The Nemesis in China and Chinese archery in the 19th Century

China is the odd man out in the transition from archery to musketry. Almost every other nation had given up archery for firearms, the Chinese still used large numbers of archers as late as the 19th century. While firearms were certainly not unknown in China, and muskets made up a significant portion of the Qing dynasty military, the Manchus did not use firearms themselves. The Manchus (called Tartars by the west) were a nomadic people, similar to the Mongols, who had conquered the Ming dynasty in the 17th century. They fought primarily on horseback and their favorite weapons were the saber and bow.

I have wondered for a long time why the Manchus preferred to leave the most effective weapons in the hands of their Chinese subjects. Part of it is certainly that China had no serious external threats that would require a shake-up of military traditions to deal with. Wheellock and flintlock weapons were not widely available in China, those sorts of weapons being far more convenient for use on horseback than matchlocks, but that had not stopped the nearby Mongols and Tibetans from adopting the matchlock for use on horseback. Another clue comes from this account from the first Opium war:

ec84feabcba3525cb8069561be9f1524[1]It is well known that the bow and arrow is the favourite weapon of the Tartar troops, upon the dexterous use of which they set the highest claim to military distinction. The spear also, of various forms and fashions, is a favourite weapon both of Tartars and Chinese ; but the matchlock, which in all respects very nearly resembles some of the old European weapons of the same name, except that the bore is generally somewhat smaller, is of much more modern introduction, and by no means so much in favour with the Chinese ; this is occasioned principally by the danger arising from the use of the powder, in the careless way in which they carry it. They have a pouch in front, fastened round the body, and the powder is contained loose in a certain number of little tubes inside the pouch, not rolled up like our cartridges. Of course, every soldier has to carry a match or port fire to ignite the powder in the matchlock when loaded. Hence, when a poor fellow is wounded and falls, the powder, which is apt to run out of his pouch over his clothes, is very likely to be ignited by his own match, and in this way he may either be blown up at once, or else his clothes may be set on fire : indeed, it is not impossible that the match itself may be sufficient to produce this effect. At Chuenpee, many bodies were found after the action, not only scorched, but completely burnt, evidently from the ignition of the powder.

In one of the latest encounters during the war, at Chapoo, where a few of the Tartars defended themselves so desperately in a house in which they had taken refuge, they were seen stripping themselves altogether, in order to escape the effect of the fire upon their combustible clothes when the building was in flames; and many other instances of a similar kind were noticed during the war.

So it seems that the Manchus may have left firearms to the Chinese because they didn’t want to burst into flames. Yet the superiority of the musket to the bow was demonstrated:

On this occasion one of the Chinese officers, with cool determination and a steady aim, deliberately discharged four arrows from his bow at Captain Hall, fortunately without effect. Had they been musket-balls, however, he could scarcely have escaped. A marine instantly raised his musket at the less fortunate Chinese officer : the aim was unerring, and he fell. An attempt was first made to save him for his coolness and courage ; but in the heat of an engagement it is impossible to control every man, nor is it probable that the officer would have allowed himself to be taken prisoner.

And the Manchus seem to have realized that their bows weren’t having the desired effect:

The strength of the Chinese army was estimated at from seven to eight thousand men, part of which appeared to be a picked body, said to belong to the Emperor’s guard ; they were fine, athletic, powerful men. It was also remarked that their arms were of a superior kind ; several improvements had been adopted; and the bow and arrow, once the favourite weapon of the Tartar soldier, had been laid aside on this occasion.

9 thoughts on “The Nemesis in China and Chinese archery in the 19th Century

  1. Hello! I practice Manchu archery and I’ve also looked into this effect and it may come from two places. After the subjugation of the Xinjiang region by the Qianlong Emperor during the middle of the 18th Century CE, the military might of the Qing was at its highest. During that campaign, the Dzungar Mongols actually employed matchlock muskets en mass while the Qing army was made of Han Chinese musketeers and Manchu Bannermen horse archers. Manchu archery proved its superiority by out shooting and out maneuvering the Dzungars. With the success of that campaign and in pacifying the entire Empire, I don’t think they saw a need to rapidly transition all of their troops to musketeers.

    And secondly, there was an ideal set out by the early Qing Emperors. They knew there was a risk in their people of becoming too sinicized. And so they enacted several policies for their people to maintain their “Manchuness”. Learning the Manchu language was mandatory alongside Mandarin Chinese. There were certain ways that Manchus had to eat with certain foods. And of course, archery was a prized skill. It helped them bring food to the table and coin to their pockets. Later on, it helped them win an Empire. The Manchu style of archery remained a staple in imperial military exams up until the very end of the 19th Century CE.

    TL;DR Manchu archery was proven effective against other matchlock musketeers at the time of the 18th Century and it was an important part of their culture.

    I learned a great deal about Manchu archery from this site here.


  2. SatsuRyu, thank you for your comment. Do you know of any specific sources regarding Manchu archers outshooting the Dzungar musketeers? In the battles I’ve found between musketeers and archers, the musketeers usually won. In the rare cases where the musketeers lost, the sources indicate that it was because they were heavily outnumbered, their powder was ruined by rain or high winds, or they were very low quality/morale troops. If Manchu archers outperformed musketeers man-for-man, it would be very unusual, since archers in the rest of the world did not. I suppose it’s possible, since the Manchu composite bow is capable of better energy transfer than more primitive designs. I’d be very interested if you had a source from a Manchu soldiers or something saying something to the effect of “our archers were much better than their musketeers”.


