Asian Traditional Archery Research Network (ATARN)

Text and photographs Stephen Selby, 2001. 

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

Fax: (852) 2808-2887
email: srselby@atarn.org
October 2001

Letter from Peking (September 1998) Letter of November 1998 Letter of December 1998
Letter #2 of December 1998
Letter of Jan 1999
Letter of February 1999 Letter of March 1999 Letter of April 1999 Letter of May 1999
Letter of June 1999 Letter of July 1999 Letter of August 1999 Letter of October 1999
Letter of November 1999

Letter of December 1999

Letter of January 2000 Letter of February 2000
Letter of March 2000 Letter of April 2000 Letter of May 2000 Letter of June 2000
Letter of July 2000 Letter from Fort Dodge Letter of October 2000 Letter of November 2000
Letter of December 2000 Letter of January 2001 Letter of February 2001 Letter of March 2001
Letter of April 2001 Letter of May 2001 Letter of June 2001 Letter of July/August 2001
Letter of September 2001      

Dear All,

    I was at 40,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean on 11 September when four hijacked jetliners were used to attack the United States with such terrible effect. Our hearts go out to the bereaved families from 22 countries - and particularly those from the United States which suffered the worst losses.

    Was it sheer coincidence that as these events unfolded I was reading of another terror attack, unprecedented at its time - the attacks of the Huns on Eastern Europe and Russia in 395AD? 'The World of the Huns' by Otto J. Maenchen-Helfen (Berkley, 1973) offers interesting material for those who like to read lessons from history. The Huns were poorly understood (and remain so.) No-one at the time could fathom their motivation: 'gratulabantur mortuis et vivos plangent.' (Glorying in the dead and lamenting the living.)

    The Prophet, Muhammad, who possessed three bows, taught that skill in archery was a religious obligation (as reflected in sura viii. 62.) Some Islamic authors relate how the Archangel Gabriel had taught Adam that the bow is the power of God, the string is the might of God and the arrow the punishment of God. Chinese writers of the same period expressed the view that no man, while of sound body and mind, should ever give up the practice of archery. Laws to similar effect came into force at the time of English King Henry VIII. Countless other civilizations must have expressed the same idea in some way or other.  

    The tradition of archery has the potential to bring together people from all over the world. The most extreme exponents of Islam to the most moderate can choose to respect it, as, for that matter, can the people of North Korea or the USA.

    More strident weapons of war will soon be heard before terrorism is eradicated. ATARN is dedicated to refining the bow and arrow as the weapon of peace.


The International Horse Archery Festival 2001 at Fort Dodge had the great good fortune to finish two days before 11 September. It has gained in stature and experience from the first festival last year, and careful planning with indoor facilities allowed the event to be totally successful despite poor weather at times. 

    This year visitors could witness the whole process of Kassai's training programme for horseback archery. The biggest surprise for many must have been that an important element of the training takes place without any horses. Kassai has developed a set of military-style archery exercises, which help the student overcome the first hurdle - the transition from a gentlemanly sport to a martial art. Such a transition is vital to developing the hand-eye co-ordination and manual dexterity needed to handle a bow and arrow on horseback.

    This year saw more intensive coverage of Kyudo, with workshops, rapid shooting displays and lectures. We also gained a rare insight into the cultural significance of archery in Africa, through a lecture from Cecelia Imunu from Southern Sudan. Practitioners from the native American nations were also present to share their traditional knowledge.

    I was surprised how many people were prepared to get up early and practice Qigong exercises. My early morning class also looked at the relationship between Qigong and archery, and tried out some of the basic techniques of Chinese archery. 

    Next year, the Third International Horseback Festival will be back at Fort Dodge. There may be some 'taster' displays of different foot archery traditions, and the organizers hope to attract some archery cultures who have not been represented at Fort Dodge before. And -as always - there will be the drama and excitement of archery on horseback!


    Many of you will be excited to learn that over the weekend after Fort Dodge, I was in Peking making a film (together with the Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence) on China's last traditional bow-maker, Ju Yuan Hao. We had a spectacularly successful day's filming which has resulted in an hour of professional video footage, narrated by the bowyer and his son, which will be sub-titled in Chinese characters and English.

    Do not expect step-by-step instructions here. We are making two films: one of just fifteen minutes for continuous showing at the new Chinese archery exhibit at the Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defence, which will be opened in the Spring of 2002; and the other for distribution to archery enthusiasts. Both of them will look generally at the techniques and the cultural background to the bowyer's craft in China. We have covered history, social organization, raw materials, cutting with the adze, gluing of the horn, laying-down of sinew, covering with birch-bark and decorative conventions.

    Ju Yuan Hao has a genius for organization and for telling his story. While you would learn more technical detail from Tom Duvernay's film of the Korean master-bowyer of Kyongju or T'an Tan Chiung's 1930s study of bow-making in Chengdu, there are some surprising new insights to be gained from Ju Yuan Hao's experiences.

    For example, the Chengdu bowyer, Wu Shusen, went to some lengths to keep human bodily fluids out of the gluing process. Ju Yuan Hao, on the other hand, is convinced that human saliva is a vital element in the composition of glue. Indeed, he goes to the extent of sizing the sinew backing of a bow and the birch-bark to be applied to it with thin glue and letting them dry out first. Then he licks both thoroughly to cover them with saliva and sticks down the birch-bark like one might do when sticking a stamp on an envelope. He joked that an apprentice bow-maker has to be be prepared not only for foul smells but for the fact that bows taste bad!

