Next Time You're in ... Hong Kong

  • Share
  • Read Later

Never mind the Ping-Pong Chinese archery has ancient roots

Since the 1950s, ping-pong tables have dotted China's landscape, planted proudly in railway stations, city parks and flaxen fields so that workers and ploughmen could perfect their backhands. But in a country with so long a history, table tennis is a newcomer. Archery, on the other hand, has been a Chinese pursuit since before 1,000 B.C. Confucius, himself a practiced archer, said: "There should be no competition among educated people. But if it is unavoidable, then it should take the form of archery." And who would dare argue with him?

Not Stephen Selby, a Hong Kong civil servant who came to the city from his native Britain three decades ago with a yen for ancient Chinese culture. When it comes to archery, he literally wrote the book; his Chinese Archery (2000) is the first such detailed compendium since the Ming dynasty. Fortunately, Selby is eager to share his expertise: the historian cum weekend warrior has been intermittently giving free lessons at his home on Victoria Peak for 15 years. Beginners and connoisseurs are equally welcome so long as they're prepared to set aside an entire weekend. Selby has enough working gear for four, and a vast collection of antique equipment — including bows from the Han and Qing dynasties — that was on exhibition until last year at a local museum.

"I consider it a martial art, not a competitive sport," Selby says of Chinese archery, which is much faster-paced than the modern international form. Instead of standing and shooting at a still target, in Chinese and other kinds of military archery, "You have to be prepared to move, and treat your target like it might shoot back or run away," Selby says.

From the mid-8th century until 1901, anyone looking to advance in the Chinese army had to demonstrate skill in archery, and Selby urges learners to take up those age-old techniques. The battlefield is a grassy stretch alongside his back veranda. Over the course of a weekend, you'll learn to coerce the rigid bow — a Hungarian-made reproduction — up over your knees to fix its string in place. Then you'll repeat the same six delicate motions that introduce arrow to bow hundreds of times, finally grasping your weapon in a single hand so as to keep hold of make-believe reins. (Chinese archery was meant to be executed on horseback.) By Sunday's close, you'll be hopping on one leg to the rhythm of a steed's gentle canter as you load and shoot. And don't forget to stare straight ahead, or you'll chance Selby's warlike admonition: "The enemy is coming; don't take your eyes off him!" It's wearing work, but, hey — a Ping-Pong paddle never made an emperor out of anyone.

A weekend of Chinese archery with Stephen Selby can be arranged by e-mailing at least a week in advance.