Chinese Bows Were Superior, Too

The Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time Report addresses the mystery of the bow’s long co-existence with firearms in China, compared with its early obsolescence in Europe:

A physicist at Australia’s University of Queensland offers a partial answer: Asian craftsmen created a bow whose physical properties were so impressive that they continued to offer advantages over slow-loading guns, despite guns’ greater power.

The key to the Central Asian bow, writes Timo Nieminen—reader-friendly summary here—was its composite structure. The side facing the archer was crafted of horn (which can endure tremendous compression), while the side facing the target was a glue-and-sinew composite (which can endure the tension caused by flex). A central portion of wood joined the two sides.

The bows were costly to produce—it might take a year for the glue-sinew composite to dry, by some reports—and they didn’t travel well: They couldn’t endure Western European humidity, for example.

In addition to this technological barrier, MIT’s Technology Review explains a human factor behind the bow’s abandonment in Europe:

[Archery had] … one big disadvantage: bows require a high degree of skill to use proficiently.

Nieminen points out that while Chinese armies had a huge pool of skilled archers to pick from, European armies did not. The Europeans therefore trained their soldiers to use firearms, which could be done relatively quickly.

And for that reason, firearms quickly eclipsed the bow in Europe. “Economic and social factors, especially the training of musketeers as opposed to archers, were more important factors influencing the replacement of the bow by the gun than pure military “effectiveness”,” says Nieminen.

Joseph Needham’s epic ‘Science and Civilisation in China’ offers detailed information on the bow’s construction:

The Chinese bow, from the earliest times to which we can trace it back, was a composite reflex bow. Although a beautiful object, put together with consumate skill, there was by then nothing very new in its artistry, since bows of composite stricture are known from Assyria and Babylonia as far back as the end of the -2nd millennium. They remained characteristically Asian, with some influence on Greece and more on the Persians, Arabs and Turks; and it would not be surprising if the bows used by the Shang people in China were of the same type …. (pp. 102-3)

When we turn to the ancient texts for information, we find that the Chou Li (Records of the Rites of Chou), compiled in the Former Han dynasty probably about the -2nd century, has a long section on the bow simple in the Khao Kung Chi (Artificer’s Record) chapter. With the exception of that devoted to chariot-makers, it is the longest of all. The bow’s composite character appears at once in a phrase which the writer might have borrowed verbatim from one of the old artisans:

Wood for range, horn for speed, sinew for penetration, glue for union, silk binding for firmness, lacquer for guard against frost and dew. The bowyers collect the six materials, each in their proper season, and then they are combined together by men of skill.

And he goes on to say that the wood is cut and trimmed in winter, the horn is soaked and glued in the spring, the sinew is prepared in the summer, and the three combined in the autumn. (pp. 109-10)

Needham goes on to recount the text’s list of preferred materials—silkworm thornwood, Achilles tendon from a moose or elk, and horn from a water-buffalo or “long-horned cattle from the western borders”—and acceptable substitutes, noting that it “does not mention sandalwood, used ceremonially and recommended later on in Taoist books, perhaps because endowed, like the peach, with magical powers.” The composition of the bow is illustrated in cross-section on page 104.

Readers who stumbled over the Wade-Giles romanisation in this extract should thank Zhou Youguang, perhaps with cake, for having provided a more intuitive alternative.

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