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The History of Ju Yuan Hao Bowmakers of Beijing

  Trans. Stephen Selby, 1999
The original author of this article is the direct descendant of the old firm.
His full name has not been revealed.

With a history of over 300 years, Ju Yuan Hao is the last of the line of the seventeen bowyers under the patronage of the royal household of China. When I speak of ‘last in the line’ I mean that Ju Yuan Hao still has a surviving descendant of the line in good health and able to continue in the ancient craft of building Chinese traditional bows and arrows. The remaining ten-odd firms have gone out of business one after the other and no-one is left to represent them. What an incredible tragedy!

Bows and arrows have had an extremely long history in China. It is said that our ancestors used bows and arrows as far back as the old stone age and fended off hunger by shooting wild animals with them. But the one who we believe truly perfected the bow and arrow and invested them with true lethal power was the ultimate master of the Chinese bowyers’ guild, the Yellow Emperor. He indeed was the one that we of the Bowyers’ Guild took as our master, as can be proven by our ancestral temple.

In the old days, our ancestral temple was located in the present position of Bowyers’ Association Hutong outside Desheng Gate. Each year, the 21st of the fourth month of the lunar calendar was our ancestral day of worship. Each of the seventeen houses took it in turn to be responsible for the arrangements and expenses: everyone in the guild was given a day’s holiday to come to the temple to take part in the ceremonies, hold a feast and watch a PeWang Opera.

1953 was the year that we at Ju Yuan Hao were responsible for the celebrations. But the State had ordered the confiscation of all temple property and so we, being responsible that year, had the task of taking all the temple records and handing them over to the Authorities; so from that year on, our annual offerings to our ancestors of the Guild ceased.

Ju Yuan Hao was located at the south-west corner of the East Fourth Intersection, in the Courtyard of the Bow and Arrowmakers’ Guild. In the old days that district was under direct control of the royal household and ordinary folk were never allowed to step inside it. There were two gates: one was on East Fourth Main Street above the Mosque and was called the ‘South Main Gate’, while the other was above the Pork Market and was called the ‘North Main Gate.’ Each had a guardroom with guards.

Within the Alley, apart from the dozen-odd bowmakers’ shops, the other half-dozen enterprises were our sub-contractors. Ju Yuan Hao was the first shop as you came in by the South Main Gate and so enjoyed the best location. This was the ultimate reason why we endured and prospered through a welter of competition.

The founder of Ju Yuan Hao was surnamed Wang. In the feudal days of imperial rule, the Bow and Arrowmakers’ Guild was an imperially-commissioned factory and those admitted to the guild were mainly connected with the royal household. Their produce were all supplied to departments such as the Defense Department, Department of Ritual and the Imperial Customs and never found their way into the marketplace. At the appropriate time the members of the Guild were remunerated in cash and grain according to the number of workers in the shop. Guild members were under the purview of the Imperial Treasury and so, although their status was not high, they enjoyed extremely rich pickings and they came to feel themselves several cuts above the rest of the ordinary people, living a life free of deprivation.

The sons of the bowyers, like the Manchu bannermen of those days, often led pretty dissolute lives. The seventh generation of Ju Yuan Hao’s founder was like that – the people in the Alley called him ‘Little Wang’.

By that time it was already the late Qing Dynasty and following the influx of guns and bullets from foreign lands, bows and arrows had already disappeared from the battlefield. That aside, the feudal royal house was in its dying throes, having barely enough in its coffers to support itself, and so the bowyer’s and arrowmaker’s skills were allowed to develop into common crafts and their products were allowed to be bought and sold freely on the market.

By that time, ‘Little Wang’ and his wife had both become opium addicts and hardly had the willpower left to do any business. In the end, with all their money gone, they had no choice but to sell off the family business.

My own grandfather, [] , learned the craft from his paternal cousins [] Quanshun, [] Zhaichang and [] Juxue. By the age of twenty, he had become recognized in the Alley as a fully-fledged master craftsman. But having no shop of his own, there was not much he could do to advance himself. As soon as he heard that ‘Little Wang’ was selling his business off, he made up his mind to buy it. The opening price at that time was forty Mexican silver dollars – without doubt an enormous sum of money to a young craftsman in those days. But with the support of friends and family, he scraped enough together and thus became the eighth master bowyer in succession to Ju Yuan Hao.

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Using a press to hold the horn for binding

At the time my grandfather got possession of Ju Yuan Hao, it was making no more than bows and arrows. Once in control, Grandfather added new lines of products, making our range much more attractive. For example, he made pellet crossbows, 'pocket arrows', 'assassins’ arrows' and repeating crossbows. After the establishment of the Republic of China (1912), he won a prize at the Panama Exhibition of 1912.

As the prize certificate bore the official seal of the Republic of China, our brothers in the Communist Party burned it in the Cultural Revolution. Our shop-sign, written out in the hand of the Emperor Qianlong, was also destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, along with certificates, orders and receipts from that early period. Needless to say, some priceless bows and arrows and raw materials of my grandfather's could not escape the thieves’ grasp. Had they survived to this day, they would be national treasures. Their loss is immeasurable.

After the Liberation in 1949, Ju Yuan Hao enjoyed its most prosperous period. At that time there was a large sales volume both within China and over the borders: most orders came from Outer Mongolia. Through the Import Export Market Corporation, the Mongols placed a fixed annual order with us. It came to the point where we could sell anything we produced. And this was true not only of us: three other firms in the Guild were relatively capable, and found themselves no worse off than us. In fact, we alone would have been hard put to meet just the demand coming from Outer Mongolia. Sometimes the pressure was so great from Mongolia that we had to allow other shops to make bows for us on commission, placing our trademarks on their work.

