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Traditional Chinese Archery: Here’s What You Need to Know

traditional Chinese archery
Written by Carolina Pina

You must have heard of the Stone Age but what you may not know is that it was also the age of archery. There are numerous shreds of evidence of the regular use of bows whether compound bows or crossbows and the arrows in the past.

In 3000 BC, the ancient Egyptians used bows and arrows in their hunting and warfare. Afterward, the Shang dynasty (1766-1027 BCE) used archers on the chariots for warfare. Then the Zhou dynasty took archery to a whole another level: they added this in the military syllabus and asserted that one’s self is incomplete without the skill of archery.

In the modern age, despite the inventions of stronger firearms, archery still holds an important traditional value in Chinese culture. Let’s how archery developed over the ages in China, what were the different types of bows used, and the shooting techniques.

History of Chinese Archery

1. Development & Associations

Different types of archery have always held an important place in Chinese culture. The bow is considered to be the weapon of their souls. However, one can find the hint from the new Stone Age (the Neolithic period).

a. Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BCE)

It was used for hunting by the Chinese aristocrats. It was also a part of military techniques. Whenever the royal palace held any ceremony or festival, it was a common sight to see an archery competition. Apart from that, any leader from the conquered tribe received the title of ‘Archer-Lord,’ which shows its significance in ancient China. The officials from almost all fields, like warriors, administrators, and others, had to display their skilfulness with archery because it summed up their characters.

b. Zhou dynasty (1146-256 BCE)

Zhou dynasty had two of the greatest philosophers in history and masters of archery: Confucius and Lie Zi. Confucius proposed that it’s compulsory for students or for any individual to master the six essential arts to achieve self-perfection: rites, music, archery, chariotry, calligraphy, and mathematics. Furthermore, in this period, it was a sign of honor and was given to individuals who performed exceptionally on the battlefield.

Swordsmanship is now a common subject in the European literature, but Chinese manuscripts were also filled with The Way of Archery in the past. The stories include aiming at the enemy from a great distance, penetrating the helmet and armor, and many others.

Archery was a part of the military syllabus for a long time in post-Zhou dynasties: Han dynasty (206 BC-220), Tang dynasty (618-907), Song dynasty (960-1279), Ming dynasty (1368-1644), and lastly, Qing dynasty (1644-1912).

Then, there was a clash between the bow and the crossbow for a long time until the invention of the firearm, which replaced both these tools.

2. Materials & Design

In the Shang Dynasty, the bow was of two types: one-piece bow (of wood or buffalo’s horns) and composite bow (of eight pieces of separate bamboo sticks bound with the silk fabric).

For composite bows, people used different woods like wild mulberry, orange wood, silkwood throne, and others as per their physical attributes. Afterward, they bound the woods, horn, and bamboo together with glues and silk. These bows had better range and precision.

Moreover, they made glues with different vegetables and dead animals that contained adhesive starch. Next, they found the fish glue: they could make glue by heating the skin and bones of the fish. They coated the bow with lacquer to protect it from moisture. They made the string of the bow with bamboo, leather, and twisted silk fibers.

To everyone’s surprise, in the Shang period, people also made the recurved bow of almost every size. The size of the bow depended upon the physique and height of the man. They even had bows of the size of 1.65m (64.96 inches). The taller and healthier men used the larger bows.

These larger bows used 80-85 cm long arrows with almost 1 cm diameter. They used the cane, bamboo, reed, and wooden shafts. Wooden shafts were rare because they needed elite craftsmanship. They used wood, paper vanes, and bird feathers to make fletching. The fletching was approximately 10-15 cm long and 2 cm high. These fletchings enhanced the arrow’s stability.

In the Shang period, arrowheads were made of different materials, like shells, bones, bronze, copper, iron, and even stones. The most popular ones in that time were made from bones due to their weight and because they are carved easily.

There are still some specimens of bronze from the Shang period that are 9-10 cm long. In the Zhou period, the shape of the arrowhead changed: it changed from a raised central spine with tapering points to a projecting central ridge which gave it a third edge. Plus, this one had the distinguishing quality of penetrating the armor.

3. Use in Warfare

Archery always requires great skillfulness. We see in Chinese warfare, it held an important place. In the close-range ground combat, archers joined the infantry, and sometimes they were on chariots with a driver.

In 1250 BCE, the chariot archers came to the battlefield. In the 7th century BCE, the infantry carried the volleys of archers firing the arrows at the same time. In the 4th-3rd century BCE, Cavalry Archers came into the scene. Every traditional squad of five consisted of two archers at least. Their job was to save the armed infantry holding spears and halberds.

Therefore, with the arrival of the Han period (206 BCE-220 CE), it became a common practice to have an army of archers on your side to win a battle, which led to an increase in the popularity and need for archers. The bow was also one of the greatest defensive weapons for under-sieged cities.

