over 18,000. And because of the history of Indonesia being the primary melting pot of Asia, with multiple waves of foreign conquest and colonization, each of its islands developed relatively distinct forms of martial arts: The martial arts of Java, for instance, were far more strongly influenced by the Chinese due to generations of immigration from Fujian, China; conversely, the martial arts of Bali- the only island in Indonesian that is predominantly Hindu rather than predominantly Muslim- still lean towards being stylistically Indian.
And so what is it, really?
There are purists who argue that silat- or at least their tradition of silat- is "purely" Indonesian. With these we would respectfully disagree. "Pure" martial arts exist virtually nowhere in the world- and in Indonesia least of all. Because the evolution of the martial arts- that is, of the art of war- implies and entails contact with other cultures, and not only contact, but conflict and conquest. The martial arts exist because of cultural collision; "purity" is an academic idea with little reality underlying it.
Consider that even Chinese gongfu, which has been influenced by a millenia-long history of monasticism, was largely Indian in origin, having first been brought to the Shaolin Temple by the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, known by the monks as Damo. There are no "pure" martial arts in the absolute sense; there are only relatively "pure" martial arts, those that have been intermixed comparatively less than other, more strongly-intermixed martial arts. Proof of the point is easily provided: Chinese waijia gongfu, as has already been mentioned, is Indian in origin; the waijia gongfu arts of the Shaolin Temple in turn influenced the neijia gongfu arts of Wudang Mountain- and vice versa; even Bruce Lee's Jeet Kune Do was influenced by boxing, fencing, and other Western martial arts, and is itself rooted in another martial art entirely, Wing Chun, which was in turn influenced by a neijia martial art known as Xingyiquan; meanwhile, there is clearly bi-directional influence between the Korean martial arts (for instance, hapkido) and the Japanese martial arts (for instance, aikido); the Philippine martial arts- generally known as kali but also sometimes referred to as eskrima- have clearly been influenced by Spanish swordsmanship; finally, we have modern mixed martial arts (MAA)- for instance, Gracie Jiu-jitsu-, which are admittedly absent of purity in any sense of the word. And yet we are to believe that Indonesia, which is quite possibly the most multi-cultural melting pot in all of Asia, has somehow succeeded in developing a "pure" martial art?
There is no "pure" pencak silat; there is only pencak silat- in all its bastard glory. And so we would submit that pencak silat, although obviously originating in Indonesia geographically, has a widely multi-cultural origin when viewed from the point of view of formally and technically- that is, with regards to how its manner and method relate to those of other martial arts: It has very clearly been influenced by Chinese gongfu, not to mention Thai boxing, Philippine knife fighting, and even the arts of Japan via the Japanese occupation of Indonesia during World War II. Incidentally, this general insight applies quite strongly to Javanese pencak silat- and therefore to Zenshida'i Silat. For Zenshida'i Silat was brought to the United States by Willy Wetzel, whose own style of pencak silat was itself influenced at the very least by both kuntau & gongfu; Willy Wetzel's master, after all, was Chinese rather than Indonesian, after all (contrary to popular myth).
But that is a discussion for another time...
Willy Wetzel referred to Cimande Pencak Silat as "a broken mirror system." In other words, the Cimande tradition was characterized by the fact that it had fused various systems together into a singular system. And that fusion is critical, for although silat is far from "pure," neither is it chaotic, haphazard, or disjointed. Because the fusion that characterizes silat is total- that is, there is no line of demarcation separating its constituent parts; it is truly greater than the sum of its parts.
And that, ultimately, is what silat is all about: picking up the pieces, fusing them together, and thus creating something new, better, and stronger.
~ Joshua van Asakinda