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Ancient Chinese 'heavenly' horses

Updated: May 8, 2023

Along with the mythical dragon, "the horse is the most recurrent animal in the Chinese world, having been present from the dawn of Chinese culture, both on a mythical and symbolic level." (Cunha, 1990). This reverence was reflected in the ancient production of pottery horse figurines as grave goods, many of which are beautiful, animated and detailed, capturing the spirit of the special breed of the Ferghana 'heavenly horse'.

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Horse power


The horse was first domesticated around 3000 BC on the Eurasian steppe. Following the development of the spoked wheel in the 2nd millenium BC, horses were used to draw chariots. The natural grassland of the Mongolian steppe was suitable for breeding strong military horses, as opposed to areas used for agriculture such as central China. China was therefore importing horses from northern nomadic peoples from early on (Waugh).

Throughout China's long and storied past, no animal has impacted its history as greatly as the horse. Its significance was such that as early as the Shang dynasty (ca.1600-1100 BC), military might was measured by the number of the war chariots available to a particular kingdom.

Park, Heeyoung; The Horse Mingqi Figurines in the Han and the Tang Dynasties. M.A.

thesis, Fashion Institute of Technology, State University of New York, 2002, p2


From the 4th century BC, constant attacks from highly skilled northern and western nomadic horsemen forced the Chinese to develop a mounted cavalry of their own to counter the threat. (Park, 2002).


Cunha (1990) suggests the horse effectively caused the creation of the Great Wall as a barrier against Barbarian horsemen and archers.


The squat Mongolian breed of horse was mostly used in the Chinese military until importing and attempting to cross-breed horses from other kingdoms, for example via the silk route, led to improvements in the cavalry.


Ancient Chinese Western Jin Dynasty pottery horse
Ex Alex Szolin: Western Jin Dynasty (265-317 AD) pottery horses tend to be modelled on the stocky and short-legged Mongolian breed. Ref: Birmingham Museum of Art, accession no.1979.321

During the Han-Xiongnu war, Emperor Wu (141-87 BC) of the Western Han Dynasty made great efforts to capture a superior breed of horse from the Ferghana Valley (now in Uzbekistan) known variously as the 'heavenly', 'celestial' and 'blood-sweating' horse, at the same time opening up the silk route. This breed was connected in the mind of the Emperor with the mythical flying horses that might take him to immortality (Park, 2002) and the breed continued to be popular in China for the next 1000 years. Indeed the image of the 'flying horse' below has been adopted as a Chinese tourism emblem.

The exquisite Eastern Han bronze statue of the 'Flying Horse' pays homage to this breed. Light-footed, well-proportioned, capable of soaring like the wind, these horses were named Tien Ma, 'Celestial Horses'.

Cunha, Luís Sá; The Horse in Ancient Chinese History, Symbolism and Myth, Review of Culture Number 9, English Edition, Year IV Vol III, Cultural Affairs Bureau, Instituto Cultural de Macau, 1990, p2



Mingqi - grave goods for the afterlife


One of the most creative uses of earthenware is undoubtedly the production of the ceramic tomb sulpture termed mingqi that became one of China's great artistic legacies ...

Jacobsen, Robert D, PhD; Celestial Horses & Long Sleeve Dancers, Art Media Resources, 2013, p7


The famous Terracotta Army is an example of 'mingqi' (meaning 'articles of the spirit'), the practice of burying grave goods to comfort the dead in the afterlife. The Terracotta Army was part of an extensive necropolis and functioned as protection for the tomb of the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), constructed from 247 to 208 BC at Mount Li. Its estimated 7000+ military figurines included around 520 chariot horses and 150 cavalry horses (Portal, 2007). The soldiers and horses were modelled with a degree of naturalism, short and stocky as in the Mongolian breed.


The Qin mausoleum at Mount Li even included real horses buried, a practice which ceased by the early Han Dynasty, when terracotta substitutes became the norm. Chinese sculpture had developed primarily for burial in funeral rites and it was at this time that a specialised ceramic industry started to mass-produce these sculptures, reduce their size and increase their numbers (Jacobsen, 2013), making them acessible beyond just the wealthy.


Focus on ...


Han Dynasty 206 BC - 220 AD

Earthenware mingqi are today the most visible legacy from the Han dynasty due to their durability and number. Although most mingqi were mass produced using molds, they are remarkably animated . . . This delightful naturalism was central to the figures’ purpose of providing the deceased with entertainment, service, and guardianship.

The Han Dynasty was a period of relative peace and prosperity with a bureaucratic government and increasing contact westwards with connection to the Eurasian trade routes. It was during the Han period that a signficant contribution to equestrian history took place in China with of the development of the breast-strap harnessing system with stirrup and horse collar, which replaced the throat and girth harness. "Their harnessing system was the first to effectively utilize the horse's power without hampering its ability to breathe." (Park, 2002, p7).


There was extensive use of tomb figurines and large royal burials at this time (Jacobsen, 2013). The spirit of the Ferghana horse was captured in these figurines as the beautiful, animated, fine breed that it was.


