by Jim Goodman
I saw my first crossbow on the shoulder of a middle-aged Akha man in Saen Charoen Mai, northern Thailand, way back in 1988, as he sauntered down a trail into the thick jungle above the village. I didn’t pay him much mind. Everybody I knew there then used traps and long-barreled rifles to hunt, which was anyway already much less often than when they were all boys. Many men still had crossbows, but mounted them on the interior walls and didn’t use them anymore. And as I never again witnessed somebody carrying a crossbow into the forest, I lost interest.
After a few years even the traps disappeared from the jungle, at least the ones for medium-sized mammals, which were also former crossbow targets. Rare was the Akha hunter successful enough to bring home a wildcat, bamboo gopher, civet, pangolin or even squirrel, much less a boar or a barking deer. The animals are now so rare that Akha men don’t even go looking for them anymore. In fact, the hunting tradition everywhere has been largely reduced to trapping or shooting small birds and an occasional squirrel.
|en route to the market, Lisu man with his crossbow
|crossbow seller in Liuku making bolts
Nujiang crossbows resemble those in other parts of Yunnan and work the same way, but the stock shape differs. Those made by the Yi, Wa and Lahu have a bulge hanging down on the stock where the prod goes through. Hani crossbows have a double bulge and the Jinuo model is straight, but has an angled section, like a rifle stock, at the end. Nu and Lisu crossbow stocks are relatively straight, with only a slight bulge where the prod goes through the stock.
The top of the crossbow stock had a groove 3 mm wide and 3 mm deep, about as long as the bolt. The trigger, about halfway down the stock, was made of ivory (others are made of bone). The user draws back the bowstring to a notch just above the trigger, then lays a bolt in the groove, aims and pulls the trigger. This pushes up the bowstring and the force released propels the bolt. I never did try it out while I was there that month and when it was time to return to Thailand I had a new focus. I had to put up some sort of target
|firing a bolt
In the event, the young Lisu women, in their beaded headdresses and long skirts, stand in a row, each with a bowl of rice on her head. A 15-cm bamboo tube inserted upright in the rice holds an egg perched on its top. Their boyfriends stand opposite them about twenty meters away, level their crossbows and shoot the eggs off the girls’ heads. I’d seen photos of this in books and quick shots of it in television documentaries about Nujiang, so I was well motivated to start becoming proficient. My fantasy was to get so good at it that when Kuoshi came around and someone invited me to try firing his crossbow, I would fire it so accurately that a beautiful young Lisu woman would volunteer to be my partner in the local version of the William Tell act.
|Lisu girl in her ethnic style
|Lisu girl in Fugong
So I re-tightened the bowstring, hooked the ends onto the bow, loaded up and tried again. This time I hit the door, but still far from the target tape. I continued to practice, sometimes getting close to the tape, usually not. Neighbor children came to watch, to hand me a bolt after I had cocked the crossbow and help me fetch the bolts after I’d fired a few shots. This got to be an almost regular 5 o’clock routine for the next couple weeks. Eventually I hit the bulls-eye a few times, but several dozen tines I did not, nor did I ever get the bowstring taut enough not to fly off every now and then. It was time to return to Nujiang for the Kuoshi Festival and I was nowhere near proficiency, but maybe I could meet someone at the crossbow event who could give me a proper lesson.
|crossbow competition at the Lisu Kuoshi Festival
It was an enjoyable festival even without that particular show and I returned home feeling I had a whole year in which to both improve my skill and find out exactly where to go next Kuoshi. But four days after I got back, when showing a friend how a crossbow works, I pulled the trigger and with an ear-splitting crack the stock broke, snapping apart right at the point where the prod goes through. I then took out my magnifying glass to look at all the photos I had taken of crossbows in Nujiang to see what was different from mine. I soon discovered why mine had broken. The hole in the stock was too close to the top, with only a very thin bit of wood between the top of the hole and that of the stock. That was precisely where it snapped. Crossbows in my photographs had the same thickness of wood on either side of the hole. Obviously my Lisu friend who had selected the crossbow was not a hinter himself.
|hunters examining crossbows in Fugong
The old European ones were heavier and used a thick rope for the bowstring. Unlike the Nujiang crossbows, they couldn’t be cocked easily by hand. Men had to use a geared winding apparatus called a rannequin to draw the bowstring back to the notch. The stocks were sometimes decorated with carved figures and symbols, while scenes of hunting with crossbows were sometimes engraved on furniture. Even after the introduction of rifles some hunters preferred crossbows because they were silent, did not require extensive cleaning or maintenance to use and had reusable ammunition.
The high-tech crossbows sold nowadays use metal bolts. They can be particularly lethal-looking, like the pistol-crossbows, or the one modeled on a 15th century Venetian style and called “the assassin’s crossbow.” Seems like a perfect terrorist weapon, with an effective range of 2000 meters, though the advertiser does issue the disclaimer “not to be used in re-enactment.” Other pistol-crossbow dealers, however, seem less concerned about the customer’s intentions. One states that with the purchase you get “a starter kit that includes everything you need to begin target practice, or whatever you have in mind.”
|crossbow quarries--flying squirrels in Gongshan
|Lisu hunter takes aim
|testing my crossbow in Bingzhongluo
I found a big tree just behind the town, inserted a square piece of paper in a loose piece of the bark, stood 30 meters away, cocked, loaded and fired. I hit the tree a little bit left of the paper. I aimed again, fired and got closer. I made one more adjustment in my aim, fired again and pierced the paper exactly in the center. So my new crossbow worked, shot straighter than the old one, had better bolts and I fancied I could get good at using it. Maybe no Lisu shoot eggs off their girlfriends’ heads anymore at Kuoshi, but I could still get invited on a hunt with Lisu friends. Perhaps we’d spot a flying squirrel and all go for it. It would be wonderful to see the expression on their faces if I turned out to be the one who shot it down. And they all missed.
|painting in a Gongshan park pavilion