She Li, The Archery Ritual

Translated from Yi Li and Tianfeng Huanpei‘s Han Chinese Traditional Ritual Revival Proposition Project.

The Archery Ceremony.

The Archery Ceremony.


Archery Ceremony




Chinese civilization honours its forefathers and the roots of its civilization by commemorating and sharing its past role of a hunter in a ritualized competition of archery. Following the downfall of traditional rituals, this originally widespread ceremony held by civilians to greet important guests has all but disappeared. However, other countries in the Sinosphere has maintained this tradition, and is best known by the Japanese counterpart today as Kyudo.


The point of the She-Li, or Archery ceremony, is to demonstrate to the public (and the King, in the past) the virtue of the shooter – the Chinese believe that it is not in the quality of the bow, but in the moral resolve, ethical virtue, spiritual refinement, and proper physical condition combined that makes an outstanding person to shoot properly, and is a testing stone to his (or her) ability to serve and lead others. With this philosophy, Confucian scholars have turned this weapon of war into a tool of peace and education.


The Archery Ceremony is not a competition or a game: Aside from the personal spiritual refinement (“If one fires but misses the target… one should find its causes from within[1]”), it also raises personal awareness and alertness to his or her surroundings, and giving a sense of temperance and responsibility to maintain social order, with the bow giving a chance to its beholder a feel for (lethal) power. More details of the meaning and benefits of ritualized archery can be found in the Book of Rites (禮記 Li Ji), under the chapter Meaning of Archery (射義 She Yi).


The Ceremony




The layout of the grounds for the Archery Ritual.

The layout of the grounds for the Archery Ritual. 主: HOST 賓: Guest 司射: Master of Archery affairs 樂席: Musicians 三耦: 3 teams of participants 上﹐下射位: Upper/lower shooting spots 有司: Ritual Assistants 箭架: Arrow racks 觀禮位 Audience 乏: Shield 獲者: Scorekeeper 候: target

Traditionally, the ceremony is preceded and followed by feasting and ritualized toasts. Due to technical constraints these have been removed from our ceremony itinerary. The ceremony proceeds from the second section of Yi Li’s Chapter 5 Xiangsheli (Country/regional Archery Ritual):


–          The event is hosted by the honoured guest, a prominent civilian not in government office, and requires three pairs of participants (named “upper”, “second” and “lower” pairs), a master of archery affairs (an MC), a score counter, an attendant of related materiel, and musicians for ritual music. The event is historically open to the public, and welcomes spectators. 

–          The opening involves the host inviting the guest to the stage, with a short stop to the wash basin first to wash hands. They bow at the wash basin and after arriving at the stage. 

–          The MC declares to the host and guest “The bows and arrows are ready. The attendants await your shooting instruction.[2]” The guest responds, “I am incapable, but I will do as the honoured competitors have requested[3].” The MC steps onto the first step of the east staircase, and asks the host, “Please allow the guest to shoot. The guest has approved.” 

–          The MC exits through the stage on the other staircase, and has the participants move in their gears.  

–          Each team has a “senior” and “junior” shooter, with the senior standing to the left (west) side of the gallery when shooting. The “upper” team gets their two bows and four arrows per person. 

–          The MC calls to the scorekeeper to point at the centre of the target with his/her flags. The MC declares, “All participants must fire in sequence, and this must not be violated![4] 

–          The MC then demonstrates how to shoot – he bows to the gallery once on entering, to the stage (and the people on it) when passing by, on the eastern step, and to the audience after getting on the stage. 

–          Method of arming & carrying the bow: The shooter takes off the left sleeve of his/her outer garment. Three arrows are held with the waist belt. The thimble is on the right thumb and holding the bow on the left. One arrow is held between the right fingers. 

–          The method of shooting: Step on the designated standing spot (marked with a +) with the left foot, facing west. He then twists his head left (south), eyeing the target. He checks his footing (making sure his legs are parted but straight), then draws his bow and fires four arrows.

