The Complete History Of Chinese Archery


Today you will see a complete breakdown of the history of Chinese archery. You will see when Archery in China started. How it was a part of Chinese culture and how it was used in warfare.

You will also see why it took the Chinese over a year to make just one of their bows and how the great philosopher Confucious is connected to Chinese Archery.

Let’s begin with the main takeaway from the entire article.

Facts about Archery in China:

  • Archery was used in China as far back as 20.000 B.C. according to findings in the Shaanxi province.
  • It was first used in hunting wild animals, then it was used in warfare.
  • Due to the high draw weight of Chinese bows, they were somewhat replaced by crossbows during the Warring States period.

Or to put it into more words:

Archery has been used in China as far back as the Neolithic period from between 20.000 and 10.000 B.C. according to archaeological findings in Shaanxi province. The earliest users were hunters hunting animals and from there the bow and arrow were used in warfare, first by noblemen in chariots and then by common footsoldiers. Given the high draw weight of Chinese bows, it was to some extent displaced by the crossbow during the Warring States period.

The Earliest Use Of Archery In China

Archery was used in China since at least 20.000 B.C. In the Lantian Xinjie archaeological site in the Chinese Shaanxi province, they found bone arrowheads from the Neolithic period.

As with the rest of the world, the early use of bows and arrows revolved around hunting animals. These can be from oxen to wooly mammoths and rhinoceros. The use of bows was paramount for early societies in the region and the society with the best bow technology triumphed over the ones that didn’t possess such a weapon.

If your bow can shoot further and more accurately than the ones from your rival kingdom or tribe that means your hunting will be far more reliable and you stand more of a chance to feed your tribe. And ward of attackers trying to steal what you gained.

Suffice to say, up to this point archery in China was evolving in the same direction as the rest of the world. There was one notable difference which we will discuss later on.

The Use Of Archery In China During The Zhao Dynasty

The Zhao Dynasty in China lasted in one form or another from 1100 B.C. to 221 B.C. During this time there is evidence of archery becoming an integral part of Chinese culture.

The Story Of An Archer That Shot Down Nine Suns

Book of the King of Huai Nan talks about an archer named Yi. He at one point was tasked with shooting down 9 suns that were responsible for drought in the land. Obviously, the story is more of a myth but it shows the connection the Chinese made with the bow being able to save the land from difficult times.

The Use Of Archery In Chinese Rituals

There were 4 major archery rituals in China during the Zhao period. These are:

  • Major Archery Ritual (this ritual was presided over by a king or a ruler)
  • The Hospitality Archery Ritual (this one was held in honour of visiting dignitaries)
  • Yan Archery Ritual (held at official banquets)
  • Archery Ritual of the Shires (this one was held to choose dignitaries who will serve at the imperial court)

The main purpose of these rituals was to have access to people who have mastery over the bow. Firing a composite bow used in that period required a tremendous amount of strength. These rituals made it possible for kings and emperors to train their archers in peacetime.

If anything happened they could easily call on these archers that participated in these rituals. Having a ready supply of manpower was also one of the reasons the Zhou dynasty put an enormous emphasis on six basic skills: archery, ritual, music, chariot driving, writing, and arithmetic.

Putting emphasis on six basic skills ensured a good supply of educated manpower. It did also help the empire spread archery into the culture of the people, with many songs and stories from the era involving archery.

Even Confucious practiced archery and some say he even taught it to the nobility.

The significance of these rituals declined greatly after the Zhao Dynasty was replaced.

The Use Of Chinese Archery In Battle

The Chinese used archery at first on chariots. There are records showing the use of chariots in battle since 1200 B.C. At that time the use of chariots was widespread across the Middle East and eastern kingdoms where wide-open steps provided enough room for maneuvering.

Chinese Archery Chariots

Their use is quite similar to how Ancient Egyptians used them.

You had a chariot usually drawn by 2 horses. On the platform, you had the rider who steered the chariot an archer who shot arrows towards the enemy, and then you had the third person whose job was to pick of enemies at close distance with a sword or an ax.

Sometimes you had two archers on the platform. In any case, it provided for a fast evasive way to shoot at an enemy and not get shot. As with the Egyptians the people who operated these chariots usually came from nobility.

Today you can see in museums Terakota chariots displaying how a commander’s chariot looked like.

Terracotta Chariot

Even when the use of chariots faded away from the battlefield and was replaced by horses able to carry a fully armored person on their back the chariot still remained in use. Mostly as an operational platform for the commander from where he could direct his troops across the battlefield.

The chariots were replaced by something better and more importantly, cheaper.

Mounted Archery In China

The first recorded use of mounted archery by a Chinese kingdom comes from King Wuhling of Zhao who ruled in 325 B.C.-298 B.C. They copied the tactics of the tribes on their northern borders in order to attack and crush the tribes that opposed them.

During the Warring States period in China, the rival kingdoms often used the northern tribes as mercenaries to attack their opponents. King Wuhling saw the value in the tactics of their northern neighbors and started training his cavalry units in these same tactics. And there was the first recorded use of mounted archers coming from the Chinese Kingdom.

Archery Used By Soldiers On The Ground

The Chinese did use standard archers who traveled on foot. The issue with these archers was that they were expensive. Bows from ancient China were composite recurves, meaning they had a huge draw weight. Ancient composite bows used by the Chinese had draw weights from 80 to 130 pounds. With an 80 pounds draw weight being the minimal.

I have touched on this in this article on the history of crossbows. The draw weights of ancient bows were really big. It had to pierce up to seven layers of leather armor. Training an army of malnourished peasants to draw a bow with an 80-pound draw weight took time.

So, a clever alternative was created.

