The original version of this article was published in the Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries, Volume 40, 1997. After the article had been accepted for publication, I learned from Stephen Selby that he had come upon an archaeological report in Chinese referring to the discovery of Neolithic stone archers' rings. These rings were larger and older than the Shang dynasty ring of Fu Hao, but bore a functional resemblance to it.
Sometimes made from rare materials, carved in unusual shapes and embedded in history, archers' thumb rings are a fascinating subject for both archers and collectors. Since the 1950s, a series of discoveries in China has given us a glimpse far into the past and unearthed the earliest archers' rings known so far. This article is an attempt to bring together some of those finds related to historical dynasties and discuss the implications of the shapes of these ancient archers' rings.
Chinese reports, published in various books and journals, form the major sources for this article and I extend my thanks to Richard Wong for his help with the Chinese text. Some sites have already been discussed in English, but the archer's rings have rarely been the centres of attention. The material used here is mainly archaeological and I will not treat the literature that survives mentioning archers' rings nor the various accepted traditions about them, except in passing. The illustrations are closely based on the original Chinese photographs and drawings, although I have resorted to some simplification. However, the original articles should be consulted for more detail. Cross sections are included, where available, to aid the reconstruction of working models.
For this article, I have chosen a convention for naming the parts of an archer's ring to present consistent descriptions. A ring is described from the viewpoint of an archer about to place it on the thumb of the right hand as shown in Fig. 1. This, I feel, is a more appropriate view for the user of the ring. Museum catalogues generally show the ring viewed as if suspended by the rear face with the working surface facing the viewer. This is how these rings would have looked when worn hanging from a belt and is the best way to see their decoration. However, it can confuse someone trying to understand how the ring was used, particularly when the "tip" of the ring can also be its "bottom".
THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL FINDS
Several Chinese archaeological excavations have uncovered archers' rings and I shall present the ones that I have found during my research, roughly in order of the antiquity of the sites. They span the period from the Shang through the Zhou to the Han Dynasties – more than fifteen hundred years. The rings covered by this article belong to three classes: early rings with a groove for the string; lipped rings with a projection on one side; and purely decorative ring-shaped ornaments. I have included the archer's ring-shaped objects for completeness, but I cannot go into detail because the main theme of this article concerns rings that were used for shooting.
Chinese archaeologists have a rich tradition of antiquarian and archaeological interest in their own culture on which to draw, besides their modern archaeological techniques. As well as photographs, the publications of these finds are frequently illustrated with carefully drawn figures, which are exquisitely detailed. Usually, they cite the appropriate ancient texts and they sometimes resurrect antique characters in order to name such rare items as archers' rings.
The Shang Kingdom flourished from around 1520 BCE to about 1030 BCE, when it was extinguished by the armies of Zhou. Shang art can still affect us by the power of its bronzes and the subtlety of its jades. The Shang nobles rode to battle in chariots, carrying their favourite weapons, the dagger-ax (ge) and the composite bow (gung). However, aside from royal lineage lists and a few details recorded in later dynastic histories, much of what we know of the Shang comes from excavations and the unusual archives of inscribed bones and tortoise plastrons used for divination. These often had the question asked of the spirits plus the result of the action recorded afterwards.
The spectacular burial customs of Shang kings and great nobles are well-known today from the many bronzes, jades and skeletons (human and animal sacrifices) found interred with the deceased. Although many of these tombs were robbed in antiquity, some significant ones have been found intact.
King Pan Geng is believed to have moved the Shang capital to Yin, where the site is now known as Yinxu near Anyang. Yin was the capital of the last twelve kings of the Shang dynasty. The fourth of these kings was Wu Ding and, at Xiaotun, archaeologists have excavated Yinxu Tomb Number Five(1), the grave of Fu Hao, Wu Ding’s consort(2). The burial contained an amazing collection of artifacts, including hundreds of bronzes and 590 jades. Out of 210 ceremonial vessels made from bronze in this tomb, 109 were inscribed with the name Fu Hao(3). Among the many bronze weapons in the grave were two large battle axes (yue), one of which (weighing nineteen and a half pounds) was also inscribed with the characters for Fu Hao. Many experts believe that she is the same Fu Hao referred to several times in the oracle bones and that this is the earliest tomb in China of a historical person.
