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Archery:the Sport of Gentlemen in Ancient China

History&Legend of Archery in China
Archery, one of the indispensable parts of Olympics, has been one of the earliest activities of human beings and a prominent survival skill long before it evolves into a sport. Chinese archaeologists have found the stone arrowheads dating back to 28,000 years ago in Shangxi Province. Archery has played a vital role in society and its functions involve hunting, rituals and examination, warfare and sports. In China there is a famous myth devoting to it: Houyi Shooting the Sun.

Legend has it that Houyi and his beautiful wife Chang'e lived in ancient times before there is written record. At that time, the sky was occupied by ten suns, which scorched the land and made people fall into coma. What is worse, the unbearable heat drove the animals and birds out from forests and they harassed people from time to time. Beholding the suffering of human beings, the God of Heaven sent Houyi, the most excellent archer, to save people. Equipped with a red bow and a bag of white arrows, Houyi arrived on earth with Chang'e. Standing on the mountain top, Houyi shot down nine suns instantly, when he planned to kill the last one, Yao, the ancestor of Chinese people, stopped him. The excellent performance of Houyi outshone other gods, thus they were jealousy of him, and talked behind him. The God of Heaven was affected by other gods' words, and estranged with Houyi gradually. Since then, Houyi and his wife settled down on earth, living by hunting.

This legend reflects the ancient history of archery in China. Then, the principles put forward by Confucius exerted strong influence on archery. Confucius, a great thinker lived in Zhou dynasty(1146BC-256BC)said that students should cultivate themselves through practicing the Six Noble Arts: morality, ritual dance, archery, horse vehicle driving, math and calligraphy. Archery is not only a sport, but also a way to cultivate mind and to develop the spirit of gentleman. Thus, archery participants will perform ritual ceremony by bowing to each other before it kicks off and having a drink together after it ends. The essence is not just to win, but to win elegantly and mannerly. Archers are expected to perform it gracefully, meet the rhythm of music and show respect to the elder. Suppose their opponents happen to have higher titles, they are expected to lose on purpose to save their rivals’ face.

 horse vehicle driving

 Ancient Arrow and bow

 The Archery Ritual

 Houyi Shoots the Sun

Ritual archery faded away after the Zhou dynasty. However, it inspired rulers to establish standards to select military officials during following dynasties include Han(202BC-220AD), Tang(618-907), Song(960-1276), Ming(1368-1644) and Qing(1636-1912). Systematic testing involves archery on foot, mounted archery( shooting on horseback) and strength testing was carried out to ensure the most talented ones are selected.

 Achers bow to each other first

 Ritual Achery


 During Ritual Achery,archer is demanded to perform it gracefully

 Ritual Achery was advocated by Confucius

During Han dynasty, the copper arrowheads were substituted by steel arrowheads with the developing of steel weapons. Books deal with the skills of archery appeared also.

Xiao wudi of North Wei dynasty(386-557) launched a archery contest in Luoyang, Henan Province. He put a wine cup one hundred steps away from 19 participates, and who can shoot this cup will be the owner of it. This is the first formal and professional archery contest in China. From North Wei dynasty to Sui and Tang dynasties, archery advanced significantly. Wu Zetian, the only female emperor in ancient China, settled a standard to select those military officials called Wujuzhi. Among the nine testing items, there are five items relating to archery.

 Ancient Archers' Attires

From Tang dynasty to Song dynasty, archery was popularized among the low class. According to history record, there were over 600 hundreds of archery communities in Hebei Province and over 30000 members. We can say this is the earliest organization of professional archers. During Song dynasty, gunpowder weapons emerged and prevailed. In Ming dynasty, firearms were introduced into China from Western countries, yet archery remained an indispensible part of military kingdom. However, with the improvement of firearms in Qing dynasty, the glory of archery faded away gradually, and fell out of favor. In 1901, Emperor Guangxu abolished archery from the military exam test.

 Archery: a ritual performed by gentlemen

 Mogao Grottoes' fresco on Archery

 Archery was used in War


 Archery has been very populous among miniroty groups in north and northwest China

Stamp of Archery

Ancient Archer Talents

Yang Youji was a handsome man who lived in the Spring and Autumn Period in the state of Chu. At that time, King Chu Zhuangwang was enrolling archery talents for war. Yang Youji joined in the test. King Chu Zhuangwang asked him to shoot a dragonfly without kill it, so Yang Youji shot it on the left wing , and this pleased the king greatly. Then the king asked him to shoot his most agile monkey, Yang Youji made it again. Later the king demanded him to challenge the best archer at that time:Dou Yuejiao. Yang Youji obeyed without any hesitation. Beholding the young Yang Youji, Dou Yuejiao did not hide his contempt and uttered: “Go home, boy, do not ask for death”. Yang Youji replied calmly: “Do not be so pride and short-sighted, try shoot me three times.” Dou Yuejiao was shocked by his words and shot him, Yang Youji catched the arrow by left hand, Dou Yuejiao shot him again, and Juanyouji catched the arrow by his right hand this time. Ashamed and irritated, Dou Yuejiao said: “If you are a hero, do not pick it by hands”. The third time Dou Yuejiao shot him, Juan Youji bit the arrow by his teeth. Since then, Dou Yuejiao dared not show contempt to him anymore, and Yang Youji became a famous figure ever after.

Li Guang: During Han dynasty, there is a general named Li Guang who lived in Beiping County which was under constant raids of a giant tiger. One day, Li Guang was on his way back home from hunting with soldiers. Darkness was everywhere except the feeble moonlight. When he passed a forest distributed with grotesque stones, he saw a giant black figure which resembles a tiger very much, so he asked the soldiers to step backwards and stretched the bow and shot it in the heart. However, when they approach their prey, it turned out to be a rock, and the arrow was embedded into the rock so deeply that no one succeeded in pulling it out. The outstanding archery skills of Li Guang reached to the ears of Xiongnu people( the north tribes who live a nomadic lifestyle and was also good at archery) and they dared not to venture raids to middle China for a long of time.

Yang Youji(Spring and Autumn Period)

Li Guang(Han Dynasty)

Further Reading: Touhu: an Elegant Activity born from Archery

Touhu(投壶), an entertaiment derives from archery

 Vase for Touhu Entertaiment(Ming dynasty)

 Vase for Touhu Entertaiment (Han Dynasty)

 Vase For Touhu Entertaiment( Tang dynasty)

Where to See the Archery Contest


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