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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
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
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.
Proper body alignment
Good, strong posture is important. This is a martial art, after all.
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.
Emphasis on mental focus
This is pretty self-explanatory. :)
The above-mentioned tutorial videos are a great starting point for picking up
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
Just a few of the different Ming dynasty
(1368--1644 AD) bows. Chinese bows from other eras had different
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]:
Scythian horn bows [Zhou Dynasty]
Wood composites [Warring States Period through Han Dynasty]
Xiongnu-inspired horn bows [up through Song Dynasty]
Imperial Mongol horn bows [Yuan Dynasty]
Turkish-inspired horn bows [Ming Dynasty] (these are close relatives of the Korean horn bow)
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.
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
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.
Samick SKB 50 [$170 retail]
A maple/fiberglass composite that is 50'' long. I don't own one, but I had
a chance to use another person's 50# SKB. Very compact, very fast, and a
lot of fun.
Samick also manufactures the MIND-50, which
is like the SKB except using carbon instead of fiberglass. However, the
MIND-50 seems more difficult to find online.
Kaya Korean Bow [$250--270 retail]
This bow is a wood/fiberglass/carbon fiber composite and is a mainstay of
Korean archery. I don't own one, but several of my friends own Kayas. It
is a fast and efficient bow with very little post-release vibration.
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.
Because the traditional Chinese technique entails shooting without a shelf,
there are several criteria you want to keep in mind while selecting your
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 shafts are inexpensive, light and
durable (particularly the Expedition Hunter, Ultralight, and Traditional
Hunter models). I like to err on the side of a stiffer spine for durability (e.g., I
use arrows spined at 300, which is very stiff). This applies to lower-poundage
bows, too. The arrow may fly a bit stiff, but because you're doing
instinctive aiming, your brain will learn how to compensate for the offset.
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
For nocks, using plastic is fine. Using self-nocked arrows is more
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.
For beginners, I recommend using a leather thumb tab (rather than a rigid
thumb ring) with a lighter bow. Using a tab will allow you to start off
developing a better feel for the string and proper draw hand position.
Moreover, making one is easy and inexpensive.
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
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.
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.
As you gain experience and move up in draw weight, you may consider using a
thumb ring, which will provide you a faster release than a tab. The trick is
to make sure string is sitting just outside the opening of the ring. The sides
of your thumb joint should support the weight, and the amount of pressure the
string applies to your skin should be close to zero. (This can be tricky,
which is why I do not recommend rings if you're just starting out.)
Boiled leather ring: Using boiled leather, it's easy and inexpensive to
make a thumb ring that mimics the feel of a horn thumb ring. (Photos and
description courtesy of Nadeem Ahmad.)
``I have 3 mm sole splits I use which are already fairly hard. I soak them
overnight in room temperature water, then cut out the piece (an ellipse,
about twice or thrice as big as it needs to be), then boil it. It needs to be
bigger because the leather shrinks. After you've half boiled it you drill
your hole and stretch it to an approximate fit, then boil it again, keep it
on your thumb for an hour or so, then let it dry. Afterwards sand the hole to
the right size and smooth out the flexure. Works just as good as a horn ring.''
Billiard ball ring and copper pipe ring: If you have time and few tools, you could
make a ring out of a billiard ball or copper pipe. Cue balls at a sporting goods store cost
$5 each (of course, the cost of tools will be much higher). Cut the
billiard ball into thirds (or quarters) using a hacksaw, drill a hole (you may
want to file/sand some parts to get a flatter surface for drilling), and
file/sand the ring to the appropriate shape using a file or Dremel sanding
tool (or both). For a copper pipe ring, you can start with a one-inch street elbow
joint, cut a segment with a hack saw, drill a hole and use some files to shape
the ring, and then apply a layer of leather to the inside (I use 5-minute
epoxy to bind the metal and the leather). Click through to see the Picasa albums:
I'll admit the details I've provided are sparse, but I'm happy to answer any
questions you have about these rings. I'm not an expert ring maker (I've only
made a couple dozen so far), but I enjoy the process of making them. And I
learn something new every time I make one.
Pre-molded acrylic ring: Murat Ozveri describes a method for making
acrylic thumb rings using
dental laboratory techniques. Making a ring using this molding process
will be more forgiving than carving a hard material (like horn, or billiard
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.
As I mentioned in ``Tip for Gripping the Bow'', 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.
Justin competed in Wushu (Chinese martial arts) for 11 years, retired from
competition in 2003 and remained involved through 2007 as a tournament
organizer and internationally-certified judge. He is puzzled by the general
lack of archery awareness among Chinese martial artists and among people who
are familiar with Chinese culture. However, he is optmistic that the revival
of Chinese archery will improve people's awareness and form the basis of a new
If you have questions or comments on these notes, please feel free to contact
him at firstname.lastname@example.org.