From indications on the oracle bones, Fu Hao was an administrator and she probably led armies on campaign. So, fittingly, among the jade items found in her tomb was an archer's ring of a practical, solid design (Fig. 2). More than three millennia have passed since the jade carver produced this small work of art.
The ring is shaped like a cylinder with its top sliced off, higher at the front than the back. The sides show a small degree of convexity, but this is almost hidden by the carving. The front of the ring has a large groove carved horizontally across it, about a third of the way up from the base. The front part of the base is chamfered and protrudes slightly. Only slightly lower than the groove, but on the opposite side of the ring, are two circular openings in the rear wall.
To an archer, the carved groove has an obvious purpose: to catch and hold the bowstring. Once the ring is slipped onto the thumb with the groove towards the palm, merely drawing the ring across the bowstring would grip it firmly. The two openings are a little more mysterious. The archaeologists have suggested that a slender cord was threaded through them, so that the archer could tie the ring to her wrist.
The decoration of this ring is striking: an animal mask, in the form of two beasts head-to-head, is carved on the back of the ring with horns or eyebrows curving around almost halfway to the front. The two openings are above the shared nose. This mask (taotie) is a standard Shang decorative motif, found often on their bronzes. The front and sides of the ring are decorated with low relief carving representing the bodies of the monsters. Clawed feet can be seen behind the heads. From the published photographs, the carving seems to be in higher relief on the rear of the ring and lower at the front, where the string would pass.
Another ring of this type was published in the catalogue of the Kwan collection of archaic jade(4), where it is identified as being from the Eastern Zhou dynasty. The Kwan ring differs in its surface decoration, which is in a Zhou style of interlocked spirals, and it has a slight bulge on the lower half of the rear face, which was pierced by a suspension hole. Otherwise, it is similar to the Fu Hao ring by being basically cylindrical and having a groove rather than a lip to hold the bow string.
Following the Shang, the Zhou Dynasty can be divided into a Western (1030-770 BC) and an Eastern Period. The latter period is further divided into the time covered by the Spring and Autumn Annals (770-463 BC) and the time of the Warring States (463-221 BC), which ended when the first emperor of Qin (Ch’in) united China. The Zhou conquered the Shang, emerging from the west of China where they had established their state. They maintained the tradition of producing ceremonial bronzes, while introducing some technical innovations such as lost wax casting. Rather than the occasional name, the Zhou added texts to their decoration of ceremonial bronzes to record special events and dedications. The practice of elaborate burials continued and, in addition to the archaeological evidence, documents and literature from this period have survived. Their long rule saw both the expansion of Chinese cultural influence and the progressive breakdown of their own state into warring principalities ruled by powerful dukes. During the Eastern Zhou period, many advances in technology took place. Crossbows became common and iron working was developed. It was a time of invention and innovation in technology and the arts, the time of Confucius, Mencius and Laozi (Lao Tse).
The large scale burial at Jinshangcun at Taiyuan (known as Spring and Autumn Period Tomb Number 251)(5), with its pit of figures and chariots, contained the valuable possessions of a powerful lord. Musical stones and bronze bells accompanied their owner into the earth. Among the treasures was a jade ring of a type that later was to become much more common among archers in China and West Asia. This ring (Fig. 3-4) can be compared to the shape of later Persian and Turkish archers' rings. From the diagram of the burial, the ring appears to have been found near the waist of the deceased owner of the tomb.
In the front of the ring was a broad lip to hold the string and distribute its weight over the pad of the thumb. The inside surface of this lip was cut away to form a shelf for the thumb to seat itself securely. A projection on the rear of the right side of the ring, when looking from the above, distinguishes it from the lipped archers' rings from Western and Southern Asia. This tab would face upwards and inwards at an angle, when the ring was used to draw a bow by a right-handed archer. The rear of the ring forms angles on two levels and there appears to be a small hole piercing two of the faces. The opening for the thumb is flattened towards the front and probably was a close fit. The ring looks strong and functional and very similar to one shown in Charles E. Grayson's article in the 1977 Journal (Plate 6)(6). The projection on the ring from this tomb is not as large, in proportion, as that of the Grayson ring.