Warring States period (481-221 BCE) first introduced the crossbow to the challenge of the bow. The Crossbow had everything which a traditional bow was lacking. It had far better range and penetration. Han’s army was particularly famous for their skills in handling the crossbow.

In the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE), the traditional bow crossed the crossbow’s popularity. Later in the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE), the crossbow regained its lost reputation with some great models with more precision and range.

Traditional Chinese Bows

1. Scythian Horn Bows

Scythian horn bows are unsymmetrical and have been found in the ruins of the Subeixi and Yanghai. These bows date back to the Zhou dynasty. These were considered to be very famous among Greeks and other European areas.

2. Longbows

Horn bows were not weather-friendly because the adhesive material (glue) used to bind their layers together melted and destroyed the bow. However, longbows were used in southern China where humid weather was prevalent. These bows were usually 1.59 m long with 3.4 cm in width. Their record can be found in the Han dynasty.

3. Long-siyah Horn Bows

Siyahs are the non-flexible end section of an Asiatic composite. Long-siyahs were favored from the Han to the Yuan dynasty. From Han to Jin period, the siyahs were long and thin; however, the working sections were short and big.

4. Manchurian Bow

The Manchurian bow was made in the Qing dynasty. It was a horn bow with large long siyah and string bridges. Its purpose was to give flight to the long and heavy arrows. These arrows had the best penetrating results. Afterward, one can see these bows’ impression in Mongolian bows.

5. Wood laminated bows

Wood laminated bows were widely popular because of their resistance to the humid climate. Multiple layers of bamboo, mulberry, and others were used to construct the reflexive wood laminate bow. Silk fibers banded the layers. These bows were 1.2-1.5 m long and were found in the Han dynasty.

6. Bamboo Bows

In the past, people made bamboo bows of bamboo sticks and different layers of other woods as well. Then, they wrapped them with silk fibers or used glue to bind them. These bamboo bows were famous for their flexibility which provided that much-needed explosion. Nowadays, bow manufacturers use mulberry to prepare risers and tips. They use glass phenolic for the string notches.

7. Fiberglass Bows

Fiberglass bows are made of fiberglass and have a laminated coating. These bows are great for beginners because they offer a greater amount of precision, power, and range. These bows are quite durable; you can use them in harsh weather conditions as well, and they won’t delaminate.

8. Ming dynasty horn bows

Ming dynasty brought out a variety of bows. In this period, the shorter bows became favorable like the short-siyah bow (siyahs were shorter and the string designed at a forward angle while resting), kaiyuan bow (small-medium sized bow), and others. These bows had the lacquer finishing.

Shooting Techniques

1. Straighten the Body, Hold the Bow Posture

For the perfect posture, your body needs to stand straight but not stiff. You should be calm and unrushed. All the enthusiasm should not look in physicality, but raise your inner spirit (shen). This is highly skillful and can only be achievable with practice. If you have any rush feeling or stress, you should not let it harm your performance.  You can never compromise on your posture if you want to hit the target.

With the concentrated spirit, focus on the target. Your whole body should be ready for any rapid but graceful movement.

2. Raise the Bow and Breath Posture

Raise your bow in front of your eyes; make sure your hands are neither too low nor too high. While lifting the bow, it should not bother your hands or shoulders. Don’t twist to one side. It is very important to understand that you have to inhale through the navel. For a convenient sight, try to fix the protectory at the shoulder level. Inhale through the navel, and then take a shot.

3. Draw the String Posture

You need to align your whole body to give the strength. Your shoulders, elbows, and back should equally provide the strength for drawing the bow. Pulling the string requires the attention of the whole for the focused shot. Your waist and knees need to be stiffen with an inhaled stomach.

If your string posture is right, only then you can hit a powerful shot.  If you don’t fulfill these requirements, you won’t be able to cover far off distances. Plus, there are chances you might miss the target.

4. Full Draw

Before fully drawing the bow, you need to check that the open chest bone, shoulders and elbows align perfectly in a straight line. When you draw a bow, place your front hand on the bow to take the stress and the other hand on the string.

In the meantime, the stomach inhales and the waist uses the inner strength. Then, this posture helps put all the strength together for the full draw. If you don’t use this combine balanced strength, there are 90 percent chances of missing the target.

5. Releasing posture

As already informed, the stress is on the front hand and the other one is drawing. In your releasing position, make sure that your front hand stays firm and steady. Your back palm will go back to the shoulder level and help with the straight shot.

Conclusion

Undoubtedly, the Chinese take immense pride and pay special respect to their centuries-old tradition of the skill of archery. The significance of archery can be seen from the fact that even this modern age is organizing different archery competitions.

About the author

Carolina Pina

A Passionate Toxophilite

Carolina believes that hunting is not about downing an animal; rather, it’s about enjoying the purity of this challenge and making a connection with nature. She loves country music, horses, shooting, and hunting; and spends her weekends in the great outdoors with her husband and two kids.

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