A group photograph of an archery class or society.  Ogden Cigarette Card, circa 1901.
A group photograph of an archery class or society.  Note that one individual leads a horse while another carries a large wall mounted gun. Ogden Cigarette Card, circa 1901.

Introduction: Archery and the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts

I have recently been reading Stephen Selby’s book Chinese Archery (2000, Hong Kong University Press).  It is a very important contribution to the Chinese martial studies literature and one of the few book length studies that we have which has been published by a university press.  I am actually surprised that it does not get more attention in Chinese martial studies circles.  Of course Chinese archery students love it, but there is a lot of interesting historical and social data spread throughout the book which should make it useful to any student of military history.

I would like to review this volume in an upcoming edition of the “Book Club” here at Kung Fu Tea, but I need a little more time to digest and think about it.  Archery is one of those subjects that is a little intimidating to write about.  There is such a wealth of information out there that just summarizing it can be daunting.  The number of surviving manuals, descriptions and accounts are enough to make any traditional boxing student more than a little jealous.  That in itself is a powerful testimony of the long-lasting importance of archery.  It was the most important discipline within China’s vast corpus of military practices and traditions for most of the empire’s history.  A little humility is required at the outset of any such project.

Rather than just jumping in at the deep end, I think I will wade into this subject with a few preparatory posts.  The first of these introduces a number of historically important images of the Chinese archers.  All of these photographs date to the final decades of the Qing dynasty.  Firearms had come to dominate the battlefield in China, just as they had in the rest of the world, yet archery remained an important social and military practices.  Specifically, the military service exams stressed archery as a core skill throughout the 19th century.  Any individual who wished to become an officer had to hone these skills.  Further, archery and mounted archery practice remained a key component of the “Manchu ethnic identity” up until about 1900.

In more general terms, archery was associated with a certain degree of refinement.  It had a “moral respectability” that other martial disciplines, such as boxing, fencing or pole fighting, lacked.  Archery also had a more “elite” following than most other period martial arts.  For instance, a gentry officer of the local militia might drill some of this troops in archery and he might go into battle carrying a bow (which was as much a sign of rank as anything else by the late 19th century).

The end result of all of this is a series of informative contradictions.  Following the Taiping Rebellion rifled muskets became the dominant weapon on the battlefield.  Even caravan guards and bandits started to carry rifles and revolvers as standard tools of the trade.  Yet the bow did not disappear.  It continued to be promoted by the government for a number of reasons.

As a result there were a number of competing schools of thought on archery, each of which supported its own professional instructors.  Archery manuals were published and read by a relatively wide range of individuals from the Ming on.  Yet within a few years of the end of the Boxer Uprising, military archery would totally vanish as a discipline and most of the various schools would close up shop and disappear.

There were a few attempts to resurrect archery as a martial arts discipline during the Republic of China period.  Certain branches of the Jingwu Association offered classes in archery.  Sadly these never gained a large or enthusiastic following.

Traditional Chinese archery is going through something of a renaissance today, but the situation is different from Japan where the discipline actually survived and made the transition to “civilian martial art” more or less intact.  There were few Chinese archers left by 1949, and almost none by the end of the Cultural Revolution.  What we are seeing now is a “resurrection” of an art that was lost in the early 20th century.

This raises a number of potentially interesting research questions.  Spear play, archery and boxing all seem ill suited to the modern world.  So why did two of these practices find followers and survive, while the third did not?  Given this sport’s long running association with the upwardly mobile “middle class” (a group that hand combat schools struggled to attract), this failure to survive is actually somewhat surprising.  I think that we could learn a lot about the development of martial culture in late-Qing and Republic era China by investigating these questions.  Hopefully we will have an opportunity to turn to these issues in later posts.

Traditional Archery as a Social Practice

I would now like to turn our attention to a number of interesting early photographs.  Each of these has been selected because it shows archery as a social practice.  Pictures of groups of archers in their native practice environments are harder to find than studies of posed individuals.

I have also paired a few of these pictures with early 19th century European accounts of Chinese archery demonstrations.  These sorts of events were a common occurrence and were therefore usually ignored by the individuals in the local community.  In contrast they were quite novel to visiting western observers.  They left accounts of these demonstrations that are both detailed and of interest to students of Chinese martial studies.

I would like to begin our discussion by examining the picture at the top of this article.  It shows at least ten individuals and a young boy gathered in a semi-circle.  At the middle of the group we find what appears to be a slightly older member of the local gentry.  All of the individuals are dressed in clean, good quality clothing, but he stands out in the group.  It is also likely that he owns the white horse seen in the background and practices the more elite mounted archery.

All of these individuals carry their own bows, but lack any other sort of armament.  They also all appear to wear boots.  It is also interesting to note that this is not a Manchu group.  Rather this is likely a civilian archery society organized and promoted by the local gentry.  Such groups have been described from the Song dynasty onward, but this is the only picture of one that I have been able to locate.

