Chinese military archery training in the second half of the 19th century.
Chinese military archery training in the second half of the 19th century.


This is the second section of our two part discussion of Chinese Archery (2000, Hong Kong University Press) by Stephen Selby.  In part one we examined the first half of his book which covered the earliest written records of archery in China until the Tang dynasty.  The discussion will probably make the most sense if you start here.  In the second part of this review we will examine the remainder of the book, paying special attention to his discussions of the Song, Ming and Qing dynasties.

As always our goal is to engage with the text and ask some thoughtful questions about how it impacts our understanding of Chinese martial studies.  No special background is necessary to participate in the Book Club, but it is always best if you read the text before coming to class (how often have you heard that before).  So with that let’s get on with today’s discussion.



Stephen Selby has done a great service for the field of Chinese martial studies.  The discussion in this research area always seems to break down into two different camps. First there are the serious military historians who are most interested in technical questions about Chinese warfare and the political history of the state.  More recently this discussion has been supplemented with the emergence of a new research paradigm that focuses on the traditional Chinese martial arts and their intersection with both military values and different areas of Chinese popular culture. 

While military history clearly focuses on the formal institutions of the imperial army, the martial arts are by in large a civilian tradition.  This is not to say that there was never any overlap.  There certainly was.  Some martial arts instructors got jobs as military trainers, and it was common for retired soldiers to teach martial arts.  Yet these two realms always remained conceptually distinct.  One existed within the sphere of civil society (to use a modern concept) and the other was more properly located within the state.

Traditionally these two elements of martial studies have not had a lot to say to each other.  By in large they have been concerned with different questions, and they have published their findings in different venues.  That is understandable, but it is also somewhat regrettable.  There may be some larger aspects of this puzzle that we miss when we only examine each of our elements in pristine isolation.

This brings us back to the question of traditional archery.  Selby’s book is important for a number of reasons.  Obviously it is the single best source on Chinese archery that has ever been published.  It’s a serious piece of research distributed by an important university press.  And as we saw last time, his careful textual research might throw some light onto the early history of Chinese martial culture.

Yet archery practice is also important because it cuts across so many areas of Chinese society, even in comparatively recent times.  Civilians studied archery, published books and created schools.  Archery was a valuable skill for anyone seeking to take the military exam or to organize a local “watch society.”  At various times in Chinese history it even had a certain social cache that other forms of martial training lacked. 

I have copies of some very interesting paintings of militia groups drilling in Guangdong in the middle of the 19th century.  Most of the individuals in these pictures carry spears and swords, except for the local member of the gentry who are sponsoring the groups.  They have bows, and it is worth pointing out that this is well into the era of the rifle.  But the bow and archery training carried a certain set of social meanings.

Likewise the military was very interested in archery.  For thousands of years it was one of the most important battlefield technologies that the state possessed.  Yet by the start of the Qing dynasty (and possibly earlier) it was clear that the military usefulness of the bow was coming to an end.  The bow survived because the state demanded its continued presence.  Hardened Qing troops were ready to completely switch to the musket early in the dynasty, yet the state demanded that they carry only bows in the imperial hunt as a means of reinforcing their ethnic identity.  Likewise ethnically Han officer candidates were selected in large part on the strength of their archery skill throughout the 19th century. 

No one seriously thought that bows would still carry the day on the battlefield.  Certainly no thinking person believed this after the disastrous Taiping Rebellion.  Yet archery remained a powerful symbol of the nation’s martial virtue, and it was reinforced and supported by the Qing state.

This is precisely what makes archery so interesting.  It is a very socially significant field of martial studies which cross-cuts the traditional domains of the military and the civilian “quanban” (pole and fist) practice.  It gives us a different lens with which to view the development of Chinese martial culture than those that we normally focus on.  Properly understood it can help to resolve debates that have arisen in both of these other areas.


Another image in the same series of paintings.  Note the leader of this unit is dressed as a member of the gentry and carries a bow.  Thanks again to Gavin Nugent ( for sharing this image.
Another image in the same series of paintings. Note the leader of this unit is dressed as a member of the gentry and carries a bow. Thanks again to Gavin Nugent ( for sharing this image.

The Evolution of Archery in Late Imperial China

Selby’s book is built around a chronological progression of primary texts and translations.  As such the volume has a natural narrative.  In the second half of this work we see Chinese archery reaching what was perhaps its apex during the Song dynasty.  New and better bows and crossbows were invented, while the archers themselves were still trained in the basic methods that had been developed during the height of the Tang dynasty.