    Another story is a Chinese legend about the origin of archery. This story is not recorded in the Chinese classics. Ju Yuan Hao related that it was inscribed on the wall of the bowyers' temple in Peking (now demolished.) 

    The first Emperor, Huang Di, was travelling one day when he was confronted by a tiger. He rushed to a clump of trees and shinned up one of them. The tiger waited down below.

    The tree where Huang Di had taken refuge was a wild mulberry. It's branches were strong and springy. He broke off a branch and cut it to form a bow. Then he reached over to the next tree. It was a willow and its twigs were straight. He broke off a twig, cut a nock in it and sharpened it to form an arrow. Next to it was a clump of bamboo. Its outer skin was strong and supple, so he reached over and stripped some off to make a bowstring. With this bow and arrow he shot the tiger in the eye and it ran away howling in pain. So Huang Di was able to make his escape.

    The film should be cut and dubbed by April 2002. I shall make sure you are all told how to get a copy.


In London last week, I hadn't counted on the British Museum being so generous in letting visitors take photographs in the galleries, so I turned up without my trusty digital camera. Coming upon the Assyrian exhibits in Galleries 7 and 8, I realised my mistake: the wall carvings from the Palace of Ashurbanipal, King of the Assyrians in Niniveh contain a wealth of detail for archers and re-enactors. So I nipped out to the museum shop and bought a throw-away camera with a flash. Here are the photos I took.


A vassal state has made a tribute of bows and arrows. 
But are the bow-limbs and arrows straight?


Looks alright. Let's get one strung up. 
(Assistant on the right is preparing to fit the string over the nock.)


Shooting in battle. A guard is always on hand to protect the archer with a shield.
We are looking at the archer's back (otherwise the draw-hand wouldn't be that way around.) The archer is left-handed.


The archer's draw-hand


Ashurbanipal shooting on foot. Still left-handed and with a shield-bearing bodyguard. 


The archer's draw-hand. Nice wristwatch.


Two archers protected by a large shield. 
Front view, and right-handed this time.


Elamite soldiers shooting down from a rampart. We are looking at the archer's back. 
Both soldiers are left-handed again. I could get to like these people.


Shooting from a kneeling position, again with a shield-bearing bodyguard. 
Left-handed archer seen from the back. 
Bow-hand thumb seems to push hard against the upper limb of the bow, 
with the arrow passing on the outside of the bow.


Bareback horseback archery with no stirrups. 
Right-handed archer using a soft thumb-lock on the string assisted by three fingers.
A note in the Museum said that horseback archers were each assisted by a rider to hold the reins and pass arrows; 
but I could not conclude that just from looking at the display.


Turning to shoot behind. Left-handed archer.

Ashurbanipal's palace at Niniveh was built around 645BCE. Some scenes are battle scenes showing a battle against the Arabs and the Elamite city of Hamanu during a revolt that took place from 652-648BCE. For further information, see Julian Reade: "Assyrian Sculpture". British Museum Press, 1998.


Following issue of this Newsletter, Bede Dwyer came up with a number of comments and criticisms. Here they are:

	Are the archers really left-handed? The sword is worn on the left-hand
side, the bow is held in the left hand and it is the palm of the right hand
drawing the string. Look at where the thumbs are.
	Ashurbanipal is shooting with his chest facing the viewer. That means his
left hand is holding the bow and his right hand is pulling the string. The
conventions of Assyrian sculptural relief were such that the hands usually
maintained correct orientation to each other, but things like bow strings
and arrows can disappear behind the body if they might obscure the face of
the king. This is paralleled in Ancient Egyptian art too.
	You have perceptively noted a "soft thumb lock assisted by three fingers",
which is the standard way of representing a drawing hand from the front.
Your left-handed archers are actually right-handed archers drawing past the
back of their heads. The string and finger position is always shown
accurately from behind, but rarely from the front. Your photos give
examples of this.
	Various theories have been advanced for the front view of the hand as
being a Tertiary Release as described by Morse, but some reliefs show that
particular finger position with the archer holding arrows vertically in the
drawing hand. There are only two easy ways to do this: one involves holding
the arrows with the little and ring fingers as do the Japanese, but that
would require those fingers to be closed; the other is a Mediterranean
Release with the thumb used to hold the spare arrows against the palm. If
you tried this latter method with a Tertiary Release, you would  drop the
spare arrows as you released. 
	I once spent months going through hundreds of figures of archers in photos
to establish some sort of statistical analysis of the hand positions in
Assyrian sculpture. I originally thought the Assyrians used the thumb draw.
Many people advanced that theory. Then I found Morse and progressed to the
Tertiary Release where the thumb and curled forefinger hold the arrow nock
on the string while the three other fingers pull directly on the string.
However, the arrows held in the drawing hand and the fact that all archers
shown from behind, where their hands were visible, have a three- or
four-finger Mediterranean grip on the string forced me to believe that all
the archers are using the same technique. The only thing that changes is
how the artist represents it from different directions. I think that the
bent index finger shows the separation necessary for the arrow nock,
exaggerated to be sure. There is a technique of the Mediterranean Release
where the tips of the fingers lie diagonally across the string. The bow
string is sometimes under the fingers and sometimes in front of them.
	Incidentally, it is easy to draw thirty-four to forty inches with one of
those triangular composite bows. The one I tried made by David Betteridge
did not stack at all and shot smoothly and accurately. 
	To continue the note of whimsy you introduced about the wristwatch, look
for the "chopsticks" in the king's sash! In reality, they represent styli
or small knives. 

 

 

(Signed)

(Stephen Selby)