At that time, there also started the ‘Roll Out the Flags and Beat the Drums to Beat the Four Scourges’ patriotic movement (in which people were encouraged to clash dustbin lids until sparrows dropped from the air in terror and exhaustion.) Lots of people came to our shop to buy pellet crossbows to shoot down sparrows. It got to the point where we had hardly paid for the materials before they were all taken up for new orders. We stopped lacquering things that should have been lacquered, and any form of decoration fell by the wayside. Young and old, men and women were drafted into our divisions and we took thousands of Yuan each month. Just imagine what a goldmine that was at a time when an average craftsman took home thirty to forty Yuan at most!

My grandfather was not just a materialist. As soon as the Party Central Committee called for the unifying of private and state enterprise, he led the family to become one of the first joint enterprises forming the Number One Sporting Goods Co-operative (which later became the Beijing Number One Sports Goods Factory.)

Starting off with not a cent’s worth of investment, technology, a few broken-down sheds and a bunch of unemployed local folk, my grandfather transferred all of his family business, materials, technology and customer base into that factory and made it develop rapidly. In recognition of that, my father and grandfather were allowed the highest wages and my grandfather was an honoured delegate at the Conference to Recognize Progress held in the Great Hall of the People.

I particularly remember the time my father made a bow for Chairman Mao.

That was after the company had not been going for long. The Party boss of the factory called in my father and told him that one of the ‘leaders’ wanted a bow, to be made to the highest possible standard. My father put all his effort into it over forty days. A few months after he had handed it over, the factory boss said to my father, "The bow you made has already been handed to Chairman Mao. Chairman Mao was very pleased and insisted that he must pay for it."

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Using a whipping spool and jig to whip a bowstring
My father was really sorry. Had he only known it was meant for Chairman Mao, he would have found even better materials and used even better workmanship to make an even finer bow. When the payment arrived, no-one in the factory wanted to accept it. In the end, they used it to buy sweets so that everyone could have a share in the honour.Ju Yuan Hao – no – by now it was time to refer to it as the ‘Sports Goods Factory’: the second demise of the bow and arrow came at the time of the three years of natural disaster. It was hard enough to get anything to eat at that time, let alone to play with bows and arrows. Particularly in the Cultural Revolution, they were swept into the rubbish bin of the ‘Four Olds’.

Bows and arrows were complex to make, demanding in their construction and particularly needed an accumulation of experience. There is no way you can train someone up in a few short years to undertake the whole process: at best you might get someone familiar with one part of it. Those who were young craftsmen in those days are in their sixties now and they’ve been out of the trade for so long that they cannot make bows any more. This trade of ours is now only represented by my father.

Since the Cultural Revolution I have reached adulthood, and my mind is still impregnated with images of the bowyer’s trade. I have grown up to love bows and arrows. I only wish I could learn the trade from my father; but I fear that getting hold of the traditional materials used to make them is too hard now. I cannot rely on myself alone. Father is getting old and I am getting more and more worried that he may not last long enough to pass his skills on to me, so that the tradition could wither and die in my hands. My hopes had reached their lowest ebb.

I used to imagine starting up some sort of entertainment aimed at teaching our young people about this ancient weapon of the Chinese people. I didn’t put money first, although we all need to earn some sometime. But what is money compared with recreating this fragment of our national heritage? Perhaps I was a bit hasty then in my early imaginings: let me just say that ‘irresistible practical issues’ prevented me from putting them into practice. But I had never forgotten the effort I must make to preserve these fragments of our heritage.

Then in 1998, with the support of my cousins and some other associates, together with people from the National Sports Council and other senior officials, we have finally put together a workshop so that our tradition can be saved from extinction.

It is no sensationalism to talk of ‘saving the craft from extinction’. Even in those years, Beijing was the only bowmaking centre in the Country. The seventeen factories at the beginning of the Republican Period were whittled down to seven in the ‘Bow and Arrow Makers’ Alley’ in my own time: ‘Ju Yuan’, ‘Chi Yuan’, ‘Guang Sheng’, ‘Long Sheng’, ‘Quan Shun Zhai’, ‘Tian Shun Cheng’ and ‘De Ji Xing’.   All of them except De Ji Xing were blood-relatives of ours, so we knew them very well. Although they all have family members still alive, none still knows the secrets of our craft because by the time they had grown up, their fathers had already passed away without passing on the family traditional craft secrets.

What is more, whether they could learn it again depends on whether they are still interested in it. I can tell you that only I and may father remained apprenticed in the trade for two generations. There may be a few who know a bit of the technique, but hardly to the extent of having been taught them formally. This makes my taking up the skills even more important. This is one of the reasons I am determined to re-build Ju Yuan Hao, whatever the difficulties.

It will come as a relief to you now that Ju Yuan Hao has come to life again through our unremitting efforts and those of a few helpers, and we have managed to make some partial products. They are nowhere near what the old products were like and they still have many faults; but they are a cause for hope and give us reason to have faith in our efforts to rebuild Ju Yuan Hao. As long as we keep at it unremittingly, we shall bring our heroic spirit up to where it was in the old days and develop better and higher quality products. We shall enrich the people’s leisure and strengthen their bodies and let them catch sight of one of the treasures of Chinese civilization.

Ju Yuan Hao has weathered the storms of three centuries, sometimes at the crest of the waves and sometimes in the troughs. We should have faith that in these days of China's open economy, we can ride her up to a crest once again.

18 July, 2000