Asian Traditional Archery Research Network (ATARN)
Original text and photographs © Yi Degang  2002. 
English Translation © Stephen Selby  2002. 

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December 2002

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Dear All,

The end of the year is rushing upon me. It’s time to write another newsletter! First, please accept my greetings for the season and the coming new year!

Asia is waking more and more to its traditions of national archery.

This year, 

Such developments are hugely encouraging (although they put a lot of pressure on me.) In particular, many of those areas which want to promote traditional archery are short of funding. A traditional Tibetan archery competition is a major event which requires US$650 in funding to mount, even in such a poor area as Amdo. I should like to appeal to any Members who feel that they could provide financial support to any events or training to contact me.

This month, I am honoured to be able to present an article specially contributed by a correspondent from Inner Mongolia, People’s Republic of China.

Yi Degang was born in Inner Mongolia in 1971. He graduated in Physics from the Inner Mongolia Normal University in 1994. He studied for his Master’s Degree at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei (Anhui Province) specializing in the Scientific History and Archaeometry. After gaining his Master’s degree in 1999, he has continued to do research for a doctorate with the cooperation of the Partner Group of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science at the Institute for the History of Natural Sciences of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. His doctoral research is on the technical and mechanical aspects of the traditional Chinese horn bow.

Acrobatic Acts in Inner Mongolia Involving Archery Performances
and the Manufacture of Bows and Arrows for them.
(For the original text in Chinese, click here)

Yi Degang
Copyright (Text and Photographs) Yi Degang, 2002

Horseback riding, archery and wrestling are traditional sports among the Mongolian nationality of China. These activities are de rigueur in the annual Nadam festivals held on the steppes. Archery has since ancient times been a sport among the Mongols, and the acrobatic performers of the Inner Mongolian Circus Troupe have taken this as a basis to develop a supremely skilled act of the highest level of difficulty based on the characteristics of Mongolian archery. In preparing this article, I have drawn upon interviews with current and retired acrobatic performers, archery acrobat You Desen (58), Strength bow performer Liu Xiangdong (53) and Bowyer Li Yuxiang (70) as well as other experts.

1. Acrobatic performances involving archery

According to the recollection of archer-acrobat You Desen, he learned moving acrobatic performances such as acrobatic bicycling when he apprenticed with the Chinese Acrobatic Troupe in 1954. After finishing his studies, he joined the Inner Mongolian Acrobatic, Song and Dance Troupe in 1958. 

During the course of many performances on the grasslands in the 1960s, he had the chance to observe Nadam festivals and he became particularly interested in the archery competitions. The idea sprang up in his mind of combining archery and acrobatics in a performance and in 1977 he started creating proper performance programmes. The Mongolian national bows that he could see in those days were made from thick bamboo with sinew (but no horn), together with other components. You Desen obtained an old, traditional Mongolian bow from the Inner Mongolian archery team – by that time the archery team itself had mostly gone over to using modern bows imported from places such as Sweden – and they continue to use them to the present time. 

Imported recurve bow as used now in Inner Mongolia


This archery performance developed by You Desen and three female performers took
 the 'Golden Lion' Prize at the 1991 Wuhan National Acrobatics Competition.

You Desen and the other archery performers spent a lot of training time and effort both in improving their shooting accuracy and in developing some special shooting movements, such as shooting behind their backs, under their legs or while doing the splits. Such acts were the key to winning their acrobatic awards. Given that the target distances on stage have to be fairly close (say 7-10 metres), they choose relatively light bows to shoot with. Moreover, they cover the points of their arrows with rubber to make blunts. Taking his cue from modern archery equipment, You Desen developed an aiming device (a pin attached to the limb) so that he could line up his eye, the pin and his target more accurately. In his act, he can extinguish three candles placed in a row with one arrow, as well as candles held on the heads of three female performers – without damaging any of the props. This requires a high degree of accuracy. One point he specially stresses: the accuracy of his bows is affected by the environment and temperature of the location where the performance takes place – something he has to consider carefully when performing outside China.

  1. The acrobatic troupe's heavy bow performances
  2. In the early 1970s, acrobatic performer Liu Xiangdong had in mind to take up practice with a heavy bow, having seen Zhang Xiaojie's performances in the Beijing Acrobatic Troupe a number of times. As he couldn't find such bows in Inner Mongolia, he had to order one from Beijing. Around 1971, he went to Beijing accompanied by the troupe's props craftsman, Li Yuxiang, to visit bowyer Li Yuchun. It was said that the latter had previously worked as a bowyer in the 'Bowyers' Alley' in Beijing, but had been denounced as a 'rightist' and sent down to Baodi County near Tianjin for a period of time. Subsequently, Li Yuchun had returned to Beijing and so they went to his house there to order a bow.

