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Mongolian National Archery

by Munkhtsetseg

Re-printed with permission from

It was a great pleasure for me to find out that people around the world are taking an increasing interest in national archery traditions, and that magazines like ‘Instinctive Archer’ are able to devote space for substantial articles on the national archery traditions of Europe and America.

Even more exciting for me is that you are publishing articles about the traditions of Asia. You have already published interesting articles about India, Korea and China.

Perhaps this is the right opportunity for me to contribute something on our great archery tradition of Mongolia.

Let me say a little about myself. My name is Munkhtsetseg. I come from a family of traditional archers. My father, Choijelsuren, was a famous archer and bowyer, and my brother, Mandbayar, is also a bowyer and carpenter.

Perhaps through my long association with archery, I have had the privilege of having been Mongolian women’s national archery champion for six years. I am also keen on skating.

When I’m not involved in my sporting activities, I am also busy with my job as a senior inspector with the Mongolian Police Department. (No, I don’t use my archery skills for that!)

Of course, archery in Mongolia has had a long and famous history. Our folk legends tell of Erekhe Mergen, the great archer who saved the people from a drought by shooting down six suns. And when the legendary mother of the Mongolian nation wanted to instill the idea of unity into her feuding sons, she sat them down before her and gave each an arrow telling them to snap it. Of course, they could do that easily. Then she gave each of them six arrows and told them to snap them all together. None of them could. This is how the Mongolian people first learned about strength through unity.

Before the Mongolian people were recorded in history, some of our predecessors on the steppe-lands of Asia included the Asiatic Huns and the Khitan to ruled North China in the 11th Century, and who gave China one of the names by which westerners later knew it: Cathay.

This is how the Chinese historian Sima Qian described the Huns: "[The Huns] had no written language: they governed themselves on the basis of the spoken word alone. Infants could ride on a sheep and draw a bow to shoot small birds and rats. As they grew up, they would shoot foxes and hares and these are what they used to eat. Their warriors were powerful archers, and all were armoured cavalrymen. Their custom when at peace was to follow their flocks, and thus archery and hunting formed part of their way of life. When war threatened, they practised battles and attacks so that hey could invade or make unexpected attacks. This was part of their very nature." You can see that the Huns’ way of life was very similar to our Mongol nation later.

In the Liao and Mongol states in the 10th to 11th Centuries, our ancestors used to play a game called ‘Shooting the Willow’ to demonstate our archery skills. This is how the game was described in the official history of the Khitan Liao Dynasty: "Two lines of willow branches were set in the ground of a polo field. The archers, according to their different ranks, chose their own branch and marked it with a piece of cloth; then they whittled away the bark of the twig a few inches above the ground so that the white wood showed through. Led by one galloping rider, the others followed at full gallop, shooting with an unfletched arrow with a horizontal blade for an arrowhead. An archer who could cut through the willow branch and catch the cut end at full gallop took top marks. Second came the one who could cut the willow twig but couldn’t catch it. Those who could hit the whittled part but not cut it, or those who missed altogether, lost. When they shot, people beat drums to egg them on."

From the time of Chinggis Khan and the Mongolian nation proper, there are many accounts of great feats of archery. In the ‘Blue History’, there is a story of Chuu Mergen who his a target from on horseback at about 130 meters. There are accounts of a national competition in which renowned archers such as Tsülegtii, Gölgön Baataar, Sübgetei Baataar, Toghtong Baataar and Khüldar all competed over a distance of about 600 meters, shooting at a cap of deer leather placed on the ground. All could hit the target with one of three shots.

Although our ancestors were driven out of China in the Ming Dynasty, we were still a force to be reckoned with in our own heartland. In 1449, the Chinese army foolishly tried to invade, and we captured their emperor, Ying-zong. But in the seventeenth century, our land came under the control of the Manchus – anther steppe-land people – who ruled China from 1644 to 1911. They tried to suppress the martial skills of Mongolian men, forcing them to abandon their herds and to go into monasteries and learn Buddhist pacifism. Archery was banned, and our men-folk could only keep up their archery skills by secretly practicing inside their yurts with toy miniature crossbows.

Since achieving independence once more in 1921, our Government has promoted our traditional archery skills. Although few of us can still shoot well on horseback, many practice traditional archery on foot. Each year in July there is a traditional sports festival, the ‘Nadam Festival’, in which we compete at the ‘three manly sports’ : horse racing, wrestling and archery. Although our women don’t wrestle, we like to compete in horse racing and archery. Women are able to achieve outstanding results with the bow and arrow.

