The practice of rituals in Chinese Archery cannot be separated from the history of the bow, both as an instrument of war, and as a part of the ritual and ceremony in civilian life in Ancient China.
The ritualistic practice of archery began during the Zhou Dynasty (1046 – 256 BCE). During this time, rituals were performed in front of the emperor as a way of demonstrating the virtues of an archer; the more attentive to the details of the ritual the archer was, the more virtuous they were seen in the eyes of the emperor.
To the people of this era, these rituals were seen as a representation of the order within chaos that wars themselves represented, such as the ability to take the chaos of battle and impose order and formation upon them, demonstrating both elegance and firmness. The practice of these archery rituals in their early days was carried out only by nobles, as a way of presenting their prowess and control over their mind and body to the emperor. It was said that no matter what action you took – be it forward, backwards, or sideways – all movements should be disciplined and taken with a clear mind and a focus on the target.
During this time, archery was also considered one of the Six Noble Arts, the others being religious rites, music, archery, chariot racing, calligraphy and mathematics. There was a widespread belief, supported by Confucianism, that whomever mastered these six arts would be a Junzi or “Superior Person”.
Confucious (551 – 479 BCE) himself saw in the use of the bow a fundamental part of the evolution of human beings, and for that reason he endorsed the practice of archery rituals. In this way, he thought, the bow transformed from a weapon of war into a weapon of peace; a weapon that the practice of would refine the body, mind and spirit.
“In archery we have something like the way of the Superior Person. When the archer misses the center of the target, they turn around and seek for the cause of their failure in themselves.” – Confucius
The archery ritual tradition waxed and waned in popularity through the following dynasties. Fortunately for us today, during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 AD) there was a recognition of the importance of these archery rituals, and a push to record this aspect of the culture, as well as much of their oral culture, lest it be lost. As a result, much of the written material that survives today is from this era.
Surprisingly, the practice of ritualistic archery even made its way into the civil service, in the form of the Imperial Examinations. The Imperial Examinations were a system for selecting new civil servants for the state bureaucracy, ensuring knowledge of writing and literature.
Starting in 1384 CE, in an attempt to emphasize “practical skills” during Imperial Examinations, the emperor declared archery to be included in these civil service tests, in the form of the traditional rituals drawn from the aforementioned Han Dynasty writings. With the inclusion of archery, Imperial Examinations would assist in returning the practice of ritualized archery to prominence, and would help to ensure its popularity and practice with the lower classes.
During the exams, the difficulty of the tests were based on the position the candidate sought. Tasks ranged from shooting rituals in sync with drum rhythms, to shooting on horseback, to pulling a high-strength bow, or even accurately shooting an unusually-heavy arrow!
The practice of archery in Imperial Examinations was part of Chinese life for centuries until 1901 CE, when Emperor Guangxu formally abolished the archery component of the Examination. With the modern end of archery’s inclusion in military examinations, the art of archery began to decline in China. In spite of this, many disciples of Confucius’ studies continued to study archery rituals as a way of keeping the practice of the Six Noble Arts alive.
Today, there is a worldwide movement to revive traditional archery techniques, including ritualistic archery, with the Pa-Kua International League being one participant in this movement. There are now several worldwide annual events which bring together practitioners of Chinese archery, which our school has been enthusiastically involved in.
The Practice of Ritualistic Archery in Pa-Kua
In our schools, the study of ritualistic archery starts at the beginning of the practice. As new students take their first few steps they will learn a sequence of shots from different positions, attention to breathing, as well as discipline and focus. However, at our school, the practice of the archery ritual is not about demonstrating one’s skills for others or competition, but rather about meditation, evolving internally, and striving for self-improvement.