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Passion for horses in imperial China

Chinese culture has had a very particular relationship with the horse, conditioned by its physical and political circumstances. Throughout its history it has had to contend with a vast, predominantly agricultural territory, whose north-western borders were regularly attacked by nomadic peoples experienced in the breeding and management of the indigenous horse, horses that were far superior to those grown in China. 

The defence of their territories and the power of the state long depended on the horse and its adaptation to military use. When the Tang dynasty was established, its army numbered only 5,000 horses. However, through the introduction of improved breeding programmes and the importation of Arabian and Turkish horses, in just a few decades, in the mid-7th century, it managed to raise the number to 700,000. The number then declined, reaching 300,000 in 754 AD.

Occasionally China received horses as gifts from its tributary states. Horses were also bought or exchanged for other goods. In the early 9th century China had to pay up to 50 pieces of silk per horse, a very high amount considering that China sometimes requested shipments of 10,000 horses.

Tribute was sometimes accompanied by requests for alliances, marriage contracts, or imperial favours, as well as gifts to pay obeisance to the emperor, as a token of gratitude or submission. These practices have been immortalised in famous paintings, both from the Tang and later periods, which depict the power of the Chinese state.

Terracotta horses

Terracotta horses from the Tang dynasty were made in China for the use and welfare of the deceased in the afterlife. These animals were a symbol of social status and could usually be found in the tombs of the rich and powerful, as well as in the tombs of the imperial family. The tradition of these horses began in the Qin dynasty, when the need to bury one’s favourite steed with the deceased was abolished. From that time onwards, all kinds of objects began to be made to decorate and satisfy the needs of the dead.

Potters made all kinds of figures, from tomb attendants to aristocratic women, farm animals, ships, soldiers, etc., but it was the horses of the Tang dynasty that were undoubtedly the most famous.

Horses were at that time a representation of speed, strength and endurance, and the artists of the time, captivated by this symbolism, did their utmost to create the most beautiful examples.

The best Tang dynasty horses show a certain movement, with a strong face, a half-open mouth and powerful musculature. The horses were made from several moulds, which were very deep and the end result was very voluminous figures. The moulds were used over and over again and when the different parts were assembled into a single figure, all the details were added by hand to differentiate one from the other, so that each horse acquired a certain individuality.

There were two types of finish, enamelled and painted. The enamelled ones were usually of three colours and the best ones were those in which the colour cobalt blue appeared. Good potters used to apply the glaze by pouring it from the top of the horse in sufficient quantity to allow it to slide down just to the point where it reached the hooves. It is on painted horses, however, that the potters showed their artistic side with the application of fine details and decoration that fascinated the aristocracy at the time.

Ferghana horse

The Ferghana horse was one of China’s most valuable early imports, originating from an area in Central Asia. These horses, depicted on clay figures in Tang Dynasty tombs, are also known as ‘celestial horses’ in China or Nisean horses in the West.

Chinese statues and paintings indicate that these horses had proportionately short legs, powerful crests and round barrels. The forelegs of Chinese depictions are very straight, similar to the Guoxia horse of modern China.

Tang dynasty represented the pinnacle of horse breeding and cross-breeding programmes, importing horses from the Central Asian states of Kokand, Samarkand, Bukhara, Kish, Chack, Maimargh, Khuttal, Gandhara, Khotan, and Kyrgyzstan, as well as Arabian horses, one of the breeds that most help to improve the quality of almost any horse to be cross-bred.

The war of celestial horses

China experienced one of its most glorious periods with the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD) during which the silk trade was strengthened and many cities flourished. The military conquests of the early Tang rulers made the horse a highly respected status symbol: the cavalry was essential to consolidate imperial power and was composed of “celestial horses,” brought from Ferghana and Turkmenistan and cross-bred with native breeds.

The War of the Celestial Horses was a military conflict fought in 104 BC and 102 BC between Han Dynasty China and the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom known to the Chinese as Dayuan, in the Fergana Valley at the easternmost tip of the ancient Persian Empire.

Emperor Wu of Han had received reports from diplomat Zhang Qian that Dayuan possessed fast and powerful Fergana horses known as the “heavenly horses”, which would greatly help to improve the quality of his cavalry mounts when fighting the Xiongnu horse nomads, so he sent envoys to inspect the region and establish trade routes to import these horses.

However, King Dayuan not only rejected the deal, but also confiscated the gold payment and had the Han ambassadors ambushed and killed on their way home. Humiliated and enraged, the Han court sent an army led by General Li Guangli to subdue Dayuan, but their first raid in 104 BC was poorly organised and poorly supplied. A second, larger and much better equipped expedition (60,000 conscripts and 30,000 horses) was sent two years later and successfully besieged Dayuan’s capital at Alexandria Eschate, and forced Dayuan to surrender unconditionally after a 40-day siege. Fearing imminent defeat, the inhabitants beheaded their king and presented his head to the Han general and offered to take all the horses they wanted.

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