Jining craftsman preserves traditional bow-making technique, archery culture
Xu Mingkun, a bow-maker in Qufu, Jining, continues to practice a traditional bow-making technique which includes over 200 steps. Over the past 30 years, Xu has been exploring countless amounts of bow-related materials and visiting and learning from other bow-makers across China.
In Xu's view, archery, as one of the six art forms of Confucian culture, is an integral part of Chinese traditional culture, which has impelled him to preserve the craft.
Xu was born to a family of carpenters. He consulted with several experienced bow-makers in his family and recorded their experiences, while also following the old manuscripts to learn the technique step by step. He set up his own workshop in 1994 and did everything he could to improve his skills.
Bows made by Xu Mingkun [Photo/JiningNews]
"It is not easy to make a good traditional bow. First of all, you need two ox horns to make one bow," Xu said.
"You also need six different materials, including wood, for the main body of the arch; ox's horns, which will be cut into thin slices to stick to the front side of the bow arm; ox tendon, which will stick to the back side of bow arm; binder, which is boiled with animal skin or connective tissue to stick the horn and tendon on the bow arm; silk, which is used to wind the bow arm to consolidate it; and lacquer, which will be painted on the surface of the bow arm for waterproof."
The steps to make a traditional bow include making the arch, strengthening the bow tips, sticking on the ox's horns and tendon, creating the shape of bow, and painting the back of the bow.
Xu Mingkun makes a bow in his workshop. [Photo/JiningNews]
Preliminary preparations include making the arch, boiling the binder, softening the horn and tendon and making the bow tips.
"Raw materials such as ox's horns and tendon can be used after several steps of processing," Xu said.
"Laying the tendon is an important step, as it determines the performance and service life of the bow. At least three layers of tendon need to be laid and you need at least one week to dry each layer," Xu said.
After this step, the bow body needs to be laminated and toasted to keep the close connection of the arch, horn, tendon and tip. During the toasting, the isinglass, a type of glue boiled with fish fin, skin and bones, will be permeated into the bow body, which should be heated evenly in case of cracking.
"After the formation of the main body, the bow should be tested frequently to be adaptable to different amounts of force," Xu said. He also carries out regular maintenance work on the bow, as the changes in weather and climate will deform the bow body.
The traditional bow making technique of the Xu Family was listed as a provincial-level intangible cultural heritage item in Shandong province in 2013. As a practitioner, Xu is devoted to preserving this exquisite craft, while also pioneering modern archery.
Xu teaches young bow enthusiasts as much as he can for free, and also goes to schools to teach archery classes.
"Only with constant innovation can the traditional bow culture and bow making technique survive forever," Xu said.