Asian Traditional Archery Research Network (ATARN)

A1, Cloudridge,
30, Plunkett’s Road,
The Peak, Hong Kong.

Fax: (852) 2808-2887
April 2003

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Dear All,

   Since the first time I raised the possibility of a seminar on Asian archery, the event seems to have been jinxed. The event I had so confidently announced for 15-17 May 2003 must now be postponed until October 2003 because of the SARS outbreak in Hong Kong.

The outbreak of such an virulent and unknown disease has caused fear and depression here in Hong Kong; but all those who originally pledged to support the event by coming over to speak or perform – Bert Grayson, J, Kay and Jaap Koppedreyer, Prof. Yang Hong, Tsewang Nidup and Col. Kim – have all promised to support us in October. That is a really heartening piece of news for us when we are having such a hard time here in Hong Kong.

The museum exhibit will open as scheduled in May, but without the fanfare of an official opening ceremony.

For as long as I have been researching Chinese traditional archery, I have resisted holding myself out to be a teacher of the art. There are a number of reasons for that.

‘Chinese Archery’ can’t be easily reduced to a standard. The classic archery of ancient China spanned thousands of years with many schools and local variations. Talking about ‘Chinese Archery’ is about as meaningless as talking about ‘European cookery’. What is more, the art is truly dead for all practical purposes. What I have pieced together is a sort of ‘Jurassic Park’ of techniques. Probably, no authentic practitioner (were any still alive today) would recognize it as true ‘Chinese archery.’

Then there is the rather significant problem that I am not a very good shot. Students expect a certain degree of excellence (in hitting the target) from an archery instructor.

Things changed this year when the imminent opening of the museum exhibition about Chinese archery aroused a lot of local news coverage. The Museum itself wanted to get a training class set up and the press reports stirred up a lot of interest and demand for classes.

Coverage of Chinese Archery classes by the Hong Kong 'Sun' Sunday Newspaper. (Oriental Daily News Publications) Don't ask me how Legolas got in there...

For all my shortcomings, it was painfully clear that I was the only person – qualified or unqualified – who was going to be able to teach classes. It was also a window of opportunity, because this time more than any was a good time to try to revive an interest in Chinese archery among Chinese people.

The first question to be addressed was the equipment. Traditional horn bows were not an option: they are too expensive for beginners, they perform poorly or not at all at low draw-weights, and manufacturing enough to equip a class of fifteen students would take too long.

Using a generous donation from the Rotary Club of Hong Kong North, ATARN purchased modern fiberglass reproductions of traditional Chinese bows with draw-weights of 30#–35#.

Then came a short period of mild comedy in finding a location for the training. Archery is wrongly perceived as a dangerous sport, and I was at first pressed to consider insurance coverage. Insurers were in general not interested in taking on the cover. Those who were prepared to consider it wanted evidence that I was a qualified coach. What did that mean? Who would confer the qualification? They’re all dead. Clearly, it was not going to be possible to get insurance cover.

Finally the Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education came to the rescue, enthusiastically supporting the training (with some students drawn from their staff.) They provided an indoor games hall where training could continue in all weathers. I purchased a backstop net and we set up a range 6.5 metres wide (enough for three target butts) with a distance of up to 20 metres. The archery range was set up.

Recruiting the students was easy: the initial class of 12 (the maximum number a single instructor can handle safely) was twice over-subscribed.

When it came to lesson design, I had the experience of being trained in ground-work in Kassai’s classes in Fort Dodge as well as observing traditional archery training in Korea. There was a lot to learn from Kassai’s methods, but other issues needed a very different approach from Kassai’s.

‘Martial art’ nowadays has a strong connotation of Asian hand-to-hand fighting skills. That is only partially-applicable to Chinese archery. Chinese archery is a battlefield skill: very different from how modern Chinese martial arts are taught today. I decided to build in a certain degree of military drill training into the programme; but to ensure that the training focussed on co-ordination, co-operation and tactical considerations, not just discipline. I decided that every demand on the student must be under-lain with an explanation of why it was required.

Another element of my teaching is that I teach ‘unarchery’. In unarchery, nothing is certain. Your target may move. You may be shooting from a moving platform like a horse. An enemy may be shooting at you. You may be reduced to shooting with a child’s bow, like Li Guang when he was captured by the Huns. In unarchery, the exact moment of release is not yours to decide.

I did accept from Kassai’s teaching that all forms of Chinese archery teaching should be consistent with the requirements of horseback archery. Should my students ever reach the point of being ready to study horseback archery, I do not want them to have to re-learn anything. Historically, Chinese traditional instructors shared such concerns.

Perhaps differently from other instructors, I believe that qigong has an important role to play in good archery technique. If nothing else, I do not believe students should draw a bow before they have physically warmed up with some qigong exercises.

Based on those ideas, I developed a standard 90-minute teaching plan like this:

Like Kassai’s training, all the archery instruction is carried out in the context of military drills by the students, who form up in columns. The initial military drill (accompanied by the beat of the drum, in the traditional Chinese manner) attunes the students to pace and co-ordination. The instruction continues in the style of the military drill. Students are motivated to move efficiently and with proper consideration for what others are doing: the more quickly and efficiently they move, they more chances they get to shoot. Fumbling wastes their time and that of the other students.

The final discussion allows students to seek elaboration on points that I had failed to make clear, without interrupting the flow of the practical training. I also use it to discuss tactical or philosophical points raised by the classical Chinese writers. It is, as Kassai has recognized, an important ‘cooling off’ session.