–          The score counter takes the arrows off the target, returns them to the bucket, and goes back to his/her station.

–          The first (practice round) begins. The “upper” team goes on stage first, followed by “second” and then “lower”.

–          The team members bow to each other once when they move to the stage and when just before rising up to it on the Eastern steps. The senior shooter gets onto the stage first, and the junior can rise to the first step after the senior gets on the third. The pair bow to each other for one more time, then set their sights on the target. The MC declares “Do not shoot, nor terrorize the scorekeeper![5]” The “senior” shooter bows to the MC in thanks of the advice, and then shoots one arrow and reloads. The “junior” shooter fires after the “senior” shoots, and the sequence continues until all eight arrows are fired.

–          The scorekeeper declares the results to the stage and public, and recollects the arrows into the arrow bin. The first team exist via the Western stairs while the next team ascends via the East. The two teams bow to each other when they meet. The process continues until all three teams have finished firing.

–          The MC then reports to the Guest, “All three teams have finished firing.[6]”, and the Guest bows in acknowledgement.

–          The second round (actual contest) begins. Scores are recorded and the losing team will be given “penalty wine” (or water/tea). The MC declares before the shooting “The score does not count if the arrows do not penetrate the target![7]

–          The score is recorded when the arrow hits the target, by taking off a bamboo stick off a deer statue (or bucket) and placing it to the left or right of the scorekeeper (or throwing them to the ground on respective sides).

–          Bonus Round: In this second round, the Host and Guest become a fourth team, with the Guest as the “senior” shooter. They shoot after the last competing team has finished.

–          Third Round (timed contest) begins. The MC declares to the public “Shots that do not hit the target on beat with the music are disqualified![8]” The musicians then perform The Book of Odes I:2:25 (Zou-yu) once for each of the four teams (including the Guest/Host pair) who will be shooting. After all teams have shot and have left the stage, the scorekeeper announces the winner or tied teams.

–          The teams, followed by the guest and host (in order) all ascend to the stage, the losing team is given penalty wine, and then all participants toast to each other with wine (or tea/water). Musicians play background music.

–          The Guest then leaves via West stairs, and musicians play a fanfare (the original tune Gai-xia is lost) as he leaves. The competitors file in after the Guest. The Host bows to the group in farewell, and then to the audience. Cleanup procedures follow.


[1] From Mencius. Chapter Gongsun Chou. 射者正己而后发,发而不中,不怨胜己者,反求诸己而已矣








4 Comments (+add yours?)

    Sep 17, 2009 @ 11:02:59

    Ce document et les illustrations m’interressent beaucoup, parce que j’enseigne cet Art martial depuis quelque temps.
    Je suis en train de rédiger un traité d’enseignement du tir à l’arc chinois pour promouvoir cette pratique extraordinaire en France.
    J’ai donc besoin de documents comme les votres pour illustrer mon travail.
    Pourriez-vous me les communiquer gracieusement, bien entendu je ne manquerais pas de vous citer dans mon traité.

    Merci par avance, très cordialement
    Gérard DEPREUX


    • Satsuki Shizuka
      Sep 17, 2009 @ 12:23:02

      Je suis désolé, j’ai renvoyé de tout mon français à mon professeur. Je devrai répondre en anglais. =_=”

      The pictures and illustrations here are all property of their respective labels. The head image is property of the Chinese National Geographic, and the diagram in the middle (which seems broken to me) is open property, but created by the Baidu Hanfu bar. Feel free to use them without citing me. However, if you wish to cite anything textual from here, please cite from this site. ^^


  2. John McKelvy
    Aug 27, 2016 @ 09:29:35

    Very interesting!

    I have a technical question about archery *and* music in a Chinese context. . . . If one plays gu qin and grows the fingernails to the appropriate length, does that pose challenges for archery – particularly when using a thumb ring?


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