Sports Heritage Along the SILK ROAD (Archery)

Persian archers from the Palace of Darrius I at Susa, PERSIA (present day Iran), 6th-5th Century BC, Pergamon Museum, Berlin – era of the Royal Road which evolved into the Silk Road.

It is uncertain by whom and when archery was invented. It is, however, safe to credit cavemen whose use of bows and arrows is well documented in a great number of cave paintings, around the world.

To mark this first annual #SilkRoadWeek (June 19-25), we are celebrating the history of sports heritage along the Silk Road. We start the week with archery which many in the West and the East agree has a very long history in Asia.

Archery as a sport has a long history starting with references in various classical art, and texts in Arabic, Assyrian, Persian, Sanskrit, Chinese, Korean and Japanese, among others.

The Sanskrit term for archery, dhanurveda, came to refer to martial arts in general. The master archers in the ancient Kingdom of Goguryeo (고구려) – present day KOREA -, located along Manchuria were said to have been exceptionally skilled in the art of archery.

Image: Rock art of the Iberian Mediterranean Basin, 15,000-5,000 BP, Spain

Georg Moritz Ebers, Drawing of the bas-relief “Battle with Hitties”, 1881, from the Battle of Kadesh-Hitties relief (c. 1274 BC) at the Ramesseum Temple in the Theban necropolis, EGYPT

To this day, archers in KOREA dominate the sport in nearly all international competitions. At the Rio Olympic Games in 2016, Korea won the gold medal in all four categories – men’s and women’s team and individual. South Korea’s archers have won 39 Olympic medals, 23 gold, as well as every women’s (recurve) event since women’s archery joined the Olympics, at Seoul, in 1988. 

KOREA National Intangible Cultural Heritage Digital Archive (국립무형유산원 디지털 아카이브) — Palace Market (궁시장) 1972 refers to master craftsmen who make a bow and an arrow. It is said that the person who makes the bow is the court , and the person who makes the arrows is the mayor.
Image: Liu Guandao: Khubilai Khan on the Hunt, paint and ink on silk. 1280, collection National Palace Museum in Taipei

In the Liao and MONGOLIA states in the 10th to 11th Centuries, Mongols & their ancestors played a game called ‘Shooting the Willow’ to demonstrate their skills in the art of archery. From the time of Genghis Khan (1162-1277) and the Mongolian nation proper, there are numerous accounts of great feats of archery recorded in visual and textual traditions.


Mongolia – Tradition of Bow Making (UNESCO)
Zhang Weibang and Yao Wenhan portrays Bingxi – a winter activity regularly performed for imperial audiences, especially during the Qianlong emperor’s reign in the 18th c -, Qing Dynasty, collection The Palace Museum

“There is nothing that gentlemen compete over (zheng), if at all, it is in archery…when ascending to the shooting platform and upon descending offering drink- such competition is truly of gentlemen.”

The Analects of Confuscious, translated by James Legge.

In CHINA, the earliest evidence of archery dates to the Shang Dynasty (1766-1027 BC). Everyone from the emperor down to ordinary civilians learned variety of archery practices and traditions. During the Zhou (Chou) Dynasty (1122-256 BC), Archery is documented as one of the Six Noble Arts and when exercised at court, Nobelmen who were in attendance were entertained by music and live performances. The Six Arts (六藝) to master included: Rites (禮), Music (樂), Archery (射), Charioteering (御), Calligraphy (書) , and Mathematics (數).

Chinese Archer, the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) published in ‘Asia’ Magazine, in 1935
In INDIA and the Indian subcontinent, Archery may be studied under śastra-vidyā – which is a compound of the words śastra (weapon) and vidyā (knowledge). Contained in Dhanurveda, a section found in the ancient Sanskrit text Vedas (1700-1100 BCE), are references to martial arts, including archery. Dhanurveda derives from the words for bow (dhanushya) and knowledge (veda), the “science of archery.” This short film uses Dhanurveda as its genera reference.
Actor Nakamura Shikan (1818 -1825) as samurai by Utagawa Toyokuni (1777-1835)

JAPAN’s history of archery dates back to the pre-historical times though the first images illustrating Japanese asymmetrical longbow are from the Yayoi period (c. 500 BC-300 AD).

One of Japan’s best known martial arts Kyūdō (弓道 – the way of the bow) is practiced primarily for physical, moral and spiritual development. There are different styles of the game including Ogasawara, Heki, Honda and Yamato.

The technique is broken down into Eight Stages of Shooting (Shaho-Hassetsu): 1) Ashibumi – placing the footing; 2) Dozukuri – forming the body; 3) Yugamae – readying the bow; 4) Uchiokoshi – raising the bow straightly (Ogasawara and Honda style) or slantwise (Heki and Yamato style); 5) Hikiwake; drawing apart; 6) Kai; the full draw; 7) Hanare; the release; 8) Zanshin: “the remaining body or mind” or “the continuation of the shot”

Likewise, rituals of the types of arrow, bow and costume are as complex as are most archery traditions in the region, all intricately inter-woven with historic and at times mythical references.

“One Shot : One Life documentary” documentary featuring sensei Takeuchi Masakuni, 7th dan Kyoshi, at the Meiji Shrine Dojo, Tokyo.

In TURKEY, traditional archery – practiced on foot & on horseback – encompasses principles, rituals and social practices, the craftsmanship of traditional archery equipment, archery disciplines and shooting techniques that have evolved over centuries. The craftsmanship of traditional archery equipment, generally decorated with calligraphy, ornaments and marquetry, is also a key component of the element, requiring specific skills and knowledge. Bearers and practitioners ensure the continued viability of the element by adapting it to contemporary conditions, and there has been a remarkable increase in female archers and trainees in recent years. Courtesy Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Turkey, General Directorate of Research and Training, 2017 (UNESCO)