As we stand on the practice range on the cusp of battle, the ten of us nailing long-range bulls, there’s an atmosphere of merriment tinged with apprehension. It’s easy to get cocky as you pull your bow tight and pick off helpless metal targets, but there’s nothing quite like the prospect of taking an oversized dart to the back of the head to bring you back down to earth.
Still, it’s that risk factor that makes a game of archery tag the exhilarating activity that it is. Shooting other humans with arrows is nothing new, of course, but local bow enthusiasts Whizzing are among the first to bring the softcore, recreational version to China, and their popular sessions are now being hosted at venues across Beijing.
The aim is obvious: hit your opponents, and don’t get hit. It’s kill or be killed, though given we’re here for laughter rather than slaughter, the conventional made-for-murder arrowhead is subbed for a stubby, foam-headed one. As we soon find out though, it doesn’t necessarily make for an entirely pain-free projectile when it’s flung from a five-foot bow.
Our session begins with a crash course on the range, where our trainer, Mr Wang, takes us through the motions; instruction is all in Chinese, but it’s more of a watch-and-learn kind of affair. In no time, he’s turned us into a dead-eye firing squad, and we’re shooting with some pretty unnerving accuracy.
Unfortunately, all training goes out the window when we reach the battlefield, a worryingly open, two-halved arena, divided by a strip of no-man’s-land. Armour-wise, we’ve been kitted out in chest and back plates, an arm guard and masks for our precious faces, while for cover, all we have is an inflatable pyramid and our own teammates to shield us from the shower of missiles.
Wang lays down a few ground rules – don’t overstep the line, don’t shoot a fallen soldier and don’t drop your bow – before he drops the bass: we’re being backed by an epic soundtrack of pumping battle anthems that only adds to the chaotic scenes that soon unfold.
There are all sorts of variations on the the simple theme of firing arrows at each other, and we play two different five-a-side grudge matches. The first is a my-clique’s-bigger-than-yours contest: shoot a member of the opposition and they become part of your team, then, once it’s down to nine versus one and you’ve successfully dispatched the unlucky lone wolf, victory is declared. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?
We crumble under the pressure. Combat commences and we launch into a nervous stalemate, retreating to the back of the court and quivering in packs behind our inflatable ramparts. That is until one restless warrior plucks up the courage to stride to the frontline.
Madness follows. Arrows fly. Limbs flail. People wail.
All of Wang’s lessons are forgotten, and without the time or composure to set ourselves for the right shot, we go from Legolas-like mastery to the questionable accuracy of Cupid, as projectiles rain down every which way.
We eventually reach the climax and realise that this is one hell of a workout. Our hearts are pounding and we’re sweating buckets too, potentially from pure fear. But while battle may be won for the blue team, the war is not, and we begin our second game. This time round, get hit and you’re dead, and suitably exaggerated comic deaths are advised.
Fortunately, each team is blessed with a magical medic, endowed with the power to revive their fallen comrades; kill this shamanic healer-cum-medical professional and you kill the game. The format may be different, but the results are largely the same, as a jumble of foamy bullets blitz across the court, until the yellow team’s medic is finally slain.
Our concerns about health and safety turn out to be unfounded; the light sting of getting struck is only momentary – for most of us – and only one notable injury is sustained. Just as William Tell pinged apples off heads, our deputy editor sharp-shoots one straight into the plums of an adversary. A collective male gasp sounds out, from Wang too, as all barriers of communication fade in the mutual understanding of unspeakable pain. Fortunately, a full recovery is made.
It’s early days for the activity here in Beijing, but Wang tells us they have hosted games for as many as 20 people, and have ambitions to expand onto even bigger sites with more obstacles. Even in five-a-side form, it’s a unique, adrenaline-filled group activity that’s already hitting the target.
Whizzing Arrow Guest (嗖嗖箭客) hold archery tag sessions at Sports Infinite; sessions cost 129RMB per person, including training and a 60-minute session. Reservations required; contact 137 0113 1236 for more information.