The crossbow. It makes it far easier for an ordinary citizen to draw the string back on a crossbow with a 360-pound draw weight than a bow with 80-pound draw weight. It is just easier. Not just to pull the string back but to hold it in place long enough to aim properly.

Terakota Crossbowman

So while an experienced archer could fire faster than a crossbowman, a crossbowman was faster to train. And cheaper.

What Made The Crossbow Better Than The Bow?

The firing mechanism. That was the secret sauce of crossbows. The Chinese put the firing mechanism in a sturdy bronze casing which allowed the crossbow to hold the immense draw weight of a cocked crossbow.

Crossbow Firing Mechanism

That simple innovation of the firing mechanism enabled the Chinese to convert their composite bows into crossbows and give them in the hands of an ordinary peasant. Which they did.

Before we move on from the military aspect let’s examine quickly how the Chinese fired their bows. Strangely enough, there are written records of that.

The Unique Way The Chinese Drew Their Bows

According to the Archery Manual written by Wang Ju from the Tang Dynasty, there are certain steps an archer should take to perform a successful shot.

Here is the translated quote from the manual on the way they drew their bows:

There are two ways of setting the draw-hand position: placing the ring finger next to the little finger and placing the middle finger over the thumb, with the index finger placed vertically along the string, is the Chinese style. Bending the thumb and hooking the index finger around the end of it is the Mongolian style. No other techniques are recognized.

Archery Manual of Wang Ju from the Tang Dynasty

This is very similar to the thumb draw used by the Mongolians on horseback but instead of the index finger hooking the thumb, it stays parallel to the bowstring, and the middle finger hooks the thumb.

A slight variation on the thumb draw. As with the usual thumb draw they used thumb rings to protect their thumbs from damage caused by the repeated drawing of the bow.

Chinese Thumb Rings

Serious archers had thumb rings made of leather or bone. But the nobility afforded themselves nice pieces of thumb rings made from precious stones. These were mostly for decorative purposes.

The main purpose of drawing the bow with the thumb draw is that it offered a greater degree of control during movement. Which was useful during battles of movement on horses or chariots.

So, now let us touch on another crazy aspect of Chinese Archery. The long time it took them to make a bow.

How The Chinese Made Their Bows And Arrows?

We have written accounts of how bows were made in Ancient China. In the “Rites of Zhou” which is a written account of administrative processes of that era (more than 2000 years ago), there is a section called the “Examination of Crafts”. This breaks down a number of crafts that were supported by the royal court.

One of them is Archery. So, this is where we will be drawing our evidence from.

A Drawing of How An Ancient Chinese Bow Looked Like

The Chinese built composite recurve bows. This means the bow had many layers all glued together to provide for the most powerful bow possible.

The 4 Ingredients Of Chinese Bows:

  • Horn (usually from a young Ox)
  • Sinew (also from a young Ox preferably)
  • Glue (most often made by boiling fish bladders although different alternatives were possible)
  • Wood (Bamboo or Mulberry)

It took a whole year to assemble one bow correctly. Here is why. According to the “Rites of Zhou”:

Winter – When the wood is cut in the winter it splits along the grain.

Spring – When the horn is treated in the spring it becomes pliable.

Summer – When the sinew is processed in the summer it does not tangle.

Autumn – When you assemble the pieces together in the autumn on the jig the bow will keep its shape due to lower temperatures.

Winter – A lacquer coating is applied in layers to the bow. The reason for the lacquer coating is that it provides protection against moisture. Moisture is the enemy of composite bows since it dissolves the animal glue binding the pieces together.

In the spring the bow is finally strung. So a whole year has passed from start to finish. I had to double-check but yeah it seems this was the case. So every bow was incredibly valuable. Some speculate that is the reason why we have no evidence of bows in the tombs of Chinese emperors.

Do you know those Terakota soldiers carrying weapons in ancient tombs? Well, not one was found with bows. Which does make sense, if that many man-hours went into building a bow it would be an incredible drain on military resources of the country to bury the bows with an emperor and leave your kingdom weakened as a result.

There is some evidence that indicates that Chinese bows also attached a bronze handle to the center of their bows.

How Did The Chinese Make Their Arrows?

The Chinese performed a water test on every piece of the bow. Their reasoning was that the cane from which arrows were made received most of the sunlight on one side. That side of the cane was denser than the side that received no sun.

So, they threw the cane in water where the denser side sunk to the bottom and the less dense side floated on top.

A Drawing Of How An Arrow Was Made

They did this to determine where to place the nock. So they made the nock down the middle as seen above. So the nock was perpendicular to the water level in the above picture. They believed this helped the arrow fly more accurately.

Regarding the fletching height, their rule of thumb was the fletchings should be as high as the diameter of the arrow.

The Decline Of Chinese Archery

Chinese archery started its decline long after the introduction of gunpowder weapons. Even while most of the world moved forward and started using rifles and canons the Chinese Empire still held reverence for bow use. The Chinese military exams still involved testing the applicants on the use of a bow and arrow.

These examinations provided a steady and reliable business for bow makers in China. That all ended in 1901. Emperor Guang Xu issued an edict stopping military examinations using the bow, considering the outdated. Which, frankly they were.

By banning the military exams with the bow the Emperor in effect took away the steady income bow makers had providing bows to the government for these tests. As it became economically unviable to produce bows that meant that the thousands of years old art of bowmaking went into decline.

Today, there are still a few people able to make traditional Chinese bows. Although they are becoming rarer and rarer.

In Conclusion

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. Hopefully, you enjoyed this deep dive into the history of Chinese Archery. My hope is you learned something new and found a new appreciation for the history of Archery in China.

If you wish you can take a look at my article here where we take at the overall history of Archery throughout the world.

And if you want to, you can see a breakdown of the Roman Empires’ version of the crossbow called Arcuballista if you go here.

Take care

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