Horses in Ancient China

The Year of the Horse is fast approaching. What did the horse mean to people in the old days?

In ancient China, the horse provided fast transportation for noble and high ranking families and served a military function. This may be why the horse is associated now with leadership, freedom and energy. Chinese enthusiasm for horses dates back thousands of years, and as a result the museum contains many lovely examples of horse sculptures. Here, we take a really close look at some favorites.

Horse, Tang dynasty (618-906 CE), approx. 700-800 CE. B85S1.

Glazed with amber, green and white in the sancai (three-color) tradition, Tang ceramics of this type show splattered and dripped glazes full of energy and life. Here, the different and textures are used to highlight the bridle, mane and the horse’s flesh. Sancai colors are typically achieved using a combination of copper, iron, cobalt and manganese in a lead glaze.

Horse (detail), Tang dynasty (618-906 CE), approx. 700-800 CE. B85S1.

Horse (detail), Tang dynasty (618-906 CE), approx. 700-800 CE. B85S1.

Many horse figurines have been found in Tang dynasty tombs, and they are prized by collectors all over the world today. It follows that the figures are often heavily restored, sometimes invisibly so. This radiograph of a Tang dynasty horse figurine from the museum collection shows pins from old repairs in the legs and hooves.

Horse (X-ray), Tang dynasty (618-906 CE), approx. 700-800 CE. B85S1.

Horse (X-ray), Tang dynasty (618-906 CE), approx. 700-800 CE. B85S1. Image processing by Courtney Helion

Look closely at this composite X-ray, and you can see reinforcing metal pins in each hoof, as well as major repairs in the back facing leg. This horse may look flawless on the outside, but she has seen a lot of changes!

The Blood-Sweating Horses of the Ferghana Valley

Horse heads, Western Han dynasty (206 BCE-9 CE), approx. 206-100 BCE. B76P14 and B76P15.

Horse heads, Western Han dynasty (206 BCE-9 CE), approx. 206-100 BCE. B76P14 and B76P15.

These two elegant red horse heads could be modeled after the famous Ferghana horses, sometimes called ‘blood sweating horses ‘(汗血馬) or ‘heavenly horses’ in Chinese literature. This unique breed – now extinct– is believed to come from the ancient kingdom of Dayuan in the Ferghana valley (modern day Uzbekistan). According to legend, these fast, powerful horses– whose red color was thought to be caused by sweating blood—were bred from heavenly stock and could even carry the rider to immortality.

According to some stories, in the second century BCE Han dynasty the Chinese Emperor Wudi sent an envoy and gifts westward into the Ferghana valley, hoping to acquire some of the heavenly horses. The Dayuan ruler refused, and ultimately the Chinese invaded. The Chinese defeated the Dayuan, and thus Emperor Wudi came into possession of some ‘heavenly horses’, receiving a small number each year as tribute.

What made these horses red?

There are a few theories concerning why the Ferghana horses to appeared to sweat blood. Some modern researchers believe that a parasite (the nematode, Parafilaria multipapillosaI), still common on the Central Asian steppe, is the cause. Others think that it is due to tiny blood vessels under the skin bursting after strenuous galloping and exercise. Blood would mix with the sweat around the horse’s neck, creating a pink foam.

The two horse heads from the museum’s collection do not sweat blood (so far), but owe their distinctive red color to the use of pigment made from red iron oxide (Fe2O3), also referred to as hematite. Under X-ray fluorescence analysis, both horses show very similar chemical profiles. Iron is the major element, with smaller quantities of titanium, zinc, mercury, manganese, and lead. Iron, mercury, and manganese all create reds and purples, and have been in use since ancient times. Titanium and zinc, used to make white, probably indicate later restoration.

Horse heads under ultraviolet light, Western Han dynasty (206 BCE-9 CE), approx. 206-100 BCE. B76P14 and B76P15.

Horse heads under ultraviolet light, Western Han dynasty (206 BCE-9 CE), approx. 206-100 BCE. B76P14 and B76P15. Image by Courtney Helion.

To reveal areas of previous restoration the horse heads were viewed under ultraviolet light. Restoration paints often appear as a velvety purple under ultraviolet light (as on the bridle, on the upper horse).

Read more about these horse heads at our online collection.

Bibliography:

Winter, John. East Asian Paintings: Materials, Structures and Deterioration Mechanisms. London: Archetype Publications, 2008. Print.

Imperial China: The Art of the Horse in Chinese History: Exhibition Catalog. Lexington, KY: Kentucky Horse Park, 2000. Print.

Gettens, Rutherford J., and George L. Stout. Painting Materials: A Short Encyclopedia. New York: Dover Publications, 1966. Print.

One Response to “Horses in Ancient China”

  1. Nancy Ewart  on February 2nd, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    Fascinating article – I didn’t know anything about the blood red horses. I linked this to a long blog post that I did about the “Year of the Horse.” Hope that your year is a smooth walk and not a hard gallop!


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