Peter Dekker is surely one of the more unique passengers travelling through Beijing’s Capital Airport. A scan of the friendly Dutchman’s luggage will likely reveal a kit of weaponry from China’s last courtly dynasty, the Qing (1644-1911). That he’s bringing this arsenal in to China, rather than out of the country, makes it doubly intriguing.
A historian and martial arts enthusiast, Dekker wants to resurrect Manchu archery as a modern day Chinese martial art. When we talked last month Dekker was in his workshop in the Dutch city of Groningen, a couple of hours north of Amsterdam, making Qing-style arrows. This anonymous suburban house stuffed with Chinese swords and archery gear is an unlikely center of expertise on the Manchu. The Manchu were a tribe from northeastern China (often referred to as Manchuria) whose exploits as bowmen helped them oust the Ming Dynasty (1368- 1644) and rule China for nearly three centuries.
A replica Manchu bow Dekker draws on in his living room is a “true replica” of an antique Qing-era bow, he explains. “It is quite different from the bows made today by people such as Yang Fuxi [Chinese bowmaker] which are more like a contemporary Mongolian-type bow.
Dekker finances his passion with part-time work at Holland’s largest telecom company and at a local bicycle shop. Some “not very steady” income comes from restoring and selling antique Chinese arms. There’s income from teaching, but you sense passion for historical accuracy is more appealing than money for Dekker, who in early July taught a seminar of Manchu archery in Germany. “I was there last year as well. This year we will replicate a Qing-style military exam and see how good the students do by late Qing standards after a year of training.”
Clearly, he’s a purist. “I want to use accurate reproductions of Qing weapons in order to understand the antique weapons I collect and research. This bow is more slender, but with much larger ears. It’s more difficult to make, but they draw very smoothly and shoot very well. I always go to great lengths to get my material as accurate as possible because I believe the people whose arts I am studying had good reasons to make their equipment the way we did. If we change anything, we are misleading ourselves into thinking we know more than them.”
Dekker traces his Manchu passion to a childhood fascination for war games. “Like many, as a boy I’ve always been intrigued by Asian martial arts seen on TV. Luckily my parents have always been rather supportive in my interests, and on my 12th birthday I got my first real sharp sword. A Japanese one, because at the time I was in the assumption that Japanese swords were the best swords around.”
Under his parents’ “strict supervision” and without a good teacher, Dekker knew he’d never become a good swordsman like the ancient Asian warriors. But, interest piqued, he started to read around the subject, and was soon intrigued by the Chinese sword “especially because it pretty much has the same construction as the Japanese sword but yet so little is known about them generally.”
Over the years Dekker has mined for information in manuals and martial arts teachings “and the archery schools in neighboring cultures such as Korea, Mongolia and Japan that are all related to early Chinese techniques.” Dekker also began to learn from European academics in the field. Among them is acknowledged US-based Qing expert Philip Tom, “who pretty much put my studies on the right track and who is still always there with a critical eye.”
Eventually he was ready to go to China in search of more knowledge. Dekker has lived for extended periods in Chengdu, Hangzhou and Beijing, studying local martial arts. “I liked Beijing the most, as the old Qing heritage can still be found all over the city.” While other Chinese cities have destroyed much of their heritage, “Beijing has the Forbidden City, hutong and remnants of the city walls.”
Sadly though Dekker has been frustrated by the lack of real expertise in China. He’s become wary of what he terms the many Chinese “so-called ‘experts’ who go by a few facts and make up the rest as they go.” He says there’s too much “word of mouth stuff in their theories, much of which is proven to be inaccurate. My research and that of the people I work with is firmly ground in tangible evidence such as period texts, period artwork, eye-witness accounts and actual antique artifacts.”
“We do not go by hearsay of people who claim to know, we want to know where their information is from. If the source is not clear, the information is unreliable. For example, a noted Chinese expert published a book on Chinese swords which did not include a bibliography. In the West we wouldn’t be able to pretend to be an expert and publish a book that doesn’t cite any sources.”
Dekker believes a local emphasis on face – the “mianzi” (face) system – makes it hard to distinguish the real experts from chancers in China. “It is not commonly accepted in China to publicly say someone is wrong, but in the West it is common to criticize even the most respected researchers in any field if there is reason to.”
Lately, in between completing an English translation of the 1759 book Huangchao Liqi Tushi (皇朝礼器图式) and researching another book titled Manchu Archer, he’s been working with a Korean bowyer on a design for a replica Manchu bow that shoots much like the originals. So far he’s relied on traditional bowyer Jaap Koppedrayer, who’s made Dekker’s bows using traditional materials like bone sinew and horn.
Today Dekker’s own trainees learn to aim and shoot while running, then shooting while kneeling. Students have to learn what it is like to have to shoot someone while being shot at. “I keep full draw [aim at] on my student while he nocks [loads] a new arrow so he will learn to handle the anxiety that comes with this.”
To keep things authentic when sparring the trainees use wooden weapons “just like they did in the past. We don’t use foam in sparring, because it doesn’t hurt much. If you are not afraid when you enter a match, you are likely to do things you would not in an actual fight.”
You sense he’d like to have lived back in the day. “I don’t have the adversaries, nor the teachers that a Qing soldier had. Therefore it would be unrealistic to think I can reach the level of an elite Manchu soldier…of course it would be nice to become a master but I don’t think we can ever fully understand this period and its military simply because it is a bygone era. Still, I try to deepen my understanding and perfect my technique every chance I get.”
Learn more: www.manchuarchery.org