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
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
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
Wu dispatched diplomats to Ferghana with much gold but the horses were
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
The Ferghana horse had arrived in China.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
painted in a variety of mineral based colours or glazed in stunning
green, brown or cream glazes, the horse in Chinese art had reached
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.
For more examples of horses see also:
- Mingqi - Chinese tomb figurines by Willem Claessen
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