Large Han pottery tomb figures, including horses, dogs, pigs, chickens and musicians have been found in numerous cliff burials in Sichuan province. Horses found in these sites frequently display the sharp modeling, open mouth, bulging eyes, clipped mane, knotted tail and long neck of this impressive example.

Tang Dynasty 618-907 AD


By the time of the Tang Dynasty, the 'golden age' of peace, prosperity and increased travel, horses were highly-bred and undergoing changes in their usage, increasingly used for pleasure in hunts, polo, dressage ('dancing horses') and equestrian pursuits of the wealthy classes, including women. Riding schools were established at this time.

At the beginning of the Tang dynasty the government owned some 5,000 horses . . . Before long, public stud farms were established, soon becoming so successful that by the middle of the seventh century the government owned 700,000 horses, and equine cultural reverence was assured.

Ancient Chinese Tang Dynasty terracotta horse and rider
An elegant terracotta horse and rider, Tang Dynasty, circa 7th-8th century AD. Ex Alex Szolin.

This Tang horse and rider is typical of the detailed depiction of a finely-bred horse. The head is turned inquisitively to the left, the ears pricked. The nostrils, insides of the ears and mouth enhanced with pale red pigments. The male rider sits on a saddle with elaborate headgear and a long-sleeved robe, hands held to the chest, feet in stirrups.

Tang horses were made in multiple workshops across China with each location having its own style, and bearing the invisible marks of the potter’s geographic differences via the clay used. An appreciation of the colour and rigidity of the clay, as well as the shape and forms, adds a depth of appreciation.

Particularly associated with Tang tomb pottery is the use of 'sancai', a highly attractive glaze predominantly in three colours.


This beautiful tomb figurine from the Metropolitan Museum New York depicts the use of fine-bred horses by wealthy women for recreation in the Tang Dynasty. It is also an example of the use of three-color (sancai) glaze and pigment particularly associated with this period.


Ming Dynasty 1368-1644 AD


The Ming Dynasty brought a conscious cultural revival of ancient Chinese imperial customs and traditions following the collapse of Mongol rule. This included harking back to Tang sancai tomb pottery, but Ming mingqi were '. . . less varied and more staid and formulaic than the Tang figures they were meant to reflect.' (Jacobsen, 2013)

While Ming funerary figures are generally considered inferior to the classic tomb sculptures of the Han and Tang periods, the Ming aristocracy continued the use of ceramic tomb figurines long after the greater populace had turned to burning less expensive paper models at funeral ceremonies.

Jacobsen, Robert D, PhD; Celestial Horses & Long Sleeve Dancers, Art Media Resources, 2013, p 278


The use of horse breeds had also changed by this time. The Ferghana-types were replaced with stronger local breeds.

. . . the Jesuit Matthew Ricci, in the late 16th century: "(The Chinese) have countless horses in the service of the army, but these are so degenerate and lacking in martial spirit that they are put to rout even by the neighing of the Tartars steed and so they are practically useless in battle."

Sinor, Denis. "Horse and Pasture in Inner Asian history," Oriens Extremus, Vol. 19, No. 1–2 (1972), pp. 171–183


Ancient Chinese Ming Dynasty pottery horse and rider
Ming Dynasty glazed pottery horse and rider, circa 16th century AD. Ex Alex Szolin

This Ming Dynasty tomb figurine was probably part of a larger parade group, comprising musicians and soldiers. The horseman’s head is detachable so that each head could be individually modelled with different features and he holds an instrument in his hand. The horse depicted is clearly distinctly different from the heavenly Ferghana horse breed of the Han and Tang mingqi!

 

General references and further information


Cunha, Luís Sá; The Horse in Ancient Chinese History, Symbolism and Myth, Review of Culture Number 9, English Edition, Year IV Vol III, Cultural Affairs Bureau, Instituto Cultural de Macau, 1990

Fang, Yuan; The Favourite Animal: The Horse as Mingqi in Han Tombs, MA thesis, Cornell University, May 2017

Jacobsen, Robert D, PhD; Celestial Horses & Long Sleeve Dancers, Art Media Resources, 2013

Ollis Chinese Antiquities

Metropolitan Museum of Art New York: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/the-collection

Minneapolis Institute of Art: https://collections.artsmia.org/

Park, Heeyoung; The Horse Mingqi Figurines in the Han and the Tang Dynasties. M.A.

thesis, Fashion Institute of Technology, State University of New York, 2002

Portal, Jane; The First Emperor, China's Terracotta Army, Harvard University Press, 2007

Sinor, Denis. "Horse and Pasture in Inner Asian history," Oriens Extremus, Vol. 19, No. 1–2 (1972), pp. 171–183

Wang, Allen; Guide to Tang Dynasty Horses, Antique Collecting Magazine, 9 Dec 2021

Waugh, Daniel C; Horses and Camels, Silk Road Seattle: https://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/exhibit/trade/trade.html

Wikimedia Commons





 


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