When I began to write for the blog of Legend Archery I started to develop connections with other archers and reached out to parts of the world where archery is very popular. Most of my new friends on Facebook come from India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Philippines and I got to see how they practice archery in ways that I had never seen before. Most of my new friends are keen on traditional Asian archery. This is something that I never really understood until I listened to their stories and gained a new found interest in Asian culture. I am familiar with the fact that archery is a national sport in many East Asian nations and cultures. They celebrate it just the same manner as football, rugby, boxing, cricket and golf here in Britain. At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul the Korean woman took all the medals and the Korean men took four out of the six categories. In Korea children are taught archery in physical exercise lessons. They get at least two hours a week in shooting practice. It’s no wonder they are the top shooters who dominate the medal tables at the Olympics and the World Cup. All this got me thinking, what is Traditional Asian Archery all about?
Tradition is based in history, culture and myth. It is a reflection of the character of a person or nation’s way of life and practiced throughout the ages. It tells a story passed down through the generations and they inspire stories of valiant warriors and great heroes that made a strong and prosperous land. In the western civilization we recognize it from famous legends like King Arthur, Robin Hood, William Tell and the Agincourt archers. All of whom have an association with traditional archery in some way. But there are also stories on the other side of the world where archery was mastered by the ancient warlords such as Genghis Khan who led the Mongols on an epic crusade that built an empire led with horseback archers charging across the land. These archers originated around Central Asia and they were very skilled shooters, especially whilst riding horses. One of the secrets behind their success was the use of bows that were much shorter than a longbow. In ancient times these were known as composite bows and they were convenient enough to be used while riding on a speeding horse.
Composite bows are considered to be the forerunner of the modern recurve bow. These were made of a wooden core, usually bamboo or mulberry woods. They had a layer of horn wrapped around the belly of the bow to prevent it from bending too far at the centre. This is a valuable engineering feat because longbows were useless for horseback and they couldn’t just reduce the bow itself. A longbow is able to withstand the force of the stretch because it’s wide surface area allows it to bend backwards. On a smaller bow of the same construction the surface is so small that the bow would snap as you draw. A layer of sinew on the back of the back of the bow was bonded together using animal glue. These composite bows were about 40 inches long and had arrows up to a metre long. According to a description on a stone steele found in Siberia the range of a Mongol bow is over 500 metres. It’s poundage was far stronger than that of an English longbow, about 166 pounds on weight making it a vastly superior nimble killing machine. It’s short length gave it an advantage over longbows where the Mongols would twist it over in their saddles while shooting their target and then shooting again after they had passed.
The Asians were not just clever craftspeople in bow design, they were also masters in their technique and performance. One of China’s most famous archers is Zhou Tong. He taught archery and other military skills to the Song dynasty general Yue Fei in 12th century China. Yue was such a good pupil of the bow and arrow that Zhou passed on two of his favorite bows to him. After Zhou died Yue passed on his teachings to his soldiers and it made them one of the most powerful armies in Chinese history with the best military archers in the world. Yue’s legacy as one of the great warlords of China is still recognized as he is a national folk hero with temples and shrines dedicated to him built during the Ming dynasty. His tutor Zhou is also famously recognized in modern culture with portrayals in black and white films from the 1940s to the 1960s, graphic novels and other military literature.
The bows used in Asian archery varied widely. The arrows used in these bows were less stiff and had smaller fletching. The techniques they used also varied where in some techniques the bowstring is pulled so far back that it stretches behind the archer’s head. Instead of using their fingers the arrow is anchored by the thumb at full draw. To prevent the string from injuring the archer the Mongols and the Manchu used a thumb ring. The Japanese used a slot at the base of a gauntlet called a tsuri. Most archers using this technique also wore a headband to prevent the bowstring from hurting the archer’s head and ears. Suitable clothing was also needed to prevent snaring on their arms and chest, especially in battle where injury was more likely to happen as they tried to draw while in hand to hand combat.
Archery is practiced in several parts of Asia and they have a name for just about every different type. In Korea, archery was known as Goongdo. In Japan, Archery is Kyudo while Japanese horseback archery was called Yabusame. Although history of traditional archery is based primarily in warfare it’s also practiced as a recreational activity to teach people about the history of ancient civilizations and by tribes who keep this practice alive for preservation of their culture. One thing that traditional Western archery has never seen before is an advancement of bow handling. In Turkish it’s called khatra and in Japanese it’s called vugaeri. It has a useful way of dealing with the archer’s paradox. In modern target archery arrows can be engineered to alter the effect of the paradox by tuning the arrow’s spine. Some traditional bows are non-center-shot and that requires special handling and technique to clear the archer’s paradox. The thumb release that they use in Asia is much smoother but without sufficient oscillation, the arrow cannot clear the non-center-shot bow. To make it work a bow hand technique which involves torquing the grip, this makes the bow spin as it allows the arrow to exit completely undisturbed as if there was no paradox and therefore no oscillation at all. In other words this bow hand technique allows for dynamic center-shot on a non-center-shot bow. This also means that an archer can literally grab any arrow he finds and make it work on his bow, providing he adjusts the weight which affects the speed and trajectory.
Japanese warriors are famously known as Samurais welding swords with sharp prongs. They were famous for their highly charged attacks on their opponents roaring with their trademark battle cry. However there was a time before they started using these swords when they actually started off in life using bows and arrows. While the West and the Middle East continued to use archery as a form of combat up until the 16th century, archery in the Far East gradually became a form of meditation for spiritual progress. Now before Samurais became swordsman they were skilled in the martial art of Kyudo, which is Japanese archery and it’s still practiced by thousands of people worldwide. The International Kyudo Federation has over 130’000 graded members. Another type of traditional Japanese archery is called Yabusame, which is mounted on a horse. Yabusame was created in the 12th century in response to the lack of archery skills that the shogun commander Minamoto no Yoritomo realized that his army was sorely lacking. Japanese archery isn’t just a form of combat, it’s also a way of practicing Zen. This is a form of Buddhism that originated in China and spread to Vietnam, Korea and Japan and has it’s roots in Taoism. Zen was a very popular aspect of the life of the Samurai and made Yabusame a powerful tool for developing their mental abilities as archers. It gave them concentration, discipline and refinement through the use of breathing techniques and thus be able to calmly draw their bow arm, aim and shoot.
The bows used by the Japanese were not center-shot but asymmetrical. These bows were known as Yumi and they were the longest bows in history at over 2 meters long. The longest of these was the Hassan-nobi at 245 cm. Each of these were significantly longer than the archers who used them. Yumi bows are traditionally made of laminating bamboo, wood and leather and they are still made today using the same techniques. The upper and lower curves of the bow differ and this distinction was made for a purpose that isn’t clear. Several suggestions have been made for this. Some claim that it was so that it could be used on horseback where you could use it like a Mongol bow by shooting it from either side of the horse. Some others claim it was because the Yumi was designed for shooting while kneeling. Whatever the reason it may be it is a unique and cleverly designed bow that has less vibration due to the grip being on a vibration node of the bow.
This journey into Traditional Asian archery has been a fascinating experience that has opened my desire to try other forms of archery. There are many other remarkable cultures that celebrate the wonders of archery across Asia that are worth seeing to. I will be back with those later when I uncover some more stories about Asian Archery. I am keen to take a look at why the Koreans are such good professional archers, the archers of Bhutan and some mythical tales about archery in which the bow has it’s own equivalent of King Arthur’s Excalibur.