Justin Ma's Notes on Traditional Chinese Archery

NEW BOOK: The Way of Archery

It's been a long road, but we finally did it! The Way of Archery: A 1637 Chinese Military Training Manual (written by Jie Tian and myself) is a new book on Ming Chinese military archery technique that is now available for purchase. Please check the official web site for the book for more information, as well as updates on teaching events related to the book.

INTRO

A desire to renew the connection with my heritage is one of the main reasons that I pursued traditional Chinese archery starting December 2009. The other reasons are that I enjoy the bare bones challenge, as traditional Chinese archery has no need for the shelves, sights and stabilizers used in modern archery. And I enjoy continually learning new things about this art, whether it's a new archaeological discovery that sheds light on what ancient Chinese bows and arrows looked like, or whether it's an ``Aha!'' moment in practice. Finally, I enjoy the intrinsic diversity of Chinese archery, as it encompasses many styles of equipment (bows, arrows, etc) and schools of thought.

I'd like these notes to serve as an evolving reference (with external pointers to more in-depth resources) for those who are interested in starting traditional Chinese archery. Because very few people teach Chinese style in the US, I struggled early to find the right learning resources. I hope these notes can point beginners to the right places so they can find a more direct path to enjoying this martial art.

Other styles of Asian archery (for example, Mongolian, Tibetan, Korean, Japanese, Turkish, Arabian, Persian) have a lot in common with the Chinese style, but they also have their own unique characteristics. If you're interested in learning more about other Asian styles, I encourage you to visit the links provided in the background section. You may still find my equipment recommendations useful.


RECENT CHANGES

April 5, 2017: Updated with new video about gaozhen practice under the Technique section.

April 2, 2017: Updated with new videos under the Technique section showing Gao Ying's Double-Hook and a recent form practice with a horn composite bow.

May 1, 2015: Updated the Thumb Protection section to discuss Vermil thumb rings, a usable ring that is now readily available.

February 19, 2015: Happy Year of the Sheep! We have a new thumb ring intro video in the Technique section.

August 11, 2014: A new book written by Jie Tian and me is available for pre-order (the official release date is February 2015). It is called The Way of Archery: A 1637 Chinese Military Training Manual, and you can find more information about it at this site.

August 7, 2014: A new video demonstrating Gao Ying's Inchworm Method now in Technique.

April 17, 2014: Latest video demonstrating Gao Ying's Inchworm Method now in Technique.

October 4, 2013: New updated demo videos in Technique demonstrating Gao Ying's Inchworm Method. Updated About the Author section.

April 16, 2013: Updated my demo video Technique to reflect my latest understanding of Gao Ying's form.

February 15, 2012: Updated my quick demo video in the Technique section to reflect some of the latest developments in my technique.

November 25, 2011: Updated the Thumb Protection section to discuss how to make a folded leather thumb guard, the kind I currently use for my normal shooting.

November 21, 2011: Added a link to the Mariner Bows Web site.

October 25, 2011: One of these days, I'll have a new section discussing how to grip the bow. For the time-being, I've removed the old section. Also, I've added a quick preview for Mariner Traditional Chinese Bows.

July 1, 2011: Updated the Historical Bows and Bows You Can Buy sections.

June 20, 2011: Revised descriptions of the Chinese draw hand technique. It turns out that the Chinese indeed used the 3-finger draw during earlier periods in their history.

April 12, 2011: Revised description of the Chinese draw length, as well as recommendations on equipment.



TUTORIAL VIDEOS

Stephen Selby, founder of the Asian Traditional Archery Research Network (ATARN), has been at the forefront of the Chinese traditional archery revival. Among his other archery research activities, he has produced a really nice tutorial on Chinese archery. I highly recommend watching them before you read the rest of these notes.