    When Liu Xiangdong explained his plan to Bowyer Li Yuchun, Li asked him what draw-weight he wanted. Liu asked him to bring out his heaviest bow for him to try. As it happened, a heavy bow performer from the Beijing Acrobatic Troupe, Cai Wenshan, was present. No one thought for a moment that Liu Xiangdong could draw one of the heaviest bows; but to everyone's amazement he managed to do so. Cai Wenshan said, "These Inner Mongolians grow up on a diet of beef: that's why they're so strong!" However, he commented that Liu Xiangdong's stance and method of applying his strength left a lot of room for improvement: he would need to persist in his practice for some time to come.

    They went about assembling the necessary materials for the bow –  long buffalo horn from Guangxi and bamboo from Ningbo –  and brought them to Li Yuchun's home. Once again, Li asked what draw-weight Liu wanted, and Liu insisted on 18 'jing'r' (equal to 90Kg. Bowyer Li follows the tradition of the old Beijing bowyers in measuring the draw-weight of bows in 'jing'r', one jing'r weighing 10 catties), because the troupe was about to make a performing tour in Africa and Liu was afraid that Africans would be very strong and would be able to draw a lighter strength-bow with ease. In the end, seven bows were produced.

    On his return to Inner Mongolia, Liu Xiangdong made a point of asking a Mongolian wrestler and a weight-lifter to try drawing the bow, but neither could draw it fully. That put Liu more at ease. After a lot of practice, Liu is now able to draw eight such bows at one time.

    Performance at Ocean Park, Hong Kong. 
    Photograph courtesy of  the archivist of the Inner Mongolian Acrobatic Troupe.

    On another occasion, the Troupe ordered a further six bows from Li Yuchun. From 1974 onwards, the troupe’s own props craftsman, Li Yuxiang, has been able to produce traditional Chinese bows and arrows by himself.

  3. Manufacture of bows and arrows for the acrobatic troupe.

Before he went to order bows from Beijing, Liu Xiangdong had obtained an old, traditional Chinese bow from Ningxia Province. By taking this old bow apart, the troupe's props craftsman, Li Yuxiang, had been able to grasp the basic structure of such bows.

After several visits to Li Yuchun in Beijing to order bows, the troupe had the idea of getting Li Yuxiang to learn the trade. Now aged  40, he started working as a general assistant in Li Yuchun's workshop in Beijing for three months. While working, he had a chance to observe first-hand how the master worked his craft. At first the master didn't realise his assistant's real intention, but later he realised what was going on, he decided that it would be better to take Li Yuxiang under his wing and teach him properly. In this way, he continued for a further three months.

Returning to Inner Mongolia, he made a few bows according to Bowyer Li Yuchun's instructions, and then sent them back to Beijing for assessment. Once he had become proficient, he altered the design to suit Inner Mongolia’s heroic style, making the siyahs longer and broader.

After this, Master Li Yuxiang very quickly became proficient at making bows and arrows. The bows being used by the female performers in Illustration 2 were all monkey-bows made by him. Monkey bows were originally made for shooting pellets with; but pellet bow technique is particularly difficult and the skill has been lost. However, monkey bows can also be strung to shoot arrows like ordinary bows.

'Monkey bow' strung to shoot arrows.

Although in terms of construction procedures and materials shooting bows and strength bows are similar, the bamboo core is used differently: for strength bows, the skin of the bamboo core faces inward to form the belly of the bow, while for an archery bow it faces out to form the back. If there are sufficient materials, around ten bows can be produced in a single batch. If all the materials are to hand, the whole bow can be finished in two months. Normally, the process needs to take place in the spring and autumn, otherwise the flexibility of the completed bow will not be so good.

Li Yuxiang can make strength bows according to the requirement of the performer. For a bow of 10-12 jing'r, he can estimate the weight of materials required very accurately, so that the resulting bow will be within one to two catties of the target draw-weight. To check the draw-weight, the bow is fully drawn and a rod is used to measure the draw-length. Then the hook of a balance is attached to the string and the bow is pulled to the measured length while the bow grip is held down with the feet and the weight is then read off the scale. If the bow is too heavy to be measured in this way, the limb has to be tied down on a wooden beam held down by two men and the string pulled by three men pulling on a lever attached to the scale arm and pulling up the bow-string. If the bow is so heavy that no-one can pull it, then it can be tillered down to make it lighter. But with his many years of experience, Bowyer Li very rarely has to check the weight of a bow that he has made - every time it meets the requirement of the performer very well. After learning the craft, he has made bows for performers from other provinces as well.

Now Bowyer Li very rarely makes bows: the materials have become too hard to come by, and he has got too old for it.

Radio Television Hong Kong's fascinating  documentary on Chinese archery has reached the finals of the New York Film Festival 2002 Cultural TV Documentary division. Congratulations to Joanna Leung and her production team on this remarkable achievement!





(Stephen Selby)