Lipped rings are illustrated in ‘Science and Civilisation in China’, Volume V: 6(7) described as being of Eastern Zhou provenance. They were excavated in the nineteen-fifties at Luoyang, the site of the capital of the Eastern Zhou kings. The rings look solid and practical despite their decoration and they are possessed of suitably robust tabs, though not as prominent ones as some others. The decoration on one is composed of interlocked spirals, while the other is quite plain. The decorated ring has a semicircular broadening on the lower rim extending onto the lip. This feature occurs in the ring mentioned below and shown in Fig. 6.
The division of rings into plain rings and ones with decorated surfaces is also found in rings in some major collections(8). In some of these rings, the smooth rounded surfaces have been used in a design of intersecting planes with well-defined edges. In decorated rings, the inner surface can be carved as well, which suggests that a lining was not used. The carved surface may have supplied some traction to the thumb, but a matte finish would be more effective. Probably the inner carving was meant to be seen as the ring was swinging backwards and forward, while hanging from a cord attached to the belt.
From 1977 to 1978, the government department in charge of cultural relics and archaeology in Shandong province conducted an exploration of the ancient city of Qufu of the kingdom of Lu, the state where Confucius was born. Excavations were conducted in the city and in contemporary graves covering both the Western and Eastern Zhou Periods. The layout of the city is believed to represent the structure of a ducal capital city of the early part of the Zhou Dynasty. Remains from the Han Dynasty (Western 202 BCE to 9 BCE and Eastern 25 - 220 CE) also were found.
Several archers' rings from the Eastern Zhou period were recovered in these excavations. One jade ring had an abstract design of symmetrically arranged curling lines on the inside surface of its lip, while a stylised feline head graced the outer side (Fig. 5-6). This ring had a small rounded tab towards the rear of one side. In the same excavation, the rear half from another jade ring was found with a projection shaped like a stylised bird's head with a crest (Fig. 7). A hole pierced the projecting back-ridge of this ring. The back was in two levels in common with the Jinshangcun ring, but was composed of convex planes.
Another ring found in a different area of the site had a large projecting tab with a waisted section joining it to the main body of the archer's ring. The ring was made of ivory or another animal tooth and had a plain lip (Fig. 8).
The intact rings have the proportions of practical rings used by archers. To say whether they were used is difficult, without microscopic examination of the jade and ivory for wear. Because of the hardness of jade, raised decorations on the surface are not likely to be damaged by bow strings. On the other side of the ledger, the rounded low relief carvings are least likely to injure the bow strings.
Another type of ring altogether was found in the tomb of Zhao Mo, the second King of Nanyue(9), who ruled from 137-122 BCE. In a tomb filled with fine swords with jade fittings and a jade burial suit, the only jade thumb rings were ornaments. The tabs had sprouted on both sides of the rings and had become increasingly elaborate. The hole for the thumb remained and the top was concave and the bottom convex. Nevertheless, that was all that remained of the functional details of the ring.
This type of decorative jade based on an archer's ring had started earlier in the Warring States period(10). Sometimes the "rings" were only decorated on one side and may have been mounted as a part of another object.
Simultaneously, with the appearance of the thumb ring shaped ornaments, real archers' rings were being used by hunters and soldiers. This change of function is not necessarily a degeneration, but merely the transfer of a pleasing form to a different use.
The foregoing descriptions of rings cover items made from 1200 BCE to about 150 BCE. Precise dating is not always possible, but the ages of the rings are roughly known. They do not form a clear sequence, but some trends will be discussed below.
In comparison, the oldest thumb rings found outside China are probably those referred to by Roman Ghirshman in Persia from the Origins to Alexander the Great(11), where he cites several rings from the eighth to the seventh century BCE. His argument for believing these to be archers' rings is based on the circumstantial reasoning that, since the inhabitants of Luristan used composite bows, they must have needed archers' rings with which to shoot them. The rings do not bear much resemblance to any other existing archers' rings, but may have been used in a technique that has since died out.
