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What Came First in Mongolia - the Wheel or the Bow?

by Jenni Storey

Re-printed with permission from
July 9, 1997.

nadam.JPG (36989 bytes)For centuries the national sport of archery has been enjoyed by Mongolian men and women, young and old: in fact it is not known which came first for the steppeland residents of Central Asia - the wheel or the bow.

Chronicles of the Chinese Tang Dynasty stated with admiration, "Steppe inhabitants can hit at full tilt a running hare with a single arrow".

A rather sophisticated bow, lighter and more powerful than its European counterpart, became widespread in Mediaeval Mongolia. It was considered the world’s best in terms of design and combat effectiveness. Its arrows pierced thick shields and armour. Thanks to the long shooting range of their bows, Mongolian warriors were out of danger while showering the enemy on tall fortress walls with lots of arrows.


There is a memorable inscription on the Chingis Khan Stone, a inscribed monument dating back to the early 13th Century. It says that in 1225, a Mongolian archer, Esukhei, took part in a warriors' competition, hitting the target from a distance of 335 ald (which means that the bow’s shooting range which was in excess of half a kilometre).

The Blue Sutra, a chronicle of the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty which ruled China during the 13th and 14th centuries, cites a rather typical incident for that period when arrow sharpshooting was seen as an indispensable quality in a male warrior:

    The Merkit ruler Magnagt and his troops barred the way to Chingis Khan's detachments.

    "Even though you are viewed as the son of the heavens," said Magnagt, "I still have doubts about the combat prowess of your people. If any one of them hits with a single arrow a tiny red flag from a distance of 100 num (one num equals the length of a bowstring, or nearly 1.5 metres), I will be your ally and friend – if not, I’ll be your enemy."

On hearing this, Taitsuu, one of Chingis’s generals, began to laugh: "You offer us the warrior’s standard exercise." On his order, archery marksman Chuu Mergen stepped forward and, hardly aiming, hit the target. Shortly afterwards, another sharpshooter, Khavt Khasar, said, "It’s no challenge to hit a motionless target." He raised his bow and with a single arrow pierced the neck of a drake flying high in the sky. No sooner had the falling bird touched the ground than Khavt Khasar hit it with another arrow.

On seeing all this, the Merkit ruler voluntarily brought to Chingis Khan more than 9,000 warriors from his own tribe.

When preparing for a campaign, every mediaeval Mongolian warrior would carry a spear, sabre, halberd and cudgel, plus two or three spare quivers with 30 arrows in each. There were several kinds of arrows differing in weight, length, thickness and design. Some were meant for powerful bows – their tips were 15 cm long and 3.5 cm wide. They were capable of piercing thick armour. There were also short and long-range, double-tipped, signal, incendiary and whistling arrows (with holes in the tips to produce a sharp whistle in flight to terrorize the enemy.)

Ten natural materials were used to manufacture ancient bows including birch bark, fish glue, bamboo, deer antlers, natural silk threads and animal tendons.

Legend has it that the Great Khan Munkh gave an enormous black bow to King Louis IX of France. Two warriors could barely draw it. He also gave him two arrows – one was decorated with silver and the other was a combat whistling arrow. The first symbolised peace and the second, war. The Khan was warning the French monarch that be would do better to live in friendship with the Mongols.

The Italian traveller, Plano Carpini, remarked in his notes that the Mongols found archery most enjoyable:

    "They all, young and old alike, shoot superbly. From early childhood children are provided with bows according to their height and are taught to shoot," he wrote.

Archery competitions were among the Mongols’ traditional amusements at the Khan's court and in nomadic camps. Archery has survived, although during the Manchurian reign in Mongolia most of them were officially banned because their military implications. But for all the Manchurian invaders’ attempts to uproot the country’s ancient tradition of archery, it has survived, thus manifesting its vitality.

With the establishment of an independent Mongolia’s in 1911, it took only a few years for archery to regain its massive popularity, to the delight of its sincere admirers.

The authorities’ determined  efforts were a major contributing factor here. For instance, one of the documents issued by the War Ministry of Autonomous Mongolia says that all Aimags (provinces) were supposed to annually send 336 men to the capital city of Urga (then the name of Ulaanbaatar) for training at archery school. Russian ethnographer I. M. Maisky visited the school’s archery competitions during those years.

"An archery festival is truly gorgeous – hundreds of white gers and multicoloured, embroidered tents spread all across a huge meadow at the foot of the Bogd Mountain range: visiting archers lived there," he said.

Competitions start every morning. There are special officials keeping score-sheets which bolster the glory and reputation of aimags and khoshuuds. Targets are installed - short wooden tubes with a little ball inside. Placed one on top another, they form a pyramid of sorts. To hit the target means to knock a tube out of the pyramid with an arrow. Still better is to knock a ball out of a tube.

"Now a signal is given, the bow is drawn and the first arrow cuts through the air... A hit! The pyramid is destroyed. Someone from among the overseers bends and adjusts it. The rest, facing the lucky archer and stretching sun-tanned hands to him, start singing a hymn of praise, matgaal."

These days the rules of the Naadam team and individual contests in archery remain almost the same.

Traditionally, the archers wear their national del. They put leather bracers on the right arm up to the elbow so that the del's cuff does not interfere with shooting.

Teams of twelve archers emerge onto the shooting line and in turn launch four arrows each at the targets which are leather cylinders installed in the ground. The shooting distance is 75 metres for men and 60 metres for women. For those under 18, the distance is set at a rate of three to four metres per year of age.

Thirty-three hits entitle a team to participate in the next round where the targets are arranged in a more involved composition. The winning team is the one that scores the highest number of points.

The Naadam tournament is launched by an archer born in the year of the tiger - a symbol of strength and marksmanship.

The used arrows are picked up by people born in the year of the mouse, a little animal seen as diligent and industrious. Someone born in the year of the dragon, the symbol of eloquence, invariably starts singing a song a praise, the magtaal, in honour of the archers.

Competition participants are normally awarded the title of ‘mergen’ meaning ‘sharpshooter’.

Depending on the number of wins and other achievements, this title is supplemented with ‘young and improving sharpshooter’, ‘diligent sharpshooter’, ‘amazing sharpshooter’ and so on. The title ‘national sharpshooter’ is bestowed on a winner in individual scoring at the national competition referred to as ‘naadam’.

Up-dated 20 July, 2000