The importance of the horse in Chinese art

"Horses are the foundation of military power, the great resources of the state but, should this falter, the state will fall"
(Ma Yuan (14BC - 49AD), a Han general and horse expert.)

China was, and still is, a vast agricultural civilization and shared many thousands of miles of ill-defined borders with non-Chinese nomads whose radically different cultures often brought them into conflict with the Chinese.

These inhabitants of northern and Central Asia had far greater resources in terms of numbers of horses and a superb command of equestrian skills.

Although it is known that the Chinese used horses to pull chariots as early as the Shang dynasty (1600 - 1100BC), when their enemies began to field mounted warriors around 4th century BC, they had no choice but to train their soldiers as horseman to counter this new threat.

In addition to mastering the art of calvery warfare, the Chinese also faced the neccessity of maintaining their own stables of horses, without which they were highly vulnerable to foreign attack.

It was the short, fast, stocky Mongolian pony that was the main breed used by the Chinese and, although extremely tough and adaptable, they were often outrun by the larger and more powerful breeds favoured by the nomads.

It is widely believed that Emperor Wu (r, 141-87 BC) of the Western Han dynasty became obsessed with stories coming from the west which told of a breed of horse like no other. This "blood sweating" horse was said to have been raised by barbarians in Ferghana (present-day Smarkand) in Central Asia.

Wu dispatched diplomats to Ferghana with much gold but the horses were not offered.

In 104 BC he sent a force to the area with the intention of capturing as many animals as possible so a breeding programme could be started in China. The force was defeated but Wu was determined to acquire what many believed was the "heavenly horse" so a second expedition was dispatched. Although suffering many casualties this force prevailed and, upon returning to China, the "heavenly horse" was finally presented to the Emperor.

The Ferghana horse had arrived in China.

Through careful breeding and masterful training the Ferghana horse soon became the favoured breed in China not only for military use but also for the Royal Court and the upper-classes. Simply, the more horses you owned the higher your status.

It was now that the terracotta statues of horses placed in tombs for use in the afterlife became more life-like. With flaring nostrils, pricked ears, strong necks and powerful legs, these majestic statues were probably the first to depict the Ferghana horse in Chinese art.

Successive dynasties also regarded the horse as an important addition to Mingqi (spirit articles or goods for the after-life) although they tended to be more abstract rather than life-like.

The Northern and Southern dynasties (420 - 581 AD) examples tend to be rather staid and life-less with the legs of the animal showing little or no movement.

As this was a period of war and uncertainty with regional lords fighting for land possession, there was no single ruler of China so it is natural that the standard of Mingqi was to fall in comparison to the earlier Imperial Han dynasty.

Many of the statues depict heavily armoured calverymen holding weapons such as swords, lances and shields and even the horses themselves were modelled in full armour. This period is possibly the first to show the horse with almost total protection accurately reflecting the reality of the time.

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule; during the Northern Wei dynasty (386 - 534 AD) and the Northern Qi dynasty (550 - 577 AD) horse statues, although small even for the elite, were carefully fashioned with close attention to detail. With powerfully arched necks and broad chests, many were decorated with bells, conch shells and outwardly flowing blankets resembling wings in flight.

The strikingly long and angled necks can probably be attributed to a period style that favoured elongation of forms, a style also observed in Buddhist sculpture.

It was during the "golden age" of Chinese art that the horse statue became a true work of art. The Tang dynasty (618 - 906 AD) was a period of peace and prosperity with traders venturing further than ever before. Returning home they brought back western fashions and traditions which were quickly embraced by the upper classes.

Statues of the period reflect not only the growing popularity of riding for pleasure but also the unprecedented freedom of movement enjoyed by high-ranking women of the 7th and 8th centuries.

Now we begin to see female equestrians dressed in narrow skirts, short sleeved jackets and fitted blouses with low-cut necklines and western style hats over head scarfs or cowls and the horse itself had reached an unprecedented degree of naturalism.

Movement had been introduced on a grand scale for the first time in the history of Mingqi; horses pawing the ground head down and mouth open became more common. Large, exquisite walking Ferghana horses with great attention paid to anatomical detail were the choice of the wealthy and even horses in full gallop sporting a male or female polo player are occasionally discovered.

Whether painted in a variety of mineral based colours or glazed in stunning green, brown or cream glazes, the horse in Chinese art had reached almost perfection.

The horse was second only in importance to the dragon. It was supposed to possess magical powers which the early Chinese were eager to explore.

It would be the horse that would carry the deceased to the next life and it would be the amount of horses that an individual owned that would guarantee his ongoing status in the next life.


There is, however, one curious fact that so far remains a mystery; out of all the terracotta horse statues produced only about twelve have so far been discovered with their heads turned to the right. All the others turn to the left or point forwards.

Even among the great host of horses and riders in the tomb of the Tang Prince I-te there were only two or three examples with their heads slightly inclined to the right.

This is also a feature to be noted among statues of camels.

There are a number of theories as to why this is the case; one is that the Chinese believed that left was for good and right for bad however, the real reason remains, for the moment at least, a mystery.

Related links
For more examples of horses see also:

- Mingqi - Chinese tomb figurines by Willem Claessen


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