BACKGROUND

Archery was thoroughly embedded in Chinese culture and history for thousands of years, permeating legends, rituals and military practices. It was one of the Six Noble Arts as early as the Zhou period, and Confucius himself was an archery teacher. Archery was easily the most prestigious of the martial arts, as the author of Wu Bei Zhi (a famous Ming Dynasty military encyclopedia) wrote: ``The bow is the primary among all weapons, so those who write of military affairs write first about bows and arrows.'' Yet despite its rich history, traditional Chinese archery was on the brink of extinction in the 20th century.

However in the 21st century, the art is experiencing a revival thanks to the determined efforts of craftsmen, researchers, promoters and enthusiasts.

For an in-depth discussion of archery traditions in Chinese history and culture, Stephen Selby's ``Chinese Archery'' is a great reference.

The ATARN site features nice articles on Asian archery, and the ATARN forum has a lot of friendly, knowledgeable people willing to answer your questions. China Archery is a blog featuring a nice variety of articles on Chinese archery. Finally, the Chinese Archery Wikipedia article provides a high-level summary.


TECHNIQUE

Here are quick videos of me and other folks shooting in the traditional Chinese style:




My current technique is derived from Gao Ying's books, which date to 1637 AD. Gao Ying was an archery teacher from the late Ming dynasty. However, there is no such thing as a ``standard'' way to practice Chinese archery --- there exist many variations that differ in philosophy, mental approach, whether to follow through with the bow/draw hands, how high to anchor the arrow during the draw, how far to draw the bow, and so on. Nonetheless, all these variations have shared, fundamental characteristics:

  1. Thumb and 3-finger draw (updated 6/20/2011)






    The Chinese most commonly used the thumb draw, as did many Asian peoples such as the Mongolians, Koreans, Japanese, Turks, Arabs, and in later periods the Indians and Persians. Even the Romans used the thumb draw. However, during earlier times (e.g., the Zhou dynasty archery rituals), the 3-finger draw was popular at the same time as the thumb draw. The rest of these notes will discuss technique related to the thumb draw.

  2. Nocking the arrow without looking at your hand

    This way, you can focus your attention on the target (especially important while riding on horseback). Getting the ``correct'' feather orientation becomes less important because the emphasis is nocking the arrows quickly.

  3. Proper body alignment

    Good, strong posture is important. This is a martial art, after all.

  4. Instinctive aiming

    You have to feel it. This is especially the case if you are holding the arrow below eye level. Your brain does a lot of subconscious calculus when you throw a ball --- you'll have to develop the same instinct for shooting an arrow.

    Adam Karpowicz describes a concrete method for developing this instinct via "geometric" aiming. You first start aiming by triangulating reference points (taking into account the relative positions of the target, the arrowhead, and the grip at a given distance). As you practice and develop accuracy, your brain will subconsciously adjust, and you will eventually think less and less about the reference points and focus more on the target.

    Of course, you will want to try shooting at a variety of distances to improve your instinctive aiming. Another great way to develop instinct is by shooting on field archery trails, which have targets at a variety of elevations. Dynamic exercises such as shooting while walking or hopping on one leg will also develop intuition (and force you to improve your arrow nocking ability). After all, shooting from horseback is far from a stationary activity, and hunting for food almost never involves pre-marked distances.

  5. Emphasis on mental focus

    This is pretty self-explanatory. :)

The above-mentioned tutorial videos are a great starting point for picking up technique.

Updated (10/25/2011): I used to believe that the "Chinese" draw length had to be long. But it turns out that a huge variety of draw lengths from very short (draw hand near the front shoulder) to very long (draw hand well past the face) were used over time in China. My current draw length is actually 30". Ultimately, the ideal draw length for each person will be different, so you will have to explore what is comfortable and accurate for you.


EQUIPMENT

HISTORICAL BOWS

Just a few of the different Ming dynasty (1368--1644 AD) bows.
Chinese bows from other eras had different shapes.

