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Learning the art of the crossbow in Yunnan

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En route to the market, Lisu man with his crossbow
En route to the market, Lisu man with his crossbow

Editor's note: The following article by author Jim Goodman explores the dying art of the crossbow in northwest Yunnan. Goodman has recently released an ebook entitled Living in Shangrila: Tibetans and Mosuo in Northwest Yunnan, which can be purchased on Amazon and Lulu. More of his writings can be accessed on his blog, Black Eagle Flights (requires proxy).

I saw my first crossbow on the shoulder of a middle-aged Akha man in Saen Charoen Mai, northern Thailand, way back in 1988, as he sauntered down a trail into the thick jungle above the village. I didn't pay him much mind. Everybody I knew there then used traps and long-barreled rifles to hunt, which was anyway already much less often than when they were all boys. Many men still had crossbows, but mounted them on interior walls of houses and didn't use them anymore. And as I never again witnessed somebody carrying a crossbow into the forest, I lost interest.

After a few years even the traps disappeared from the jungle, at least the ones for medium-sized mammals, which were also former crossbow targets. Rare was the Akha hunter successful enough to bring home a wildcat, bamboo gopher, civet, pangolin or even squirrel, much less a boar or a barking deer. The animals are now so rare that Akha men don't even go looking for them anymore. In fact, the hunting tradition everywhere has been largely reduced to trapping or shooting small birds and an occasional squirrel.

Crossbow seller in Liuku making bolts
Crossbow seller in Liuku making bolts

But in Yunnan province from where most of Thailand's hill people originated, the hunting tradition lasted until the government proscribed it in 1998. Until then the Akha — in Yunnan called Aini (爱你) — in Xishuangbanna and Pu'er prefectures, as well as their neighbors the Lahu (拉祜) and Jinuo (基诺), were renowned hunters and crossbow users. Now they've stopped. But crossbows are still in use in Nujiang Prefecture in the far west. Men carry them to the field and to the forests above their villages, making them at home and selling them in the markets. Crossbows are still an integral part of life with the Lisu (傈僳) and Nu () people in the mountains along the river.

I bought one myself in Liuku, the prefectural capital, on a trip in November 2001 with the assistance of a local Lisu friend. Not knowing anything about them myself, I thought it better to have a native choose my first. The bow part, or prod, was made from mulberry wood and the stock from mahogany. My purchase included the bowstring, made of four-ply hemp thread, three millimeters thick, plus an extra string, a small knife for sharpening the bolts, a bearskin quiver and about 60 bolts, in three bamboo tubes inside the quiver. The bolts were 25 centimeters long, six millimeters thick and fletched near the end with a triangular piece of dried bamboo leaf.

Nujiang crossbows resemble those in other parts of Yunnan and work the same way, but the stock shape differs. Those made by the Yi (), Wa () and Lahu have a bulge hanging down on the stock where the prod goes through. Hani crossbows have a double bulge and the Jinuo model is straight, but has an angled section, like a rifle stock, at the end. Nu and Lisu crossbow stocks are relatively straight, with only a slight bulge where the prod goes through the stock.

Firing a bolt
Firing a bolt

The top of my crossbow stock had a groove three millimeters wide and three deep, about as long as the bolt. The trigger, about halfway down the stock, was made of ivory, while others are made of bone The user draws back the bowstring to a notch just above the trigger, then lays a bolt in the groove, aims and pulls the trigger. This pushes up the bowstring and the force released propels the bolt.

I never did try it out while I was there that month and when it was time to return to Thailand I had a new focus. Eventually, though, I put up some sort of target in my yard and put the bowstring back on and try out my crossbow. I had a specific reason for wanting to learn how to use it. I intended to research Nujiang for the next few years for a book project, so it was good to become familiar with something so much a part of Nujiang culture. I might even be invited on a hunting trip with my new friends in the mountains there. But I didn't really intend to become a skilled hunter and firing at targets in my yard had a limited run of excitement. The real goal was to become proficient enough to one day take part in crossbow demonstration during the Lisu Kuoshi new year festival in late December.

In the event, young Lisu women, in their beaded headdresses and long skirts, stand in a row, each with a bowl of rice on their heads. A 15-centimeter bamboo tube inserted upright in the rice holds an egg perched on its top. Their boyfriends stand opposite them about twenty meters away, level their crossbows and shoot the eggs off the girls' heads. I'd seen photos of this in books and quick shots of it in television documentaries about Nujiang, so I was well motivated to start becoming proficient. My fantasy was to get so good at it that when Kuoshi came around and someone invited me to try firing his crossbow, I would fire it so accurately that a beautiful young Lisu woman would volunteer to be my partner in the local version of the William Tell act.

Lisu woman in Fugong
Lisu woman in Fugong

I should have gotten a lesson first while I was there in Nujiang, except I didn't think my Chinese vocabulary was good enough to understand the instructions. It's easy enough to figure out how to fire it, but I had immediate problems, like how tautly should I twist the bowstring when I put it back on. I had an old door in my shed, left behind by a previous tenant.

So I erected it in my yard, put some tape over the wood for something to aim at, cocked the crossbow, laid a bolt in the groove, aimed down the end of it like a shotgun and pulled the trigger. In the blink of an eye the bolt shot forward and penetrated the door right up to the fletching at the end of the bolt. It was quite wide of the tape, though, and when I tried a second shot I heard a loud twang, the bolt missed the whole door and the string flew off.

I retightened the bowstring, hooked the ends onto the bow, loaded up and tried again. This time I hit the door, but still far from the target tape. I continued to practice, sometimes getting close to the tape, usually not. Neighbor children came to watch, to hand me a bolt after I had cocked the crossbow and help me fetch the bolts after I'd fired a few shots. This got to be an almost regular five o'clock routine for the next couple of weeks. Eventually I hit the bulls-eye a few times, but several dozen times I did not, nor did I ever get the bowstring taut enough not to fly off every now and then. It was time to return to Nujiang for the Kuoshi Festival and I was nowhere near proficiency, but maybe I could meet someone at the crossbow event who could give me a proper lesson.