It goes without saying that the information on the photograph is spurious.  This image was widely reproduces on trading cards distributed by the Ogden tobacco company.  The editors of that series erroneously labeled the group in the picture as “Boxers” in an attempt to cache in on the uproar following the Boxer Uprising in 1900-1901.  It is a shame that we do not know where this picture was actually taken, though it clearly dates to the last years of the 19th century.

Something, something, something.  Source: Something.
Anonymous, ca. 1870. Source: Throckmorton Fine Arts, New York.

Our second image shows a different side of late 19th century Chinese archery.  The individuals on this photograph appear to be Manchu soldiers practicing archery.  In fact, I would guess that the somewhat dilapidated buildings behind them are actually barracks.  Notice that the men are also dressed in courser (if well insulated) clothing.

There are a number of interesting details in this photograph.  Notice for instance the target leaned casually against the fence behind the group, as well as the arrows on the ground.  I like this picture as it appears to be a minimally staged, very realistic look, into the reality of late 19th century military life.  It also pairs well with the eye-witness account bellow in which we see an almost identical scene (in Guangzhou) described in some detail.

“Archery is inculcated by the classics, and required by the laws, of China, as a fit exercise for the soldiers of the celestial empire.  This afternoon, walking across the ‘sandy ground’ near the river and just beyond the western suburbs of the city, I met a small party engaged in the exercise.  They were Tartars, a corporal and four privates, who had been sent out on a drill.  The target was placed about eight rods distant from them.  They had each a bow, strong and neatly made; and their arrows were pointed with iron and feathered.  The corporal was an adept; every time he drew the bow, an arrow hit the mark.  The bow and arrow were grasped at the same instant a la Tartare; the heels were placed together, with the body erect, the mark being off on the left.  As the archer drew the bow-strong, he poised on his right foot, throwing the left a little out, bending the body forward, swelling the breast, and extending the arm at full length, with the hands elevated at the level of his eyes, gave a savage grin, and let fly the arrow.  June 16th.” P. 103.

Elijah Coleman Bridgman, editor. “Journal of Occurrences: Archery” in the Chinese Repository, Vol. IV May, 1836 to April 1836. Canton: Printed for the Proprietors, 1836.

The Archery Lesson

I have been unable to locate the original source or title of the following photograph, but it also seems to exhibit a number of interesting features.  For lack of a more specific name I am going to call it “the archery lesson.”

A pair of Chinese archers.  Late 19th century.  Original source unknown.
A pair of Chinese archers.  Beijing, 1899. Original photographer and source unknown.

We can tell from the hair and clothing that neither of the individuals in the photograph are members of the Manchu ethnic group.  Rather they both appear to be regular Chinese civilians.  The individual who is drawing the bow is demonstrating a very different technique form either of the Manchu archers above or below.  In fact, he appears to be shooting out of what is called a “horse stance” in traditional boxing.  His feet are two shoulder width apart, legs bent at the knees, back straight and toes forward.  It may be possible to identify the different techniques seen in the various photographs, but I have yet to acquire that degree of expertise on the subject.  One strongly suspects that the individual above is actually practicing his draw for the mounted section of the military service exam sans mount.

We do have some period accounts of what late 19th century archery instruction was like.  It actually sounds remarkably similar to how many traditional Chinese martial arts are taught today.  A professional teacher might take on multiple paying students, who treated the exercise with the utmost respect.  One of the more colorful of these accounts was published in the British Quarterly in 1867.  In this article we find the author describing his personal observations in some detail as he attempts to explain an idiomatic references to archery in the Chinese Classics:

“At the foot of the last noted page we have the following comment on the phrase ‘there is the target to exhibit their ‘true character.’ ‘Archery was made much of anciently in China’: and the follow the words of a native writer:-

‘The archers must advance, retreat, and move around, according to the proper rules.  Where the aim of the mind is right, the adjustment of the body will be correct; and thus archery supplies an evidence of character.  Unworthy men will not be found hitting frequently.

There were three ceremonial trials of archery, belonging to the emperor, the princes, the high ministers and the great officers.  First, there was the great archery used to select those who should assist at the sacrificial services.  Second, there was the guests’ archery, used on occasion of the princes appearing at court, and their visiting among themselves.  Third, there was the festive archery, used at entertainments generally.

From the first kind expectant scholars were excluded, but they could take part in the other trials.’  This writer then goes on to describe the various targets used at those trials.  ‘What we call the “bull’s eye,” was the figure of a small bird.’ ‘Confucius more than once spoke of archery as a discipline of virtue.”*

Certain vices will, of course, unfit men for the successful practice of archery; but to lay down success in archery as a test of moral character is tearing the subject to tatters.  ‘The most famous archers of antiquity were very bad men.”** ‘There is the scourge to make them remember.’ ‘The archery field was, according to this, truly a place of discipline.’

