“Good arrows” from Ju’an Horseback Archery Club
Source: Global Times
Photos: Courtesy of Ju’an Horseback Archery Club
By Gao Fumao ([email protected])
It’s the last thing you expect, out among the truck fixers, the bathroom tile stores and the excavators for hire. This is Daxing, Beijing’s industrial southern backside. Not pretty, so where the hell are the archers, the men on horseback we’ve come to see?
Down a dusty side road we went, past yards of steel and car scrap. Still no horses, no arrows flying, though suddenly there are sandpits and some scrubland, which could conceivably hide bowmen, I’m thinking.
And then our car is waved into a yard, into the little-known world of Chinese horseback archery. Welcome to the Ju’an Horseback Archery Club. On the east bank of the faded Yongding River, a businessman turned equestrian Chen Liang is helping lead a revival of Chinese archery tradition around his small riding club, where locals learn to ride for 120 yuan ($17) a 40-minute class.
Chinese empires have depended on the skill of the legions that defended the national territory from the backs of ponies. Today instead of infantrymen defending the frontiers, local bowmen are a small but dedicated core inspired by the ancient Chinese arching tradition.
Ju’an, founded in August 2009, is as much about reviving horseback archery in Beijing, but it’s also a code “a living attitude,” explained Chen, tanned and wiry but with steel-gray hair making him look older than his 37 years. Horseback archery promotes in Ju’an members a “natural way of living…because people spend too much time and money on houses.”
Opposite the small prefabricated clubhouse, two horses move around a ring-shaped arena. If you’re good enough, as you canter around you shoot arrows inside the iron railings at circular target boards of concentric yellow and red discs. As he canters in circles, bow in one hand, Chen is clearly in care and awe of his steed, Long Fei, a dark five-year-old gelding and one of 10 horses kept in stables on the site.
Only a few of Ju’an’s members, Chen included, are actually skilled enough in the saddle to shoot and ride at the same time. Most appear content to come to the club’s weekend meetings to shoot the breeze and shoot arrows at target boards spaced along a piece of scrubland behind the horse arena.
Some of them go to the trouble of wearing the club’s red capes, which close like coats. Target boards are set up in a garden, shot at by enthusiasts. Later, gathered in a nearby sandpit, one of them spins, Frisbee-like, what looks like the lids of plastic paint buckets. The archers eagerly draw the strings on their bows and in an instant the white plastic is snatched from the wind, pegged into the sand by a bunch of arrows.
It’s an impressive sight, though the effect is lost when those red flowing capes are worn over jeans and white sneakers: Chen makes an effort, with black cavalry boots that wouldn’t look out of place on the back of a galloping Mongolian pony.
There’s certainly something of the weekend warrior about Chen and his merry band who take their target practice and picnic baskets to local woods in the summer, wearing long red robes adapted from the Han Dynasty. Yet these are no modern-day Chinese hippies or Michigan Militia: one of the 30 members regularly makes the trip out to Daxing is an IT engineer. She’s also the designer of the velvet red Han-era costumes worn by some at club gatherings.
Bows and arrows
Daxing is not the Ming frontier, hence the arrows used by the club are hardly dangerous: arrows are not tipped to kill, rather a blunt, rounded metal head, enough to stick in the soft paper face of the target board. Riding of course is harder: years of practice allows Chen to gallop and shoot all at once, reins dangling from the horse’s neck.
Archers on horseback were a staple of Chinese armies for centuries and some of the country’s best known actors have had to endure saddle sores to play military heroes for period military blockbusters beloved of Chinese audiences. Chen, however, has compromised: “We’re not using traditional Chinese bows,” he explained. “We’ve tried to make them more suitable for modern times.”
A bow-maker as well as a horseman, Chen works with modern materials like aluminum and carbon, whereas traditional Chinese bows were made from bamboo with ox-horn and sinew. He might have come up with modern arrows but Chen is nonetheless steeped in Chinese ancient military lore.
He tells the ancient story of Lie Yu Kou, who could steady a glass of water on his hand and move without spilling it. Chen delights in recalling Lie’s derring do adventures, making him sound like a Chinese version of the Swiss target man William Tell. It’s a reflection of how something that started out as fun has turned into a pursuit which has had Chen poring for hours over books and websites to glean knowledge about bows and arrows.
Chen said the discipline and skills of archery have given him a new code to live by, “a code of behavior.” Archery is also a good tool for judging character: “when I see an archer shoot I can see what kind of man he is.”
A Bachelor of Commerce from the Beijing University of Chemical Technology could have yielded a comfortable life: “But I didn’t find business interesting.” Hence he found this plot of land in Daxing where over the past few years he’s bought and bred 10 horses as well as a mini menagerie. More friendly than fearsome, a giant German dog sits in the yard while two peacocks peer out through mesh wire to observe the scene.
Animal keeping runs in the family: Chen’s father was a veterinarian, specializing in traditional Chinese medicinal cures for animals. It was his dad’s visits to the city’s horse stables that gave Chen his eye for equestrianism. His father’s remedies have stayed with him: Chen has learned and details how the traditional Chinese medicine cure for a hurt horse is a better option to the Western antibiotics approach.
When he’s not bow-making or working his horses, Chen is busy posting adverts for bows on www.juanzu.com, a club website and general meeting place for Chinese archery enthusiasts. Here’s an advert he’s placed for a recent bow: “The string length is 128 centimeters and weights 600 grams, one of the bows type in Ming Dynasty. It is made by glassy steel and shaped under high temperature. It is very light, stable and firm. [sic]”
In a makeshift office watched over by that giant, gentle dog, Chen takes obvious delight in clicking on files which open as videos of horseback archery competition. Like last year’s event in Korea, where a big German dressed up like an Apache nonetheless fires more arrows than the Koreans and Mongols, dressed up in the style of Genghis Khan, who also tear around the circular track.
Horseback archery is growing thanks to the efforts of the HAWA: Horseback Archery World Association. Globally archery hobbyists credit the Hungarian equestrian and military historian Lajos Kassai with resurrecting the ancient equestrian art or horseback archery.
They may soon say the same of Chen Liang in China. He’s certainly got a loyal following, and ambitions to grow the sport in his tucked-away corner of Daxing. Diagrams and photos of arrow prototypes scatter the white composite-metal walls of his prefab-structure office. He’s buzzing with enthusiasm over an improvement on a design with a malleable handle.
To ensure more comfortable quarters, lately laborers have been busying with red bricks to build a two story living quarters so Chen can use his other buildings for Ju’an changing and meeting rooms. Chen has a simple hope: “that China’s new archery fad will go on and light a fire forever.”
If you want to shoot your own arrows see:
http://www.juanzu.com (Chinese) and www.ChinaArchery.org (English)