n July 24, the first gold medal at the Tokyo Olympic Games went to Chinese athlete Yang Qian, who triumphed in the women’s 10m air rifle. Yang studies at the prestigious School of Economics and Management at Tsinghua University. A few days later, Austrian cyclist Anna Kiesenhofer won the women’s road race over a distance of 137 kilometers. Kiesenhofer holds a PhD in math. Both athletes attracted applause from Chinese netizens for their athletic and academic prowess.
The summer of sporting endeavor is more remarkable after delays of over a year to highprofile events, like Euro 2020 and Tokyo 2020, where athletes saw their training interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. Both events were a success, with Italy claiming victory in the Euro 2020 final against England, and Tokyo 2020 concluding on August 8, 13 years to the day that the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games started, and only months until Beijing hosts the Winter Games, scheduled to start on February 4, 2022.
One ancient sport that modern people still practice in China is archery, although for different purposes.
In the past, commoners did not have much time for sports. Their lives were determined by the sun, getting up to work at sunrise and sleeping at dusk – the typical traditional lifestyle in ancient China.
The nobility had more options. Humans in prehistory relied on hunting and gathering to survive. When agriculture was developed, hunting became important as a sport and entertainment for elites, carrying military and political significance as well.
In 718 BCE in the Lu Kingdom, part of today’s east coast province of Shandong, the king Ji Xi wanted to leave his capital Qufu to go to a village called Tang to watch the fisherman, who were known for catching very big fish. Ji Gou, his uncle and a senior official, tried to dissuade him, saying it was not proper for a king to do anything that was not related to worship or warfare, or not in line with the protocol for a king. Everything had to be done according to the rules. Take hunting for example, Ji Gou said. During the spring mating season, we should only hunt animals which are not pregnant; in the summer we should only hunt animals which damage crops; in the autumn we should only hunt animals which prey on livestock, and in the winter we can hunt any adult animals.
The consequences of not following the rules of hunting could be serious. Nanyuan in the south of Beijing had been a royal hunting ground since the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) was founded. Much later, Qing Dynasty Emperor Daoguang, who ruled from 1821 to 1850, led a hunting party to Nanyuan. His fourth son Yizhu was a poor hunter and did not shoot anything. Yizhu told his father it was because he had too much sympathy for animals in their mating season to see them shot with an arrow. His father believed this son would be a good, kind emperor. Before that, Yizhu, whose leg was lame after he fell off his horse during a previous hunt, had little chance of being the royal heir, as he was outshone by his more brilliant younger brother Yixin. But the elderly emperor changed his mind and appointed Yizhu as crown prince. He later became Emperor Xianfeng, who ruled from 1851 to 1861. Yixin, his younger brother, lost the crown that people thought was destined to be his.
Many historians believe the Qing would not have weakened so quickly and dramatically if Yixin had taken the throne. In 1860, when a British-Franco army attacked Beijing, Emperor Xianfeng was at the Yuanmingyuan, a royal garden in the suburbs of Beijing also known as the Old Summer Palace. He told his officials that he would go to the Mulan royal hunting ground more than 400 kilometers from Beijing, straddling what is now the border between Hebei Province and Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. But he fled in fear for his life to Jehol, now Chengde, where the nobility also stayed in the Mountain Resort for their hunting trips. The Yuanmingyuan was burned down by the invading British-Franco troops, and the emperor died in the Mountain Resort. His concubine, Empress Dowager Cixi moved swiftly to take control and brought the dynasty to further decline in the next 50 years.
His brother Yixin led the Self-Strengthening Movement in the last four decades of the 19th century, which aimed to get the dynasty out of crisis and humiliation by learning and importing Western technologies. The Movement brought industrialization and modern education to China. But Cixi was wary of Yixin’s growing influence. She showed her power by dismissing him and then restoring him. Conservatives also opposed the movement. Yixin lost his confidence in the movement and was later deprived of all his political power. Historians believe that if Yixin had been chosen as emperor, he would have led the Qing to modernization like Japan’s Meiji Restoration.