However all of this crumbled with the invasion from the north and the ultimate triumph of the Yuan dynasty.  This foreign regime disarmed the Chinese people and discontinued the production of most weapons.  Prior to the advent of the Yuan period Chinese bowyers made sophisticated crossbows with ingenious bronze cased locks.  These could withstand tremendous force and allowed for the creation of very heavy crossbows which were both mechanically sound and reliable.

After the Yuan dynasty the basic technology needed to cast bronze and manufacture these locks was lost.  Crossbows in the Ming dynasty had unreinforced locks carved from bone or antler.  They were lighter and less reliable.  Similar stories can be told across a vast range of military technologies following the collapse of the Yuan.

Still, this massive social disruption had a silver lining.  The Ming dynasty saw an explosion of interest in recovering and rebuilding China’s lost military traditions.  This led to the restoration of the military examination system, the creation of dozens of new schools of archery and the publications of many popular books, manuals and official encyclopedias.  All of these sought to preserve or pass on China’s military tradition.

Many of these works still exist and they are a great boon to modern scholars.  For instance Ming era manuals make it clear that “qigong” practices (Selby acknowledges that the terms is anachronistic yet he uses it anyway) were deeply embedded in Chinese archery practice by this point in time.  In fact, we have some indication that the use of “qigong” was present in the Song dynasty as well (records are sparser) and hints that it may be found all the way back into the Han.  Like Peter Lorge he acknowledges that there may have been significant differences in the interpretation of ideas like ‘qi’ between time periods, but Selby seems less concerned about drawing connections over the centuries.

This discussion is important for all students of martial studies.  Tang Hao, Peter Lorge and other historians have questioned whether “qigong” was ever part of authentic Chinese martial arts practice.  This school of thought often concludes that this quasi-mystical material was a product of the late Qing and Republic era.  As teachers struggled to find students the arts degenerated and became less “militarily effective.”

Selby’s examination of archery manuals from the Song, Ming and Qing dynasties throws this now dominant historical narrative into doubt.  While none of these sources focus on the cultivation of “extraordinary powers” of the sort that became popular in the 1980s, their authors clearly believed that qigong is of central importance to the perfection of the mental and physical systems that a proficient archer is expected to rely on.

Selby points to a number of texts and practices to defend this assertion.  Discussions of the circulation of Qi are present in archery manuals in the Song dynasty.  By the Ming era these same practices are being discussed much more explicitly in the surviving texts that we still have.  Some of their concerns and techniques are quite practical.  Drawing and holding a heavy bow can constrict an archer’s breathing.  Different Qigong exercises can help to mediate the problem.

Still, Selby points out that there are quite a few aspects of the traditional Chinese “full draw” and posture that serve no practical purpose.  These stylized postures are remarkably resilient and consistent through time.  In each case it is a concern with the “flow of qi” that seems to mandate their conservation.  It would seem then than positing an either/or distinction between “military efficiency” or “metaphysical meaning” is flawed.  Chinese archers from at least the Song onward (and possibly quite a bit earlier) opted for both.  They were even graded on their adherence to these traditional postures in the military exams.

This same tendency is reinforced in the Qing dynasty.  Obviously more sources survive from this later period than any other preceding era of Chinese history.  As a result we have the most detailed view of traditional archery during this era.

In fact, one of my few criticisms is that I feel this this volume sells the Ming and Qing dynasties a little short.  The rich source material that we have for each of these eras gives us the opportunity to really dig into things and to paint a detailed view of how archery evolved (or was conserved) throughout these periods.

This was an exercise that I was really looking forward to as the traditional martial arts also arose and differentiate themselves during this period.  The boxing traditions that we have now are really a product of the Qing (and in a few cases Ming) dynasty. 

In an important sense the ancient past is basically unknowable.  There are just so few surviving sources, and we have so little understanding of how things have evolved in the intervening millennia.  My preference is always to connect what we are interested in explaining now to its “proximate cause.”  This means that we need to dedicate more resources to looking at the recent eras like the Qing and Republic period, and do this in much greater detail.

Nevertheless, it seems that this research strategy is not broadly shared.  Readers might recall that one of my main criticisms of Peter Lorge was that he spent more than half of his book looking at really ancient material that likely has little to do with the modern martial arts.  He then glossed over the Qing and Republic periods effectively depriving readers of a really useful conversation.

