District archery contests (xiangshe 鄉射) were one of the traditional Confucian rituals. They belonged to the congratulatory rites (jiali 嘉禮, see five types of rites wuli 五禮) and are for the first time described in the ritual Classic Yili 儀禮 (chapter Xiangshe li 鄉射禮), but are also mentioned in the Classic Zhouli 周禮.
According to the latter, the administrators of provinces (zhouzhang 州長) organized them in spring and autumn for the entertainment of the common people (shumin 庶民), which during the year learnt archery. These annual archery contests were supervised by the Master of Ceremonial (siyi 司儀).
Another type of district archery war organized by district heads (xianglao 鄉老) and Grand Masters (xiang dafu 鄉大夫) of every third year, after having presented worthy candidates for state offices. The archery contests were a proof to test not just martial skills, but much more the virtuous conduct (dexing 德行) or the mastering of ceremonial behavior of the candidates. The virtuous conduct was expressed in harmonious (he 和) bearing, solemn appearance (rong 容) during all movements, mastery of the "leather" (i.e. of archery, zhu pi 主皮), harmonious appearance (herong 和容) in concordance with the archery songs, and enthralling spirit in the dances (xingwu 興舞) which were part of the whole ceremony.
The performance of the archery is minutely described in the chapter Xiangshe li. The ritual began with a banquet (yanli 燕禮), and then went through the states of the apprising of the guests (jie bin 戒賓), setting out the mats and vessels (she xi chen qi 設席陳器), stretching the target (zhang hou 張侯), hurrying up the guests (su bin 速賓), receiving the guests (ying bin 迎賓), bowing to them (xian bin 獻賓), offering wine to the candidates (chou bin 酬賓), offering wine to the body of guests (xian zhong bin 獻眾賓), one man raising a goblet (yi ren ju zhi 一人舉觶), certain ceremonies towards a notable man (xian dafu 獻大夫), and the music for the guests (yue bin 樂賓).
Each guest would shoot three rounds. An overseer (sizheng 司正) was appointed, who raised the goblet, and invited three couples (ou 耦) of guests to shoot. The implements of archery were brought, the cords tied and the flags placed, the musical instruments removed, and the method of shooting was demonstrated (she huo 射獲), before the first round of shooting was performed. The arrows were taken back and placed on the stand again. After the second shooting, the score was announced and the director (sishe 司射) gave wine to the losers and to the marker (huozhe 獲者) and the scorer (shihuozhe 釋獲者). The third round was the same as the second one. The shooting was ended by a banquet, with a general pledging between host and guests, the ceremonial of two men raising a goblet (er ren ju zhi 二人舉觶), the removal of the meat-stands (che zu 徹俎), "boundless drinking" (wu suan jue 無筭爵), the farewell of the guests (bin chu 賓出, bai ci 拜賜), and the relieving of the overseer (xi sizheng 息司正).
A similar chapter (Xiangshe) is found in the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE) encyclopaedia Baihu tongyi 白虎通義, where it is said that the district archery ritual supported the harmonious spread of Yang energy (yang qi 陽氣) among the ten thousand beings, particularly in spring. The shooting of an arrow symbolized the penetration of a hard object (the target) by a hard material (the arrowhead, guan jian ru gang 貫堅入剛), like the penetration of sprouts through the hard soil in early spring. The Son of Heaven (i.e. the king of Zhou 周, 11th cent.-221 BCE) would go to hunt to shoot bears, symbolizing that he would tame fierce and unruly subjects. The regional rulers (zhuhou 諸侯) would shoot the elk (mi 麋) to dispell confusion (mi 迷). The grand masters (dafu 大夫) shoot tigers and panthers (hu bao 虎豹), fierce animals, and the servicemen (shi 士) would go to hunt deer and the wild boar (lu shi 鹿豕) to avert damage.
The use of selecting candidates for office by inspecting their ceremonial conduct in district archery contests was given up in early imperial times.