Asian Traditional Archery Research Network (ATARN)

Text and photographs Stephen Selby, Jang Yuhua, 2001. 

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

Fax: (852) 2808-2887
September 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

Dear All,

You get your September letter a little early, because I'm off to Fort Dodge for the 2001 International Horse Archery Festival. Check out their web page by clicking on the link. Come if you can!

For those of you who have XML-enabled web browser software, you can read three classic books on Chinese horseback archery, and brush up your skills for Fort Dodge.

My holiday in North Wales was spiced up by meeting with a group of traditional archers at Llanbedrog, led by Nigel Burras. Nigel was my earliest archery teacher and he took an instant liking to my little Korean FRP bow supplied by Tom Duvernay. We ended up doing a swap: my Korean bow for a working reproduction of my Han Dynasty Chinese longbow. It shoots at about 50# drawn to 28".

Copy of a Han longbow by Nigel Burras of Llanbedrog

After coming back, I had some email correspondence with Jang Yuhua from Taiwan, who collects and shoots traditional Chinese bows. 

Jang Yuhua of Taiwan with an old Chinese horn bow

We were swapping some experiences with bracing heavy Chinese bows and dealing with twists. Yuhua kindly agreed that we would share this correspondence with other ATARN Members. Here it is -

Yuhua: Stephen, I'm afraid that I can not make it to FD this year. I have hurt my back big time by trying to string a very heavy bow(100#+) by the "Korean" method.

I should get some "stringing device" for my heavy bows; but I don't know what kind of device the Chinese used. Right now the only thing I can do is to carry the heavier bows to the range and use a device there to string them and shoot them. The device is made from steel and is for use with  modern recurve bows to measure the length of bow string. It's just not designed for the "C" shape of horn bows. Although I could easily pull a 100# Chinese bow, there was just no way to get it strung.

Best Regards

Stephen: Dear Yuhua,
I'm so sorry you can't come to FD: I had looked forward to meeting you.
You should not string a heavy bow like that. You must use two people, a bench and 'gong nazi' for stringing. Look at this old photograph to get an idea of the method. 

Here is a 'posed' picture of me using a bench and 'gong-nazi (tipliks) to prepare Chinese bows for stringing:

  1. Use a low-powered electric heater to heat one limb. The limb must not be too hot so that it is not comfortable to touch. You can heat it slowly for an hour in sunlight, with the horn facing the sun (Munkhtsetseg showed me this method.) 
  2. Bend the limb around the 'gong nazi' by winding one cord around the limb, like the old man in the picture.
  3. Do the same for the other limb (as I am doing in the above picture.)
  4. Leave the bow strapped to the 'gong nazi' for about a week (for a heavy bow). Then take off the 'gong nazi' carefully, warm the limbs again and string the bow using two people.
  5. Do not unstring the bow again unless you see that it is going to twist badly.

Remember that the very heavy bows ('hao gong') were not intended to shoot arrows. They are only for drawing in the examinations.

Yuhua: From my experience a "C" shape horn bow with long siyahs did draw much easier than a bow with short siyahs. It is so smooth you can't feel much stacking. The force needed to draw it is pretty much the same all the way through. It's a bit like a compound bow, yet much smoother than that. For example, the "C" shape bow in the picture is about 120#, but it draws like a 80# modern recurve and can deliver an arrow up to 300 meters. Quite amazing!!

A monkey bow and two dried-out heavy bows

Stephen: I agree. The leverage from the siyahs allows stacking to be avoided. The profile of the monkey bow is good. When a Chinese bow is in the C shape, it is not ready to be shot. It has to be changed to an almost straight profile using the 'gong nazi' before it can be strung and shot.

Yuhua: Stephen, you wrote: " When a Chinese bow is in the C shape, it is not ready to be shot. It has to be changed to an almost straight profile using the 'gong nazi' before it can be strung and shot. "

That doesn't make any sense to me. If a C shape bow has been heated, braced for a week and becomes like an almost straight profile, for sure it will loose a lot of power and won't able to perform a power "cast". The bow would just become "tired". I wonder if a bow has been treated like that, would it ever go back to its original C shape?

Stephen: In principle, your observation is correct.
But Chinese bows (in contrast to Korean horn bows) were designed for optimal performance from a near-straight start when un-strung. A bow that has stood unstrung for a long time is alright to string if the siyahs have an 'open' angle (that is, they don't point inward towards each-other.) The relaxation into a C shape with the siyahs pointing inward is a defect that arises over time from excessive drying and shrinkage of the sinew. Over the winter, Mongolian nomads leave their bows unstrung in a hut with frozen meat so that they will not become too dried out. Shooting a Chinese or Mongolian bow from a C condition means that the bow is performing at a heavier weight that the siyahs were designed to stand, and risks over-stressing the sinew as well. (This information came from Ju Yuan Hao.)

Normal unbraced position for an old Chinese bow. 

Of course, the bow should not be permanently strung. In warm, humid conditions, the bow must be unstrung overnight and put in a drying cupboard (pei gong xiang). In hot sunlight, even one hour may be enough for the bow to soften below optimum performance. (Last year at Fort Dodge, in very hot conditions, Munkhtesteg and Enkhbaatar unstrung their bows after every round.) In the north, with cooler, drier weather, a light bow can be left strung for a week, a heavy bow may be left strung for a whole season (if it does not twist), and a strength bow used by a qigong master might not be unstrung for a very long time, because it is such a nuisance to re-string it (as you have discovered!).

Your concern about bows becoming tired and taking a set (following the string) are more relevant for wooden self bows or bows made with modern artificial materials. Chinese horn bows are much more tolerant.

Of course, one thing you must NOT do is to apply force to bend the bow in the wrong direction. Doing that will split the bow at the grip. Most of the Chinese bows I see have been damaged in this way, or by being heated too much.

Yuhua: Thank you for the information. I could save some of my bows from snapping at the siyahs in the future.

The other problem that bothers me is the twist problem. The way I deal with it is to heat a strung bow then adjust it by hand. Is that correct? Or is there some other ways to adjust it? Because a bow usually tends to go back to its original twist angle after  several weeks of use, I have to go through the process over again. Each bow seems to have its own temper.

Stephen: Twist is a pain. Most of these natural bows are not perfect when they were made, and you just have to live with their 'bad habits'. Often, the twist is permanent, caused by a fault in the materials or uneven drying of the glues.

I think you should heat the bow and remove the twist when the bow is unstrung.

The Mongolians have a special way of dealing with twist. They insert a 1/4" wooden rod across the angle of the limb and the siyah inside the loop of the string and fix it with tape. When strung, the rod can push the limb back against the direction of the twist. Another method I have seen on a horn bow from Tibet is to insert a " slip of wood about 2" long inside the loop against the string nock, with the aim again of distorting the strung bow against the twist.

1/4" dowel inserted into a Mongolian bow to correct a twist (side view)

1/4" dowel inserted into a Mongolian bow to correct a twist (front  view)

Sliver of wood attached to a Tibetan bow to correct twist.
 Another piece is attached at the opposite side of the other bow-tip.

Note than with the Mongolian and Tibetan solutions, the bow can be shot while the remedial measure is in place. The Koreans use a completely different method for stringing and fixing twists in their horn bows. The methods described above are definitely unsuitable for Korean horn bows.


(Stephen Selby)