A rather well-made example of its type.
Nock to nock: 178 cm
Tip to tip: 188 cm
(Estimated, tips lost)
Knee to nock: 25 cm
45 x 19 mm
130 - 170 pounds
Qing dynasty, China
Buffalo horn, wood, sinew, birch bark, cork, pigments, lacquer
Circa 1840 - 1870
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Like most martial archery cultures, the Manchus emphasized the shooting of heavy war bows. Part of their training regimen was the pulling of extremely heavy bows. The standard draw weight range of such bows went from approximately 107 pounds to 240 pounds.
Above is a page from the 1766 Huangchao Liqi Tushi. My translation:
"Martial Arts Bow.
According to the regulations of our present dynasty, Martial Arts Bow:
The deerskin string measures 3 chi 7 cun. (Approx 130 cm)
Divided into three grades: Grade 1, 12 li. Then 10 li. Then 8 li."
(Approx 160, 133 and 107 pounds)
"In order to test one’s strength, there are six strong bows one can pull: 13 li to 18 li." 1
(Approx 173# to 240#)
To get an idea of how common these weights were in use, we can catch a glimpse of the military examinations from a published page of results of examination results in Jiangnan, 1882. Of the 8 listed contestants, 3 pulled the 173-pound bow and 5 pulled the 160-pound bow. 2
Even in 1900, well into the age of firearms, the Qing soldiers upheld heavy bow archery:
“The Chinese bows are large and powerful... Bows of 150 pounds are by no means rare in China. The arrows used at the siege of the Legations in 1900 are 3 feet 5.5 inches long and 7/16 inch in diameter with heavy socketed steel heads. Some of the whistling arrows are 4 feet 2 inches long with heads four inches in diameter and six inches long. The bows that I saw in Peking that were used with such arrows were huge, about six feet long strung, with a cross section at the handle of nearly two square inches. They were said to pave a pull of about 200 pounds and looked it." 3
-George Cameron Stone, 1934
Notes to introduction
1. Huángcháo Lǐqì Túshì (皇朝禮器圖式) or "Illustrated Regulations on the Ceremonial Paraphernalia of the Dynasty", edited by Yun Lu. 1766 woodblock edition based o a 1759 manuscript. Chapter 15.
2. See my online article Jiangnan Provincial Examination Results.
3. Stone, George C.; A Glossary of the Construction, Decoration and Use of Arms and Armor: in All Countries and in All Times. (Reprint) Jack Brussel, New York, 1961. Entry on "bows".
A typical example of one of the heaviest strength bows produced in the Qing. Somewhat unusual on these is the high degree of decoration seen on this example, indicating it was one of the better examples of its kind.
The belly is covered with two massive plates of buffalo horn, lined tastefully with thin strips of white paper. The large grip is completely covered with cork. There is no reinforcement where an arrow would pass, confirming that it is indeed a pure strength bow.
Both sides of the grip are covered with painted birch bark. On the belly side are pasted designs of plum flowers and bamboo leaves that among others symbolize perseverance and virtue. On the back side next to the handle are applied coins and bat designs, symbols of luck and prosperity. The outside of the working limbs is covered with natural colored bark, obliquely applied, divided by a black center line.
The outside of the "knees" are decorated with more plum blossoms on a black background. The inside of the knees with plum blossoms and calebashes, the latter stand for lots of offspring. They are topped by a lily, among others symbols of producing male offspring.
There are large, stag antler string bridges on either side of the bow to catch the gut or rawhide string that these would come with.
The knees have a fairly deep bend to maximize the effect of the ears. The ears have a gentle curve to them. They are made of strong wood, covered completely with thick bark. The tips end in V-notches, which once held separate horn or wooden nocks.
The bow is structurally sound with no insect damage or signs of de-lamination. The outer bark covering has suffered over time, with flaking of many of the designs. See photos. Both nocks are missing.
There is a complete set of similarly decorated strength bows in the Chicago Field Museum. They were collected by Berthold Laufer who lead the Jacob H. Schiff expedition to China between 1902-1903. The bows can be found in the American Museum of Natural History database. Here is a direct link to one of the bows.
The Berthold Laufer bows were thought to have dated from the Qianlong period, but based on their design I would disagree. They are probably from around the mid 19th century, such as the bow presented in this article.
A rare example of a pure Chinese strength bow of very high poundage. Most of these were very humbly made, but this example is part of a small group, with the Laufer bows, that was quite elaborately decorated.
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