Crossbow competition at the Lisu Kuoshi Festival
Crossbow competition at the Lisu Kuoshi Festival

Unfortunately, the Kuoshi near Fugong, where I chose to see the festival, did not include the event that inspired me to take up the crossbow. Rather than girls with eggs on top of their heads the men fired from about 50 meters at small, dangling, woven bamboo targets strung between two posts on a knoll. Some of them weren't much better than me. As an experienced beginner, I knew what that loud twang meant, and whenever I heard it I didn't look to see where the bolt had gone, but instead how far off the bowstring flew. I asked folks where the traditional crossbow event took place, but no one seemed to know, though they all seemed pretty sure some place or other staged it.

It was an enjoyable festival even without that particular show and I returned home feeling I had a whole year in which to both improve my skill and find out exactly where to go next Kuoshi. But four days after I got back, when showing a friend how a crossbow works, I pulled the trigger and with an ear-splitting crack the stock broke, snapping apart right at the point where the prod goes through.

I took out my magnifying glass to look at all the photos I had taken of crossbows in Nujiang to see what was different from mine. I soon discovered why mine had broken. The hole in the stock was too close to the top, with only a very thin bit of wood between the top of the hole and that of the stock. That was precisely where it had snapped. Crossbows in my photographs had the same thickness of wood on either side of the hole. Obviously my Lisu friend who had selected the crossbow was no expert himself.

Hunters examining crossbows in Fugong
Hunters examining crossbows in Fugong

Hoping to replace it with a local crossbow, I checked out the ones in the night bazaar, but they were not as well made, nor as long, nor were they sold with a set of bolts. Like those in the villages themselves, these crossbows looked purely ornamental. Until I could get back to Nujiang I had to satisfy my new passion by researching crossbows instead of firing them. I soon found out Yunnanese crossbows were very different from those used in Europe in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. And very unsophisticated compared to modern pistol-style ones.

The old European ones were heavier and used a thick rope for the bowstring. Unlike the Nujiang crossbows, they couldn't be cocked easily by hand. Men had to use a geared winding apparatus called a rannequin to draw the bowstring back to the notch. The stocks were sometimes decorated with carved figures and symbols or with scenes of hunting. Even after the introduction of rifles, some hunters preferred crossbows because they were silent, did not require extensive cleaning or maintenance and had reusable ammunition.

The high-tech crossbows sold nowadays use metal bolts. They can be particularly lethal-looking — like pistol-crossbows or the one modeled on a fifteenth century Venetian version called "the assassin's crossbow." Seemed like a perfect terrorist weapon to me, with an effective range of 200 meters. However, the advertiser did issue the disclaimer "not to be used in re-enactment." Other pistol-crossbow dealers, however, seemed less concerned about the customer's intentions. One stated that with the purchase you get "a starter kit that includes everything you need to begin target practice, or whatever you have in mind."

Lisu hunter taking aim
Lisu hunter taking aim

What I had in mind, of course, didn't require a pistol-crossbow but a good, local Nujiang crossbow. On my next trip to Fugong I waited for market day, carefully examined the crossbows on offer, selected one with the prod hole exactly in the center of the stock, and a whole bunch of new bolts, plus a deerskin quiver. It came with one of those poisonous aconite roots that Nujiang people sometimes use on their bolts. They cut grooves near the tip of the root and rub the juice from it into the grooves. In the past they did this when hunting big game and going to war.

I took my new crossbow up to Bingzhongluo, 45 kilometers north of Gongshan where I intended to see a Nu festival. Because it had been raining the entire time I was in Fugong County, I still hadn't tested my new purchase. I decided to look for a spot near the town and when anyone asked me where I was going I told them I was going to look for flying squirrels. The real reason would be a little problematic for me to explain in Chinese.

I found a big tree just behind town, inserted a square piece of paper in a loose piece of bark, stood 30 meters away, cocked, loaded and fired. I hit the tree a little bit left of the paper. I aimed again, fired and got closer. I made one more adjustment in my aim, fired again and pierced the paper exactly in the center. So my new crossbow worked, shot straighter than the old one, had better bolts and I thought I could get good at using it. Maybe no Lisu shoot eggs off their girlfriend's heads anymore at Kuoshi, but I could still get invited on a hunt with Lisu friends. Perhaps we'd spot a flying squirrel and all go for it. It would be wonderful to see the expression on their faces if I turned out to be the one who shot it down. And they all missed.

Testing my crossbow in Bingzhongluo
Testing my crossbow in Bingzhongluo

All images: Jim Goodman

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Great stuff as usual!

Nice story!

I thought a crossbow bow drawing apparatus was called a cranequin? I remember reading this from some book about soldiers way back when... you can see Tyrion using a simple one at the end of Game Of Thrones season 4!

Nice story, Jim. I'm rather glad to didn't get the chance to do the William Tell, there are a lot of attractive women in the Nujiang & we don't want to lose any...

No matter how much practise I'd never have the nerve to shoot an object of top of a womens head lol

Interesting article, but it seems the Chinese hill tribes didn't really seem to have kept the crossbow culture alive either. They are just more enterprising than the Thai and make crappy ones for sale?

I have the name, phone and address of a Lisu crossbow maker in Liuku. The crossbows pictured above are all short, the man I met makes the long crossbows. If interested, let me know and I will pass on the info needed to contact him. He sells bows, arrows, quivers and has a collection of exotic animals he hunted and killed in Burma.

Does this mean I can legally import my competition compound bow?

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