In reference to archery it may be mentioned that it is practiced in modern China, and still keeps its place on the list of military exercises, the study of which an aspirant for a commission is required to apply himself if he wishes to succeed in his object.  The attitudes are regarded as of prime importance.  The writer had not long ago an opportunity of observing a teacher of the art while engaged in the practice of his profession; he was seen placing the student in what seemed a most ungainly position; nor was the pedantic martinet satisfied with the result till, after frequent manipulations of his pupils legs and arms, he succeeded in getting him into exact conformity with rule.

In this cramped attitude he as to hold the bow (which, however, was not as yet placed in his hands) for a certain length of time, with the view of making the pose familiar to him; and then another set of operations was commenced with reference to an attitude further on in the exercise.  All this was gone through with the utmost gravity, so that the uninformed spectator was apt to suppose that some religious ceremony was going on, in which deliberate motion with great solemnity were indispensable requisites.  After having made some progress in attitudinizing, the students are taught the art of holding the bow, and shooting, and subjected to trials of skill.

In every regular corp of one thousand men, one-fifth are archers, with regular officers; and, during actual warfare they go to the field, armed with bows and arrows which they never use and are not expected to use.  Imagine all this attention to archery, not as an elegant accomplishment for the display of the male or female toxophilite’s skill and gracefulness, or even as a means of muscular development, but as an arm in military service, if not, as hinted in the above quotation as a discipline of virtue!  How ludicrous this looks in the days of Armstrong and Whitworth—of rifled muskets and rifled cannon!…………” pp. 41-42.

Robert Vaughan. “The Chinese Classics.” The British Quarterly Review. Vol. 45. January and April, 1867. London: Jackson, Walford and Hodder.

This account raises a number of points that are worth discussing.  The author’s general disbelief at what he saw stemmed not from the fact that the Chinese regularly practiced archery, but rather that in the post-Taiping period they were still treating it as a central military discipline.  After reading his account a few times I decided that he was willing to admit that these schools of archery were interesting in and of themselves.  One might even claim that they promoted a certain type of grace, strength and accomplishment.

In short, he appears to be willing to accept archery as a “martial art” (in the modern sense of the term).  His disgust was specifically aimed at the fact that this was not how the Chinese were treating it, even though they knew that very few arrows would ever be fired on the battlefield again.  One wonders how much of a role this basic impulse to transform something in order to “save” it played in the creation of the other Chinese martial arts.

The other thing about this account that I found highly suggestive was the association between archery and self-cultivation.  After all, the entire passage begins as a discussion of the connection between virtue and archery in the Confucian Classics.  Further, the actual practice of archery was described as taking place in almost ritualized terms.  This emphasis on decorum and self-cultivation certainly would have made these practices more acceptable to the late-Qing Confucian elites, though it is clear that most of them were never won-over by the argument.

I also found it significant that our author compared the solemnity and decorum of this instruction to a religious ceremony.  Of course he turned around and dismissed this thought almost as quickly as he put it on paper.  These were, after all, simply anachronistic lessons in the arts of war.  Yet the “atmosphere” of the lesson must have made quite an impression on him.

Of course he would not be the last western observer to wonder whether there was a spiritual or religious component to Asian archery.  Students of Kyudo, or Japanese archery, will no doubt be aware that there is a huge debate as to whether Zen philosophy ever played a role in the practice and development of that art, or whether this connection is a spurious 20th century fiction based on the eccentric theories of a single instructor and the misconceptions of his one western student.

Nor is this response confined to archery.  Many western observers have been fascinated by what they have seen in Asian martial arts classes and have sought to find some spiritual meaning in it.  Sometimes the creators and teachers of these arts (such as Ueshiba in Aikido) make that those connections easy to find.  In other cases there is no concrete reason to expect any cross-overall at all.  Yet that rarely stops students from trying to make these connections anyway.  In short I like this account because it is one of the first western descriptions of the traditional Chinese martial arts that I am aware of which on the one hand describes them in completely secular terms, and yet also notes the presence of some sort of pseudo-religious glamor.


Manchu Archers. 1872 by John Thompson.  Source: National Library of China.
“Manchu Archers.” 1872. Photograph by John Thompson. Its interesting to compare the posture of this archer to the gentleman in the second photograph.  Their body geometry is almost identical.  Source: National Library of China.


Traditional Chinese archery is a rich field of inquiry with much to offer students of Chinese martial studies.  It was actively practiced by a notable segment of Chinese society right up until the 20th century, and it has left behind many reminders including an extensive literature of manuals, photographs, accounts, poems, debates and even physical artifacts.  Students of other aspects of Chinese martial culture may well envy these resources.  But taken together they paint a picture of continuity and change in late 19th century Chinese popular culture that is of very general interest. In future posts we hope to explore some of this material.


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Through a Lens Darkly (6): China Rediscovers the Shaolin Temple, Igniting a Kung Fu Craze.