What makes the bow we use in Pa Kua a Chinese Bow?
The answer inevitably comes back to the history and development of the bow within China. However, whenever we talk about China’s history, we need to remember that while Canada is about 4% larger than present-day China, China’s culture and history goes back an incredible period of time, and has undergone a number of upheavals and transformations in that time. That said, it is important to remember that there is no such thing as a canonical style of Chinese archery, so when discussing it we need to keep in mind the changes in Chinese culture from one dynasty to another, and which bows and innovations were introduced during each era.
Compound or Composite?
These terms are often confused for one another by beginners.
When we talk about a compound bow in archery today, we usually mean a contemporary bow, often built with pulleys, counter-weights and other mechanisms to control weight and make aiming easier.
However, when we discuss a composite bow, we mean a bow where the body and limbs of the bow are composed from more than one material. The first composite bows were made from different shafts of bamboo or wood, which when combined give greater strength and flexibility than bows made of a single type of wood, which are called self bows. These bows first came into being during the Warring States period of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE — 220 CE).
The most successful types of bows in China, as well as in nearby Asian countries, was a composite bow made of horn, tendon, and bamboo or wood. In this style of bow, the materials are effectively laminated together with the horn on the inside (or belly), wood in the center and tendon on the outside of the bow. This construction allows the bow to have more power without having to increase their size, allowing for greater mobility and facilitating use on horseback.
Creation of a Ming Dynasty bow made of horn, tendon and wood
The Upper Limb, or Siyah
Siyahs (coming from Arabic and Persian) are the non-flexible end sections of Asian recurve bows, which include the string-nocks. They typically point in the opposite direction to the handle, which helps give the recurve bow its characteristic double-curved shape. Siyah also allow for greater shooting power without having to pull the bowstring to its limit, which allows for a more powerful bow in a lighter, more compact size. Over the history of Chinese culture, the siyah of bows have come in many sizes, shapes, and styles, from right angles away from the target, to pointing directly towards the target.
From the Han Dynasty to the Yuan Dynasty (206 BCE — 1368 CE) long-limbed bows were the most popular in China.
During the Ming Dynasty (1368 CE –1644 CE), bows with smaller siyah and wider angles than earlier models became popular. Meanwhile, versions with smaller siyah became more popular within Korea.
In the Qing Dynasty (1644 CE –1912 CE) bows with larger siyahs became popular, along with the popularization of the use of bridges on bows. This Qing Dynasty bow model is the most widely used today.
The bridge was popularized by the Manchus during their invasion of China, starting in 1618 CE, and made famous during the Qing Dynasty. The bridge is a spot or groove on the back of the siyah. Much like a bridge on a violin, it is meant to hold and guide the bowstring, which offers several advantages: One of the main uses is to allow the bow to be drawn more fully, without the bowstring striking the bow. The bridge also reduces the chance of the bowstring coming out of the string-noch when firing. The bridges also reduce vibration in the bow after firing, which reduces stress on the bow.
The Kaiyuan Bow (开元 弓) was a style of bow developed during the Ming Dynasty, which was small to medium in size with long siyah. These bows rivaled the power and accuracy of Mongolian bows, while being much lighter, this style of bow became a favourite amongst high-ranking officials in China. It was constructed with several different layers of wood, but one of its most striking features was the hook-shaped siyah, which made it possible to pick up arrows from the ground while on horseback.
Page taken from The 1637 Chinese Military Training Manual.
Bows Within the Pa Kua International League
The standard bows of our school have medium-sized siyah with acute angles, and are equipped with a bridge. Our bows are typically made from modern materials, such as fiberglass reinforced with polymers, and feature a traditional grip which allows for ambidextrous shooting.
Another bow widely used within Pa Kua is the famous, previously-mentioned, Kaiyuan bow. In addition to these bows, it is common for Pa Kua schools to provide simpler models for new students to begin their training with, usually featuring a lighter draw, and without all of the features of a Chinese bow. This is partially due to the difficulty of acquiring Chinese bows in certain regions and countries, such as Ontario, where hunting bows are more easily obtained.