The Mulan royal hunting field was established by Qing Emperor Kangxi in today’s Hebei Province in 1681, 180 years before Xianfeng went there. The purpose was to remind his children, Manchu dignitaries and soldiers of the Manchu tradition of living on hunting, to hold military drills and as a venue to meet the chiefs of Mongolian tribes. It was actually a kind of royal sports event with political and military purposes. Over 140 years, Kangxi and two of his successors organized 105 hunting parties there. They repeatedly stressed that horseback riding and archery were crucial to maintaining the military and spiritual fortitude to sustain Manchu rule. Kangxi would never have thought it would be used by his weak, cowardly descendant as a refuge.
Archery is not just a Manchu tradition or a practice of soldiers. Students of Confucius between the late 6th century BCE and early 5th century BCE had to learn archery skills. Confucius himself learned archery when he was young, a must for dignitaries since the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046–771 BCE) established protocol standards in about the 11th century BCE. Bows were made of wood and horn at first, and later longbows were made of bamboo. Students learned not only how to shoot at targets with a certain dynamic and precision, but also proper etiquette. When practicing with a bow, an archer had to concentrate and should never be aggressive toward his rivals. Concentration and courtesy were qualities thought to be crucial to scholarly gentlemen.
Confucius explained that a gentleman should not compete with others except at archery. The two competitors should bow to each other before and after the match, and then drink together. This shows that archery for ancient scholars and dignitaries was more about grooming gentlemen, not training soldiers for battle.
There is a famous example of an exiled official lamenting his fate. In 1075 during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), Su Shi, a great literati in ancient China, wrote a verse about his hunting experience as the mayor of Mizhou, today’s Zhucheng, Shandong Province, in what is considered one of his most famous works. He referred to himself as an old man who was in the mood for hunting like a young man. He compared himself to two famous ancient people known for their bravery. One was Sun Quan, founder of the Wu kingdom during the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280) who liked to shoot tigers. The other is Wei Shang, a general who won many battles in wars against the Huns in early 2nd century during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE). Wei was deprived of his title for some time, but got it back after another official called Feng Tang persuaded the emperor to reinstate him. Feng Tang was then assigned by the emperor to send a pardon to Wei and Feng was appointed as a military officer.
It is unlikely that Su Shi was a highly skilled warrior or hunter like Sun Quan or Wei Shang, who both were battlefield commanders. Su Shi, although middle-aged at 38, described himself as an old man because he was depressed and going through a dark time of his life. He had been the vice mayor of Hangzhou before the new appointment. But Hangzhou was a prosperous, beautiful city, while Mizhou was poor and ravaged by severe drought and locust plagues when he arrived. He could not bring his family as it was far from the capital and his hometown. Normally officials who fell out of favor with the emperor were sent there, similar to being in exile. It meant there was little hope of returning to the capital and participating in top policymaking. He was punished because he opposed reforms supported by the emperor. If he could never return to the capital, he would never be able to block the reform measures which were causing harm to the people.
But he was confident that, like Sun Quan, he was strong and brave enough to achieve something big. He hoped the emperor would call him back like the Han emperor did to Wei Shang. If the emperor did so, he would draw his bow “to the utmost like a full moon and shoot at Sirius to the northwest in the sky.” In ancient China, the binary star Sirius symbolized foreign invaders. Su Shi wrote this to express his aspiration to serve the country. Literary works mostly expressed soft, delicate sentiments at that time. But Su Shi was the vanguard and leader of an important genre of ancient Chinese literature known for expressing vigor and passion. This verse is a typical example of his style.
However, scholars have long been described as “elegant and weak” in China. The tradition of archery training may have started to decline during the Han Dynasty founded in the late 3rd century BCE. First, the purpose of archery training for scholars was to make gentlemen who followed protocols and behaved decently. The skill itself was not so important. Second, dignitaries who were the main group receiving education including archery lost their dominance in society during the hundreds of years of wars that started in the Spring and Autumn Period in the 8th century BCE. Scholars who only studied books appeared and rose as an independent group in society. Also in this period, the crossbow, a more effective weapon than other types of bows, came into use. It did not need much practice to learn how to operate it. As a result, the importance of archery was reduced even on the battlefield.
After Confucianism was endorsed as the imperial orthodox during the reign of Emperor Wu of the Han in the late 2nd century, scholars were more eager to study how to interpret Confucian scriptures than practice archery. From the early 7th century, the imperial exam became the most important way for scholars to seek success. Archery was not part of the exam, and it fell out of favor.