Bow Maker a Last Link to China's Past

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Yang Fuxi holds one of the bow-and-arrow sets he created at his workshop in Beijing. i

Yang Fuxi holds one of the bow-and-arrow sets he created at his workshop in Beijing. Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
Yang Fuxi holds one of the bow-and-arrow sets he created at his workshop in Beijing.

Yang Fuxi holds one of the bow-and-arrow sets he created at his workshop in Beijing.

Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Yang Fuxi has revived his family's traditional business, making bows and arrows from water buffalo horns and bamboo. His Manchu ancestors used the weapons to conquer China, but Yang is the last-known practitioner of his craft.


Next we learn about two traditions in China. One is a tradition imported from the West. The other is unmistakably Chinese, though it is disappearing fast. It's true of many things in a relentlessly modernizing nation, and this morning we'll meet China's last known maker of traditional bows and arrows.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports on the man's drive to preserve his family craft.

ANTHONY KUHN: Yang Fuxi's one-room home and workshop is filled with bows and arrows. He's got his foot up on a sawhorse to which a compound bow is strapped. He runs his hands over the back of the bow.

Then he uses a metal scraper to even up the bow's thickness above and below the handgrip. Yang says he works entirely by feel.

Mr. YANG FUXI (Bow Maker): (Through translator) Our craft can only be learned by teacher guiding your hands with his hands. It's not like carpentry where you have a blueprint and machines. It's difficult because we don't use a measurement. It depends entirely on the craftsman's experience and intuition.

KUHN: He takes out a bow with a 35-pound pole and gives it a twang.

(Soundbite of bow twang)

KUHN: Yang is 48 and an ethnic Manchu. He's got muscular arms and streaks of gray in his wavy hair and beard. He's the 10th generation of bow makers in his family. Their shop called Ju Yuan Hao was established in 1720 and provided all its wares to the imperial court.

Mr. FUXI: (Through translator) Our bows are special in that they are not that powerful. But the ornamentation is exquisite. Soldiers' bows are different. They only need it to be lethal.

KUHN: Yang would have started making bows a lot earlier, but the Cultural Revolution began when Yang was nine, and gangs of Red Guards searched people's homes, destroying vestiges of China's ancient civilization. Yang's family quietly discarded all their bows, except for one. It was made in 1820 to celebrate the shop's 100th anniversary. Yang's ancestors instructed that it should always be kept in the store.

Mr. FUXI: (Through translator) For our own safety, we cut the bow in half, wrapped it in plastic and stashed it under the piles of firewood. That way, the Red Guards never found it.

KUHN: Yang's father unearthed and repaired the old bow in the late 1980s. Yang takes it out of a cabinet and proudly displays it. It's made of bamboo on one side. And black water buffalo horn on the other. It's decorated with painted dragons, and an inscription about a skilled archer.

Mr. FUXI: (Through translator) This bow embodies the history of our shop. It is proof of our family's generation of craftsmanship making bows. Its worth cannot be measured in money. We cannot sell it for any amount.

KUHN: After years of working as a carpenter and later as a taxi driver, Yang finally took up the profession of his ancestors in 1998 at age 40.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

Mr. FUXI: (Speaking foreign language)

KUHN: Yang pauses to greet two customers. A bow and set of five arrows goes for the equivalent of around $500 he tells them. Customers need to order a year in advance. Right now, yang is the only one making the bows. But he started teaching his teenaged son and two students. He says he'll judge the student's characters carefully before formally taking them as apprentices.

Mr. FUXI: (Through translator) In our trade, you can't be too selfish. You can't be obsessed with money. Craftsmen are not going to make a fortune. We are lucky to be able to feed and clothe ourselves.

KUHN: Yang goes back to sanding his bow carefully, patiently. He's happy to have made many new friends through his work, he says. But there are other times when he feels left behind in China's headlong pursuit of wealth and modernization. There's only so much one person can do to keep an art alive, Yang says. But he seems confident that it won't die out, at least not on his watch.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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