For the most part, Chinese bows are static recurves, where rigid ``ears'' of the bow face away from the archer when unstrung. One of the most fun aspects of Chinese archery is that there is no single, archetypal ``Chinese'' bow design. In fact, at least 7 different designs became popular over the course of Chinese history. These designs could fall into one of several broad categories [along with their approximate time period]:

  1. Scythian horn bows [Zhou Dynasty]
  2. Wood composites [Warring States Period through Han Dynasty]
  3. Wood selfbows
  4. Xiongnu-inspired horn bows [up through Song Dynasty]
  5. Imperial Mongol horn bows [Yuan Dynasty]
  6. Turkish-inspired horn bows [Ming Dynasty] (these are close relatives of the Korean horn bow)
  7. Manchu horn bows [Qing Dynasty]

Potentially, there are more types to be discovered. I am looking forward to collecting bows of each style. [For more information, see Stephen Selby's article ``The Bows of China'' in the Journal of Chinese Martial Studies, Winter 2010 Issue 2.]


BOWS YOU CAN BUY

Archery can be an expensive hobby, especially when it comes to buying bows. Bows made from traditional materials (horn, wood/bamboo, sinew, fish bladder glue) can run in the $1000--$2500 range. However, if you're looking for more affordable bows (up to $400), then here are some ideas on what to get. If there is sufficient interest, I may add sections describing options for mid-range ($400--$1000) and high-end ($1000 and up) bows.


Mariner Traditional Chinese Bows: I am a reseller for Mariner (水手) Traditional Chinese Bows. Mariner's bows have gained an outstanding reputation in China for their quality and craftsmanship. They are handmade, custom-built bows featuring a bamboo core and fiberglass laminations. I highly recommend them for beginning to intermediate archers because they are efficient, comfortable, and have very little hand shock. They come in a variety of styles and sizes to suit the needs and tastes of different archers. The following are just a few pictures of the Ming, Han, and Qing dynasty models.

Please visit the the Mariner Traditional Chinese Bows Web site for more details.


Other bows: I can also recommend several other options for bow that are shootable for shooting in the traditional Chinese style.

  • Kaya Black Shadow [approx $250 retail]
    This is a good bow to learn with, and it is especially conducive to learning the Chinese grip technique because the Black Shadow's handle is narrow.

If this is your first time shooting with the thumb draw, please do not start with a bow that is too heavy or you risk injuring yourself before you have a chance to get used to the technique. As the tutorial video recommends, start with bow that is 35# or under. Some people recommend starting with a cheap, light fiberglass bow from a sporting goods store before spending money on a more substantial bow.


ARROWS

Because the traditional Chinese technique entails shooting without a shelf, there are several criteria you want to keep in mind while selecting your arrows.

For shaft material, I recommend bamboo, carbon or aluminum. Wood arrows (e.g., cedar or spruce) are tricky because they might be brittle, may not be straight, or may chafe and splinter during use --- this can be especially dangerous since you are resting the arrow on your bare hand. Make sure you buy from a quality supplier if you get wood arrows. For aluminum, Easton Gamegetter shafts are an inexpensive and reliable option. For carbon, Gold Tip Traditional Hunter shafts are also affordable and reliable. Carbon Express Heritage arrows are a good option for carbon as well. You can consult the manufacturer's spine charts to give you an idea of what spine to get. Release technique may vary individual to individual, so you may require a slightly stiffer spine or a slightly more flexible spine. The best way to find out is to prepare a small test kit of arrows with different spines but the same mass.

For fletching, I recommend feathers. Traditional Chinese arrows used long, low-profile fletching (no taller than the thickness of the shaft). Since I do not use custom fletch cutters, I typically order 4'' or 5'' parabolic feathers. If the front tip of the fletching feels hard and plastic-like (due to a flaw in the manufacturing process), you may want to use a file to rub it down (so it is less likely to slice your hand during a shot). I have not shot arrows with plastic vanes, as I am uncertain whether the semi-rigid plastic would injure the hand.

For nocks, using plastic is fine. Using self-nocked arrows is more traditional.

