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China, 17th-19th centuries
Grayson Archery Collection, MAC1992-0104
In early dynastic China, archery held an important place in warfare and imperial ritual and was a compulsory subject in schools that trained the Chinese nobility. Later, Confucian scholars developed archery ceremonies designed to symbolize Confucian virtue. Cavalry and infantry archery were integrated into the Chinese military-service examination system during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.), and the use of the bow and arrow remained significant until the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). With the transition to modern firearms in the early 20th century, archery no longer played a role in everyday life in China. The demise of the great legacy of Chinese archery was exacerbated by mid-century political and social upheavals, and traditional archery craftmanship and customs have practically died out.
The traditional Chinese bow is a type of reflexed composite bow, made with a bamboo core, horn belly, sinew backing (usually covered with birchbark), and wooden tips and handle. Much larger than most Asiatic composites, these bows have long, sharply angled recurved tips and large string bridges on the shoulders, and are often decorated with shagreen (stingray or shark skin) and with painted, inlaid, or appliqué symbols representing wealth, longevity, and good fortune. Introduced by the Manchu, who established the Qing Dynasty, these bows were capable of propelling heavy arrows with great force and, although less well-suited for use on horseback than smaller forms, were durable for battle and hunting; they became the standard bow of China as well as of Manchu-dominated Mongolia and Tibet. The heavy arrows used with these bows are of wood with fletching of eagle or vulture feathers, iron points, and cherry-bark wrapping covering sinew reinforcements. Arrows were carried in short, open quivers of strong leather or cloth that consist of a main compartment with a hinged section attached to the back; the hinged section is comprised of two or three pockets for special arrows. Bowcases are also of open design, with a wide mouth and narrow bottom.
This online exhibit presents traditional Chinese archery equipment from the Museum’s Grayson Archery Collection. Included are Qing-period hunting, military, and training equipment and Qing artworks depicting archery gear. Also included is an example of the bows currently produced by Ju Yuan Hao, [ opens a new window ] the only traditional bowshop known to be in operation in China today.
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References and Related Links
Selby, Stephen. 1998. The archery tradition of China. Instinctive archer, Spring 1998, pp. 38-41
Selby, Stephen. 2000. Chinese archery. Hong Kong: University Press.
Text prepared by Mary French, Charles E. Grayson, and Michael J. O’Brien, winter 2006.
Photos by Daniel S. Glover and Mary French.
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