I see the same basic tendency, albeit to a lesser degree, in Selby.  Once again we reach the end of the book and find ourselves racing through the final periods of history.  We have the most extent sources on the Qing dynasty, but its chapter is the shortest, and is mostly dominated by a single (very interesting) western account of a provincial military examination.  The entire Republic era revival of archery is covered in only a few paragraphs.

This is a problem for a few reasons.  To begin with, readers might wonder why archery (an impractical skill in the modern world) died out while pole fighting (also an impractical skill) has remained pretty popular with Chinese martial artists.  This is actually a tricky question, and I don’t think that we can solve it simply by pointing to the inherent “self-defense value” of boxing.  That actually is not why the Chinese state decided to promote boxing in the 1930s, and I am pretty sure that is not why most people sign up for Taiji classes today.  Nor is traditional archery any more practical in Japan than it is in China, yet it has always retained its popularity there.

If we could know a little more about why (and how) archery declined we might actually understand much more about why boxing survived.  Alternatively we could investigate how the modern view of Chinese martial culture differs from the 19th theory of the same subject.  I feel like a more extensive review of sources from the last few eras of Chinese history would really help to address these questions.  Yet at 400 pages there was not that much room to say anything else.  And that is a shame.

Still, what is present is very useful.  Selby provides the best discussion I have ever seen of the “Bowmen” and “Society of Archers” in the Song dynasty.  The latter of these two institutions was a locally funded and trained system of militia units which were an important source of regional security in northern China.  They are an understudied institutions and I have often wondered to what extent they served as models for later gentry led militia systems that came into being in the Ming and Qing dynasties.  This is material that readers will really want to focus.

Likewise much of the material that was provided on the Qing dynasty was really important.  It was fascinating to find a copy of a Manchurian archery manual that explicitly referenced and integrated the “Eight Sections of Brocade” Qigong pattern into its shooting and practice method.

In fact, the sheer number of manuals, and the diversity of their formats was fascinating.  Conventional wisdom states that the first printed boxing manuals were not published until the Republic era.  I have located a few accounts that seem to show that these manuals were in distribution around Guangdong from at least the 19th century onward.  But I have always wondered how far back the publication of popular military manuals in the Qing dynasty  goes.  It’s a difficult question to answer as little of this material survived (this is always the case with ephemera) and most of these works likely had very small print runs.

Selby’s account of popular archery instruction in the Qing is very important as it reveals what might have been possible.  Popular archery manuals were written and published in large number because so many readers aspired to take the military service exam.  Their large print runs has increased the chances of their survival and they provide an important glimpse into the world of 19th century popular martial culture.

On page 360 Selby reviews a sample of over a dozen popular works on archery printed during the Qing dynasty (there were probably many more).  This list calls for careful consideration.  To begin with we can see that the texts he examines are evenly distributed throughout this period.  Half of them date from the 18th century, and half from the 19th.  Two even date back to the final decades of the 17th century.

I think that this is interesting as the military value of archery fell rapidly throughout the Qing dynasty.  Yet that did not really affect the rate at which books on the subject were published or bought.  I suspect that this is good circumstantial evidence that by the Qing dynasty archery survived because it was subsidized by the state through the military service exam system.  The prestige that these degrees granted archery insured a high level of popular interest regardless of its declining fortunes on the battlefield.

It might be tempting to separate the study of archery from boxing by asserting that one was a “real battlefield skill” while the other was simply a civilian pastime.  Indeed the Qing government’s own rhetoric did just this.  Archery was always classed as a “military” skill and it was never seen to be part of civilian “Quanban.”  In fact, the teacher and schools that taught archery appear to have been distinct from those who taught other weapons or hand combat from at least the time of the Ming onwards (there are some exceptions to this of course).

Yet the list of books provided by Selby indicates that we should be careful in our reading and acceptance of this rhetoric.  An archery manual published in 1868 was likely to find a large readership, yet what it taught was no more a “practical battlefield skill” than what we see in modern Wushu.  Like boxing, archery existed and was taught because of social and cultural variables.  I suspect that it was a rapid change in social values following the 1911 revolution that put traditional archery in a position that it was ultimately never able to recover from.

There is something else that is very interesting about the list of popular publications on page 360.  In an almost offhanded remark Selby notes that not all of the authors agreed on the basic material to be included in such a book.  Specifically, the then popular literature shows a clear division between “internal” and “external” approaches to archery.  This turns out to be conceptually similar to the division in boxing styles that Sun Lutang would help to popularize in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  One wonders if there is not some overlap or dependence here.