Most of my well-laid plans were disrupted by the outbreak of the ‘Sars’ atypical pneumonia in Hong Kong. Classes at the Training Institute had to be stopped with the closure of schools.

We moved into small groups of five and I hosted ‘supervised practice’ sessions at my home. This was the first time that students got to draw a bow fully, using a lightweight bow that I still had from my early days of training. It was also their first time in front of a target (up until then, all training involved just shooting into the backstop net.)

This brief period as a trainer has given me valuable experience. I hope to take the experience forward to intensive training sessions within the Chinese Mainland. I shall share my experiences below.

The first session in the course covered an introduction to qigong, followed by an introduction to bows and arrows and shooting range safety. Students were not acquainted with each-other, so none of the initial elements could be covered properly in the allotted time. The basic qigong movements took almost half an hour to teach. Military drill was ragged, and safety was an important issue that needed time and care to explain.

But from then on, things came together quickly. Drills got smarter and more efficient. We started to look at stringing bows, nocking arrows and basic thumb release technique. I teach all students to string bows in pairs, one squatting and bending the bow around his knees and the other assisting. At first the students were terrified of the bows and took five minutes to complete the procedure and do their safety-checks. Now they can do it all in seconds.

Another area where I invest a lot of teaching time is arrow-nocking technique. True to Chinese military training principles, I do not permit an archer to grasp a fist-full of arrows against the bow. All students learn to take each arrow from the belt (mimicking a quiver), place it correctly against the bow, bring the arrow nock to the nocking point on the string and then slide it back onto the string with the bow-hand fingers while positioning the draw-hand thumb, all smoothly and without looking. This is the only battlefield-proven, sustainable method. The students do not readily appreciate the need for such a deliberate procedure for something as mundane as nocking the arrow. It is one of the most difficult things for them to master.

By contrast, all the students have mastered the ‘Mongolian’ draw naturally and without difficulty. I teach the draw without a thumb ring (the ring just clutters the technique in the early stages of learning.) There are a few complaints about sore thumbs (I hand out adhesive bandages to the weak-hearted). But our bowstrings have thick servings and I teach all the initial technique without letting students draw the bow back more than ten centimeters: just enough to plop the arrow off the string into the net and get on with nocking the next round.

Lack of strength in the shoulders and back is a serious problem with city people. On the first day I issued all the students with a loop of rubber tubing to exercise with. I keep explaining that "I can teach you to shoot but I can’t make you strong." They keep the rubber tubing and take it home with them; but they can’t take the bows back home to practice. Generally, the students don’t exercise enough.

The strong dedication of my students showed through when the pneumonia outbreak caused the closure of all schools in Hong Kong. They pressed me to continue the classes and so I arranged practice sessions at my home. For the first time they started to try drawing a bow fully. They quickly came to realize how much they would need to develop physical strength. But surprise, surprise: with four weeks’ worth of training in technique behind them, every student could hit a target with consistent shots (albeit not necessarily landing where they had planned!)

A number of students became hung-up on the idea that the string would hit their cheek if they released when the string was drawn back level to their ear. No amount of explanation would overcome their fears. Finally, one student got behind me while I was shooting and realized that at full-draw, my spectacles were fully two inches inside their imagined trajectory of the string; but, wonder of wonders, the string never touched them when I released. Magic!

There was also the normal crop of bruised forearms. I advise my students that the Disciple of God (may His name be exalted!) despises those who wear bracers on their arms so as to deny Him the opportunity to punish them for their bad shooting!

Another surprise is that a number of students, in the absence of talk of handedness and dominant eye, would tire of shooting with one hand and just change over to shoot with the other.

Although these guided practice session in small groups were not in the original plan, they have moved the whole group forward. Clearly, close individual attention is important and I must find a way to draw it into the overall teaching plan.

I face a further problem area: my initial order of thumb rings were on average too big for my Chinese students, who mostly have fine-boned hands. Half are women.

So far, I have not demanded that students come to a full draw so there is not a big problem: but that will soon change. I am placing an order for more rings; but it is a hit-and-miss affair ordering thumb rings by mail-order. (In Korea, a craftsman makes each archer a ring to measure on the spot, with half an hour’s work.) I am considering a crafty scheme to make elastic thumb rings for beginners!

Another problem is the arrows. I haven’t the time to fletch 50, 80-cm arrows. I ordered ready-made arrows from Quicks, but they are rather shorter than what I had hoped for.

For the future, there is demand already for another beginners’ class and an intermediate class for those who are currently studying with me. By the end of the current session, the beginners should have learned to draw a bow fully with a correct stance and release an arrow cleanly with a thumb ring draw. Accuracy in hitting the target is not on the syllabus.

For the intermediate level, I plan to teach the infantry archery examination syllabus, with basic accuracy in hitting a target at 20 metres and drawing a 60# bow three times with no arrow. The style will be based on the Chinese Ming style set out by Li Chengfen.

An advanced class would have to address the question of horseback archery. Hong Kong with its 150-year horseracing tradition, is a world-class center for teaching equestrian skills. There is an electric horse simulator at the Jockey Training School and a supportive local saddle club with a disused polo field that can be adapted to simulate the old Chinese examination ground with three targets. Even if we can’t get fully-fledged horseback archery started here, there is the opportunity for some useful groundwork.





(Stephen Selby)