Of greater interest are the rings from Nubia, mentioned by Walter Emery(12). These early African rings come from a culture with strong ties to Pharaonic Egypt and one that had been the source of generations of mercenary archers long before this time. However, despite their possible associations, the rings themselves are from 250-550 CE. These rings belonged to the X-Group of Nubia, who sometimes fought against the Roman troops in Egypt. They are cylindrical and bear a slight resemblance to Manchu rings of the Qing Dynasty. Rings from the kings' tombs were made from silver or semiprecious stones. Emery also illustrates a silver "bracer" designed to protect the left thumb and the back of the hand from damage by arrows. This is another piece of evidence for the use of the Mongolian release. Both Grayson(13) and Ward(14) have referred in previous issues of this Journal to African thumb rings, past and present.
Many more early Chinese archers' rings are in museums and private collections than have ever been excavated under controlled conditions. Different styles of rings exist too, which are undoubtedly Chinese, but whose dating is yet to be established (Fig. 9 for one in the author's collection). However, the correlation between the styles of decoration and the dates of rings does appear to be borne out by what has been excavated so far. This is promising for the future as more and more sites in China are being carefully excavated.
The first part of this discussion has covered the chronological significance of these discoveries. My interest with these rings is what they say about the introduction of archers' thumb guards and what they have contributed to the later evolution of the form of these objects.
The hypothesis illustrated in Fig. 10 shows the development of a ring of the Shang style into a ring ancestral to the Warring States style. The ring of Fu Hao is first presented without its surface decoration (1). The cross section of this Shang ring (2) is a guess, but a reasonable one. The next stage illustrates a cut-down version of the Shang style (3), which would be an effective archer's ring as it stands. The last illustration (4) is a simplified ring that is similar both to Warring States rings and other hard-stone rings from India, Turkey and Iran (a gap of fifteen hundred years notwithstanding).
The origin of the design of the Shang ring is open to debate. It is conceivable that a thick leather cylinder to protect the thumb was copied in antler or stone. The groove may have been necessary, if the original soft thumb guard bent in the middle under the pressure of the string. This would explain why the bottom edge of the ring was not chosen as the place to hold the bow string in the manner of the much later rings of the Qing Dynasty.
Subsequently, a ring maker(15) may have stumbled across the design of the shallow ring by accident. His material may have shown a flaw when he was half way through a carving and, rather than waste the work, he may have completed a short version of his original conception. Leather thumb guards with lips, like modern Mongolian ones(16), could have provided a separate source of inspiration. I am operating on the premise that ring types were first tried in horn or bone and the design transferred to stone after working models were made. Not many rings in these perishable materials have been found, but both bone and antler arrow heads of great antiquity have survived so there is a chance that such rings of the Shang and earlier might yet be discovered.
From the rings of Luoyang, Jinshangcun, and Qufu described above and others in various collections that can be related to them by style, I suggest that the typical late Eastern Zhou archer's ring has four identifying features:
1. A distinct lip for holding the string.
2. A tab that projects upwards and inwards towards the face when the ring is being used.
3. An elaborate two-level rear face, which is usually formed by adjoining pairs of planes meeting at a vertical axis.
4. A small perforation in the rear face, probably related the Shang rings.
The first and second characteristics are present in all the later rings, while the others are present in many of them. The suspension holes of the Shang ring served a purpose in that ring, but subsequently they are so small that only a single thread could be passed through them. This still may have served a secondary purpose: to attach them to a loop hanging from the belt. However, the later purely decorative rings often did not have this refinement, which suggests that the hole was drilled more for tradition that for utility. The rings could have easily been suspended by a loop of cord through the opening for the thumb itself.