  3. >The Manchus (called Tartars by the west) were a nomadic people, similar to the Mongols,

    While not the main topic of the article or a blog, i would like to note what they were not.
    Neither Jurchen/Manchu warfare(or culture) was similar to the mongols nor they were nomadic…


  4. Mike Loades has a very interesting book “The Composite Bow”, I believe you can find it on the internet in PDF format. Quote from the book:

    “For the Qing military examinations candidates were required to shoot at six roughly man-size targets. Originally these targets were placed at 135 yards – quite a distance for a heavy Manchu arrow.
    After 1693 the distance was reduced to 84 yards and eventually, after 1760, to 50 yards.”

    Note that this was a target shooting, not the maximum range of course.

    However, this represents the steady decline of archery in China. So even for officers trained in warfare the decline in target shooting was almost 3 times the distance of their predecessors.

    Also, interesting quote from the same book:

    “The Qing bow’s large proportions
    were designed to propel an
    especially heavy arrow to deliver
    a thumping blow that, at short
    range, would more than match
    the impact of a musket ball. ”

    But in the hands of a trained archer bow can indeed sometimes best the not only muskets but even rifles. Not the Qing, but their predecesors Ming dynasty had a war with Dutch East India Company. Ming used different kind of bow, unfortunately we don’t have even a clear description (hence no replica) of what it was, but some sources hint that unlike Qing (Manchu) bow, it was better in range but worse in power on short distances.

    Manchus or Tartars in China were not regarded as a brave and skillful men. For example, during the Sino-Dutch war 1622-1670 we have this interesting quotes about the western view on chinese military of that time:

    “Such an event actually happened in the year 1652, when two or three
    hundred of our soldiers quite overwhelmed about seven or eight thousand armed
    Chinese, and put them to flight. Since that time, the Chinese in Formosa
    were regarded by the Hollanders as insignificant, and in warfare as cowardly
    and effeminate men. It was reckoned that twenty-five of them put together
    would barely equal one Dutch soldier, and the whole Chinese race was regarded
    in the same way, no distinction being made between Chinese peasants and
    soldiers ; if he was but a native of China, then he was cowardly and had no
    stamina. This had come to be quite a fixed conclusion with our soldiers, and
    although they had often heard about Koxinga’s brave exploits against the Tartars,
    proving his soldiers to be anything but cowardly, yet this did not seem to alter
    the general opinion. Their fighting had been against the poor, miserable
    Tartars, and no opportunity had yet been given them of showing their bravery
    against the Netherlanders, who would soon settle them, and make them laugh
    on the wrong side of their faces.”

    At the Siege of Fort Zeelandia however, dutch faced these famous Koxinga pirates, who were much more experienced and dangerous than those enemies the dutch have faced before. Here are some quotes:

    “The archers formed Koxinga’s best troops, and much depended on them, for even at a distance they contrived to handle their weapons with so great skill that they very nearly eclipsed the riflemen.

    [The Dutch] courageously marched in rows of twelve men towards the enemy, and when they came near enough, they charged by firing three volleys uniformly. The enemy, not less brave, discharged so great a storm of arrows that they seemed to darken the sky. From both sides some few fell hors de combat [unable to continue to fight], but still the Chinese were not going to run away, as was imagined.

    The Dutch troops now noticed the separated Chinese squadron which came to surprise them from the rear ; and seeing that those in front stubbornly held their ground, it now became a case of sero sapiunt Phryges. They now discovered that
    they had been too confident of the weakness of the enemy, and had not anticipated such resistance. If they were courageous before the battle, fear now took the place of their courage, and many of them threw down their rifles without even discharging them at the enemy.”


    Of course it was not pure bow vs rifle battle, but the fact that bowmen stood up to the riflemen and even “nearly eclipsed” them hints that in trained hands bowmen could be not less dangerous than riflemen.


  5. Only to the degree that history has a pro-musket bias. I do post battles where bows won when I can find them, but I simply can’t find very many. If you have have battles where bows win, I’ll post them. In real life I shoot with both muskets and bows- I like them both.

    Most of the sources on this site are from the late 15th to early 19th centuries. Firearms didn’t start to replace bows and crossbows until the late 1400s, when firearms were far superior to those of the 1200s.

    I could post more sources on very early guns, but haven’t because 1. Those sources are fewer, 2. They usually don’t distinguish between handheld and crew-served firearms, using the same word for both. It wouldn’t make sense to compare a bow with a crew-served cannon.

    Cavalry has a number of traits that blunt the advantages of firearms over bows, but nonetheless the Manchu did employ large numbers of Han musketeers.


  6. […] Finally, here is a comparison of bows to muskets in the Opium War, 1839-1842. “On this occasion one of the Chinese officers, with cool determination and a steady aim, deliberately discharged four arrows from his bow at Captain Hall, fortunately without effect. Had they been musket-balls, however, he could scarcely have escaped. A marine instantly raised his musket at the less fortunate Chinese officer : the aim was unerring, and he fell.” The Chinese quickly learned that their bows were outclassed by the muskets, and in the next battle, “the bow and arrow, once the favourite weapon of the Tartar [Manchu] soldier, had been laid aside on this occasion.” […]


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