For the arrowhead, field points or target points work fine (I have even seen people using used bullet shells as arrow points). The vast majority of public ranges do not allow broadheads.





THUMB PROTECTION

  • Rings

    A properly designed thumb ring will relieve pressure from the thumb better than a leather thumb tab/guard. The trick is to make sure string is sitting just outside the opening of the ring, or between the lip and the string guard (if there is one). The sides of your thumb joint and your thumb pad support the weight, and the amount of pressure the string applies to your skin should be close to zero.

    Rings made by Vermil Archery are available in various sizes and are available for sale at The Cinnabar Bow. Please visit the Rings page for details.



  • Tabs

    Soft leather tab: For the thumb tab in the photos below, I've taken two strips of leather whose length covers the bottom half of my thumb pad and the top half of my thumb's proximal (lower) segment. The two strips stacked together have a total thickness of 3.5 mm (I've comfortably pulled a 50# bow with this tab). Finally, I punch holes at the corners to thread a segment of leather lace, which I tie around my thumb in a square knot.




    A few paper-sized sheets of scrap leather will cost around $2. Be sure to select pieces that are smooth and flexible. I'm using stoned leather, but calf hair or latigo seem promising (although latigo could be a bit stiff at first). Using a leather thumb tab that is too sticky will noticeably slow down your release.

    It's possible (and cheaper) to cut a thumb tab and lace as one piece. However, I prefer to spend the money on a leather hole puncher ($12--$19) and 1/8'' thick leather lace ($6) because cutting out simple shapes and tying multiple strips of leather is easier for me. And I can easily make extra thumb tabs for my friends.


  • Thumb Guards

    If you have a little more time on your hands, you can construct a folded leather thumb guard that is easier to wear (you don't have to retie the string each time you use it) and will better protect you for higher draw weights. See the Picasa album below for instructions. I have successfully used this design for bows up to 50# so far.
    How to Make a Leather Thumb Guard
  • Tape

    You could also wrap multiple layers of thick athletic or medical tape around your thumb. You will have to make sure the part of the tape touching the string is not sticky.


OPTIONAL ACCESSORIES

You don't need a protective bow glove or arm guard if you are holding your bow hand in the correct way. But if you are just starting out, having such protection may not be a bad idea.

Putting a nock point indicator on the bow string is optional, but it can certainly help with your consistency. I don't believe any of the historical Chinese sources ever mentioned putting a nock point indicator on the string. With or without an indicator on the string, you'll want the arrow to be perpendicular or pointing slightly downward when nocked --- you don't want the arrow pointing upward when nocked.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Justin is a software engineer who received his PhD in Computer Science from UC San Diego. He is also an avid traditional Chinese archery practitioner specializing in the study and revival of Chinese military archery technique. Justin is proprietor of The Cinnabar Bow, a traditional archery equipment distributor whose mission is to raise international awareness of skilled bow makers in China. He teaches thumb ring shooting for the California Centaurs horseback archery club, maintains the Bay Area Asian Archery mailing list, and also provides introductory lessons to Chinese archery in Northern and Southern California. Justin has been an invited speaker on the topic of Ming military archery at the 2013 and 2014 Chinese Archery Program in Georgia, USA (at which he was also an instructor), as well as the Society for the Preservation of Traditional Archery’s 2013 St. George’s Shoot in Somerset, England. He is the gold medalist (and set the benchmark record) for the “Modern Asiatic 50#” division in the 2013 Flight Archery Championships. He is also a certified USA Archery Level 2 Instructor.

Previously, Justin was involved in Chinese Wushu: he competed for 11 years and was a US Wushu Team athlete in 2001 and 2003; after retiring from competition in 2003, he went on to be the representative judge for the US in the 2005 World Wushu Championships and 2006 World Junior Wushu Championships; he was tournament director for the 2006 US Junior Wushu Team Trials and the 2007 US Wushu Team Trials.

If you have questions or comments on these notes, please feel free to contact him at jtma@cinnabarbow.org.