The projecting tab may have followed a similar evolutionary path, starting as a functional feature and ending as a traditional embellishment. The possibilities for decoration allowed it to take more fanciful forms as seen in the stylized bird's head. The time when it ceased to be practical is much harder to determine because any shape of projection could serve. Shooting with rings with projecting tabs has shown me that they can be positioned much more positively than with even a prominent ridge on the back of a ring. The original of the ring that I used is illustrated in Fig. 1 and, as can be seen, it does not have a particularly pronounced tab. Of course, the fact that a feature can be used for a particular purpose does not mean that it was designed for that purpose. The tabs could have been a standard feature of archers' rings long after they no longer used for technical purposes because, when shooting, they did not get in the way. Many later Middle Eastern lipped rings have a ridge or round bump on the back that may represent a stitching line or rivet in a leather prototype that has become fossilized as a decorative feature.
In this article, I have covered the descriptions of several excavated archers' rings and their relatives, the archer's ring look-alikes. I realise that the items described here are a small part of the larger group of archers' rings that have survived from antiquity and that there are gaps in the chronology, most notably the absence of rings from the Western Zhou period. However, the archers' rings illustrated and discussed are snapshots of the development of one form of archery, which uses the Mongolian release.
The development of the design of the lipped archer's ring that I have suggested is only one of many possibilities. The absence of leather thumb guards from the archaeological record is a great loss, because they almost certainly preceded rings made from hard materials. Two peculiar features of the late Zhou rings, the tab and the perforation, may turn out to be as explained here, but an ancient text may be discovered tomorrow with a contemporary explanation related more to ritual than to utility. The development of the shape of the rear of the rings, which is only briefly touched here, could possibly be important in tracing the relationships of rings both inside and outside China.
The attempt to relate these rings to other areas where archers' rings have been traditionally used can only be only tentative at the moment. We do not know the full story, but bit by bit it is being unearthed. As well, in the West and in China, many archers' rings associated with datable excavations may not yet have been published. Some may have not been recognised and others may have been lost among masses of details.
Unlike research on larger objects such as ancient siege engines, studying and reconstructing archers' rings is relatively easy. Published photographs and drawings can be guides, or actual rings can be used as models, if they are available. Horn rings can be made with a drill, a file, and a little patience. They can be tested at an archery range and later manuals and surviving art works from China and the Middle East can supply details of technique that can be checked against reconstructed items. As a small personal item, they allow us a unique contact with ancient archers.
1. The Institute of Archaeology, 1980, YINXU FU HAO MU (Tomb of Lady Hao at Yinxu in Anyang (With an English Abstract)) , CASS, Cultural Relics Publishing House, Beijing. Aside from drawings and photographs, this book also has a rubbing of the carved design on the ring. See pp.194-195 for Fig. 97 first and second parts and Plate CLXIV 3 & 4.
2. There has been considerable discussion of whether Fu Hao was an individual, or the title of the consort from one of the major Shang lineages, which may have been used over several generations. This argument can be examined in English in Chang, K. C.: (Editor), 1986, STUDIES OF SHANG ARCHAEOLOGY, Yale University Press
7. See Needham, Joseph and Yates, Robin D. S. with the collaboration of Krzysztof Gawlikowski, Edward McEwen, and Wang Ling, 1994, SCIENCE & CIVILISATION IN CHINA, Vol. V:6, Cambridge University Press, pp 117-119 for illustrations of these rings. The original reference cited is to 1959, LO-YANG CHUNG-CHOU LU (antiquities discovered while rebuilding Chung-chou Street at Lo-yang), Peking.
9. Lam, Peter Y. K.: (Editor), 1991, JADES FROM THE TOMB OF THE KING OF NANYUE, The Museum of the Western Han Tomb of the Nanyue King and others, Plates 64-65, 155. pp. 251-252, 275-276. These rings are presented in clear photographs. I have not illustrated them here because they were not used as archers' rings.
10. Lawton, Thomas, 1982, CHINESE ART OF THE WARRING STATES PERIOD CHANGE AND CONTINUITY, 480-222 B.C., Freer Gallery of Art. See item 93 for an entirely ornamental piece in the general form of an archer's ring. There is a good discussion of archers' rings on pp. 162-164 with illustrations and references.
15. There is no reason to believe the craftsmen of the time were exclusively male. For evidence of female ring makers, see Elmy, Doug, 1990, THE ORIENTAL THUMBRING, Vol. 33, Journal of the Society of Archer Antiquaries, pp 41-45.