The Philosophy of Chinese Archery

In this essay, I intend to highlight some theoretical questions raised by writers on Chinese archery and explain how they relate to schools of philosophical thought that have existed in China in previous ages.

Acquisition of archery skills

In Japan and Korea – both of which have been heavily influenced by Chinese thought – words denoting the practice of archery (Jap. Kyudo or Kr. Goongdo) contain a character that in Chinese is read as 'Dao'. 'Dao' is a word that implies a recognized method that is shared with other practitioners. (The word is used differently here from the way it is used in the Chinese belief called 'Taoism'.)

However, the word 'Dao' hardly appears in Chinese writings on the study of archery. The Chinese use other words – 'shu' or 'yi' which mean 'acquired skill' (Jap. 'jitsu' or 'gi') – words that the Japanese use to refer to a military skill. It is almost as if the Chinese were rejecting a civil or philosophical base for archery.

But that is not to say that the Chinese did not adhere to the principle that archery should be learned within the framework of an accepted set of norms. Self-taught archery was frowned at. The Ming Dynasty writer, Gao Ying, wrote:

"A proper recognized style of archery is like a highway: it has a natural logic to it. Once you get onto it and keep going, in the end you arrive at the main city gate. From there, you can get to City Hall and from there again you can get into the rooms of the Hall. It’s a matter of days before you get where you want. But if you get on the wrong road and keep going, you get to some suburban side gate. It’s like going to the capital and taking the wrong exit: the harder you drive, the further away you get."

In terms of teaching method (at least in the Ming Dynasty where it is best recorded), an archer was encouraged to take himself through a process of self-perfection so that the technical details of the shot could fade from his or her consciousness, leaving the archer to concentrate on 'higher things'. The Ming writer, Li Chengfen (c. 1600), wrote:

But for all that, a bow and arrows are no more than the tools. Archery is no more than a skill. The ‘tool’ represents the lower form, the ‘method’ represents the higher form. ‘Skill’ represents preparedness at the lower level, ‘virtue’ represents preparedness at the higher level. [Confucius said:] ‘There is more to the rituals than jade and brocades; there is more to ritual music than bells and drums.’ [Likewise,] there is more to archery than bows and arrows. The pulling of bows and grasping of arrows is a method of ‘study at ground-level’; but when [the skill] comes naturally to your hands and flows from the heart, then it becomes ‘a soaring achievement.’ I can write about the ‘study at ground level’, but words cannot express the ‘soaring achievement.’

Here, Li Chengfen indulged himself in quotations from a number of Chinese classics, including Confucius' 'Analects' and the 'Book of Changes'. Li was a follower of the Chinese philosopher Wang Yangming (1472-1529), who developed an approach to self-perfection influenced by Buddhist meditation.

Wang Yangming, in turn, based his route to self-perfection in one of the basic Confucian Classics, the 'Great Learning', where Confucius wrote:

"The concept behind the 'Great Learning' is to throw light on the meaning of 'virtue revealed'. It is [a way for] our peers to re-invent themselves. It involves not stopping until you have achieved total perfection.

First, you have to know where that point [of total perfection] actually is. When you know that, you can steady yourself. When you have steadied yourself, you can clear your mind. When your mind is clear, you can be at peace. When you have achieved peace, you can meditate. Through your meditation, you can tell the forest from the trees, set your priorities and thus you will be proceeding along the correct path."

In some writings, you can see this text applied almost literally to the setting up of a shot – not just to the approach to learning archery. Confucius (551-479BCE), it is related, was himself an archery instructor. In a commentary on ritual archery attributed to him, he says,

"Thus archers were required to meet the requirements of the rituals on entering, leaving or making turning movements in any direction. When their minds were composed and their posture straight, they grasped the bow and arrow and concentrated. Only when the archer had grasped the bow and arrow and concentrated was it possible to talk of meeting the requirements of the Rituals."

Later commentators explain the word 'meditate' in the former quotation from the 'Great Learning' as meaning the same as 'concentrate' in the latter quotation from the 'Rituals'.

The conclusion that we might draw from the preceding discussion is that Chinese archery instructors treated physical technique as 'clutter' that had to be totally internalized before the real skill of archery could be exploited.

And how could we describe the 'real skill', the 'higher thing' or the 'soaring achievement'? We get a glimpse of it in the works of Liezi (Lie Yukou, lived around 450-375BCE), a philosopher of the Daoist School, who often wrote about archery in humorous, self-deprecating terms. The 'higher skill' was what he called 'unarchery'.

I showed off my archery skills to my friend Bohun. Bringing the bow to full draw, someone balanced a cup of water on the inside of my elbow and I shot off my arrows so that they 'robin-hooded' one-another. Throughout the shooting, my stance was as solid as a statue [and the cup of water did not fall.]

Bohun said,

"This is just shooting with an ordinary archer's skills, it isn't 'unarchery'.

"Supposing you and I climbed a high mountain, scaled a precipice and faced out over a yawning chasm, what would your 'archery' be like then?"

There and then, Bohun took me straight up a mountain, scaled a precipice over a yawning chasm, turned his back on the chasm and stood so that his heels stuck out over the edge and waved to me to come up and join him.

I just grovelled on the ground and sweated so much that my feet were soaked through! Bohun said,

"Any man who has attained his skills in full will have an unbending spirit, no matter whether he faces the sky above, plunges into the foaming depths or journeys to the corners of the earth…

"I think you have some way to go towards perfecting your skills, don’t you?"


In FITA archery, we rather take for granted what our target is. Isn't it that yellow thing in the middle with a little black cross in it that we never seem able to hit?

In Chinese archery, which covers ritual, warfare, hunting, sport and general self-improvement, the identification of the target is not such a simple exercise. Indeed, hitting the target is not always the same as attaining the objective, which may go beyond the mechanics of the shot itself.

A famous Chinese poem by Du Fu (712-770) of the Tang Dynasty says,

'Before you shoot the rider, shoot the horse,

First take the leader, ere you take the rebel throng.'

That verse is a classic example of determining objectives that every Chinese can quote you to this day.

Indeed, you can distill a general approach to organization and management that can be drawn from a study of Chinese texts about archery. At the heart of this approach is the ability truly to understand what our objectives are: in Confucius's terms, 'to tell the forest from the trees', or in modern management terms, 'to be able to distinguish between output and outcome.' Confucius's 'Great Learning' set understanding of the objective as the first stage in the learning process. ("First, you have to know where that point of total perfection actually is.")

The second phase in our 'organization and management method' should consist of assessing our tools (means and capacity.) What is the environment in which our objective exists? What are our bow and arrows like? What are our own abilities and limitations?

Limitations? No!

Chinese archery philosophy does not permit an archer to dwell on his or her perceived limitations. Confucius wrote in his 'Analects':

"Ran Qiu said: 'Although I do not wish to abandon your teaching, I don't have sufficient ability to put them into practice.' Confucius replied, 'Dropping out half way through on the pretext of not having sufficient ability is nothing more than you yourself setting limits to what you can achieve.'

Confucius's follower, Mencius (371-289BCE), commented,

"The great master carpenter never offered a bent ruler to an apprentice who couldn’t saw along a straight line; the great master archer, Yi, never taught a faulty full-draw to a pupil too weak to pull a bow."

So our 'philosophical model' developed from studying Chinese archery does not admit of acceptance of any limitations!

Perhaps I should finish with Confucius's advice for the archer who misses his objective:

"Archery enshrines the principles of human relationships. The Archer perfects his form within himself. If his form is perfect, yet when he releases he misses, there is no point in resenting those who have done better than him. The fault lies nowhere but within himself."

Page up-dated on 25 November, 2003