Today, the sport has three main divisions based on regional styles of archery and different construction of the bow. My style is ‘Khalkha’ which is the tradition of the people of the central part of Mongolia. Another style is ‘Buryat’ practised by the people of the northern eastern region of our country. Finally, there is the ‘Uryankhai’ style which represents the Western Mongolian people.

We shoot different targets and distances. In the Buryat style archers shoot at 35 meters, in the Uryankhai at 45 meters and in the Khalkha style at 75 meters. We are all united by the Mongolian Archers’ Union, (of which I am a counsellor.) Buryat and Khalkha archery have many women competitors. Uryankhai archers are by tradition men. Each of our traditions has a special style of singing which is used by the scorer to indicate the score of each competitor. This helps us tell from a distance how our shooting is progressing.

Each of our different traditions has a different style of bow: but in fact, we can chose the type of bow we want to use freely. There are different sizes and draw-weights to suit men, women and children. The three styles of bow are ‘Gung’ – a deep form of bow based on the Manchu style; ‘Tömör’ (‘Iron’) and Khagas (‘Half Horse’). The ‘Gung’ style comes from the east of the country, the ‘Iron’ style from our central, Khalkha area, and the ‘Half Horse’ from the Western Uryankhai region.

All these bows are made in the traditional fashion, using wood, sheep’s horn and sinew. Here is a diagram –

Upper bow:

1: Grip. 2: Sayah. 3: Splice. 4: Limb. 5: Belly. 6: Back. 7: String nock. 8: String pad. 9: String bridge.

Lower bow:

1: Insert at grip. 2: Build-out at grip. 3: Horn belly. 4: Sinew back. 5: Sayah. 6: String nock. 7: String pad. 8: Birch-bark covering. 9: Bamboo core.

(The line drawing illustrations in this article are reproduced from a book on Mongolian national archery by Baldandorj published in 1976, with the kind permission of the Mongolian National Sports Institute which controls the copyright.)

We often pull a draw-weight of about 50 - 60 pounds. These traditional bows often risk splitting - especially as some of the modern chemical glues are not as reliable as the older, traditional fish glue we used to use. Therefore, you will often see Mongolian bows wrapped in nylon fishing line. These reduces the risk of sudden failure of the bow during use.

This is the string we use –

Nowadays we use a dacron string with nylon whipping. The string is quite thick – about 5 mm diameter. We wrap a piece of leather at the nocking point (marked ‘1’ in the diagram.) The points in the string marked ‘4’ in the diagram are left bare so that the string will fold away easily. At the ends, there are two loops (‘6’) made of sheep-gut which go over the string nocks on the bow.

Here is the arrow we use –

The arrow shaft is about 75 cm long and tipped with a bone blunt with a brass point. The fletching is the same depth as the diameter of the shaft. As you can see, we aim to hit our target but not for the arrow to stick in it.

In fact, our national archery contest uses the target rather like a game of skittles. The target is made up of a wall made of cylindrical baskets made from sheep gut with a measurement of 8 cm x 8 cm. The cylinders are built into a wall like this –

There are two classes of target shooting: ‘Khana’ and ‘Khasaa.’ First we shoot 20 arrows at the Khana target, which is four metres long and 48 cm high; then we shoot 20 arrows at the Khasaa target, which contains 30 cylinders. You can see the arrangement of the targets in the illustration above. A scorer stands near the target and calls out the results of each shot in a traditional melody: overshoot, fall short, go wide or bounce before the target and pass over it. An arrow which passes between to cylinders still scores. (This won’t happen with the Khasaa target because the cylinders are stacked too close together.)

It is difficult to say that there’s any ‘spiritual’ side of Mongolian archery as there is in Japanese Kyudo. Actually, we Mongolian archers just want to hit the target. But that said, to hit the target without perfect concentration and control of the body is not easy. So we regard archery as a very advanced form of mental and physical training.

If you want to see photographs and a video of me and my brother, Mandbayar, demonstrating traditional archery, please look up the Asian Traditional Archery Research Network ATARN on the Internet at In Mongolia, we love having visitors. We would be happy to meet foreign archers and exchange tips on technique. Our capital, Ulaanbaatar, can be reached easily from Beijing, Moscow, Munich or Seoul by air. The Mongolian Archers’ Union can be contacted through ATARN.

I wish all our archer friends around the world success in your shooting!

Up-dated 18 July, 2000