“External” schools of archery, much like those in the traditional martial arts, emphasized physical development.  They focused on issues of posture, alignment, release and gaze.  “Internal” schools of archery took all of this for granted.  They assumed that the student had mastered such “basic techniques” and went on to extol the importance of mental control, emotional balance, breathing, qigong practice and cultivating the proper flow of qi.  All of this found expression in the archer’s outlook, life and movements, creating a unique “internal” school.

Again, this material is not totally unique the Qing dynasty.  Selby actually traces it back to the Song dynasty.  He asserts that as Confucianism was reintroduced and superseded Buddhism following the collapse of the Tang, it’s advocates adopted elements of Zen Buddhism and Daoism.  Selby finds suggestions of these larger systems in many places, but he never really pushes the point.  They always seem to remain echoes.  That seems a missed opportunity given the fierce controversy about the connection between Zen and traditional archery in Japan.

Confucianism is another matter.  Some of these “internal” schools adopted the “Great Learning” as a method for archery development.  In fact, Selby makes a decent argument that the document was originally intended to be read as a metaphor for archery.

Again, I find it fascinating that there are substantial resonances with boxing here.  Ip Chun, the oldest son of Ip Man, has argued that Wing Chun practitioners should study and adopt the “Great Learning” as the philosophical heart of this modern boxing system.  I was not entirely sympathetic to this opinion the first time I came across it. But it is fascinating to note how similar his proposal is to what the “internal” school of archers in the Ming and Qing dynasties were already doing in terms of “mental control.”  In fact, his proposition seems to make a lot more sense after reviewing this material.


archery-in-china (1)


Chinese Archery is a remarkable text.  Our discussion has already been lengthy yet we have only hinted at what this book has to offer.  Its value to students of archery is obvious.  Military historians and those interested in warfare in ancient China will also find this book to be mandatory reading.  These audiences alone are enough to justify its publication.

Yet what has been really surprising is the sheer number of contributions that Selby has been able to make to other, seemingly unrelated, areas of Chinese martial studies.  Students of boxing with no prior interest in the subject of archery may still find sections of this book to be useful when it comes to understanding the nature of martial culture or the origins and history of the various hand combat systems.

It is also remarkable to notice that all of this comes more or less directly from the primary sources that Selby translates and discusses.  His theoretical apparatus rests very lightly on this text.  Selby introduces sources, discusses their translation, gives a paragraph or two of interpretation, and that is it.  His book seemingly lets the evidence speak for itself.

I say “seemingly” because anyone who has ever done historical research knows that is not how it actually works.  Even if Selby is not explicit in his theoretical commitments, they are still there, and they are still shaping his work.  They manifest themselves in the texts that he choose to translate and include in his discussion as well as those that he decided to ignore and exclude from active consideration.  Of course the reader only sees the former category.  The latter is just as important, but it remains invisible.

It follows then that careful readers should consider not only what an author says, but also what is left in silence.  I have already noted that Selby’s seems to give more weight to ancient china than the late imperial sources.  What other subjects seem not have made his cut?

Selby presents us with a remarkably technically complete view of ancient archery.  I had no idea that he would be able to reconstruct different shooting systems to the degree that he did.  Clearly this was important to him.  His epilogue is even an apology for not bringing the whole the thing together in a simple set of clear technical instructions for aspiring archery students.

I learned more about bows, arrows, crossbows and target construction techniques than I ever expected.  But I am left with a host of questions about infantry archers, exam candidates, gentry leaders of civilian archery societies and the vast class of professional archery instructors that must have existed throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties.  I mentioned last time that I would have like to have heard more about the Bronze Age Shi who carried out the Zhou archery ritual.  Still, Selby devoted considerably more time and space to them than he does to these later classes of archery students.

What motivated these individuals?  What classes of society did they come from?  How did archery teachers make a living?  Organize their students?  How did they promote themselves professionally?

Selby has laid down the necessary ground work that will really make future research in this area possible.  I like this book.  I see myself using chapters from it with my undergraduates, and recommending the whole thing to graduate students.  But what we need next is a social history of Chinese archery, one that focuses on the better documented late imperial and Republic periods.  Such a work could explore regional, social and political aspects of the story that remain largely untouched.  It would also make an enormous contribution to our understanding of Chinese martial studies.