Horses In Chinese Art

Presented by Jesse Thames


            For centuries, horses have been used and revered by the Chinese culture as instruments of war, symbols of social status, the means by which farmers were able to achieve greater agricultural yields and representations of zodiacal beliefs; and, like all great cultures, the esteem given to any object is mirrored in the artistic representations of whatever the idealized subject may be.  For example, a famous poet of the Tang dynasty, Du Fu, wrote of a horse painted by Tang artist Han Gan the following poem entitled:


On A Horse Painting By Han Gan


This horse is a work by Han Gan.

The brush tip carries vitality.

Fully mature like Hualiu,

And sprightly like Yaoyi;

With Yumu’s lean head,

And Longwen’s long body.

White flesh like snow,

And orchid veins tense like the wind.

A gait untrammeled,

And movements without restraint.

Four hooves ringing like thunder and hailstones-

Covering heaven and earth in a single day…

Look at its thoroughbred bones:

Truly, it is one of the dragon herd.


            Poetry, legend and likeness by painting and sculpture are three examples of ways the Chinese culture has paid homage to the horses that helped to define their social, economic and geopolitical history.  The following are examples of tributes that have lasted since the earliest dynasties. 



Equestrian: Western Han dynasty (206 B.C-A.D. 9)

This equestrian figure was found in a satellite grave mound two and a half                                       miles northeast of the mausoleum of Emperor Gaozu (206-195 B.C.).  This ancient rider is placed in the ground with the intent to defend the tomb of the deceased in the afterlife.  Such burial honors were accorded imperial family members and other persons of high esteem.  Unlike other examples of later figures, neither the rider nor his horse is outfitted with armor or battle decor. 


Equestrian: Western Han dynasty (206 B.C-A.D. 9)

                    Like the previous figure, this equestrian is almost certainly from a set of

                    cavalrymen intended to guard a Western Han tomb.  He wears a short robe

                    and an armored breast plate, and he may have originally have brandished a

                    long lance, which was fitted with a halberd or spear.  Much of the original

                    pigment on this figurine remains, providing a good idea of the vividly

                    colored outfits worn by Chinese soldiers. 


Armored Equestrian: Northern Wei dynasty (386-534)

                                  Here is an example of a horse that is fitted with protective armor

                                  in tandem with his rider.  Fifth and sixth-century tombs have yielded

                                  large quantities of armored animals and riders, which may reflect

                                  the incessant warfare of this period.


Caparisoned Horse : Northern Wei dynasty (386-534)

                                 Grandly caparisoned but riderless horse figurines are an important

                                  part of ceramic tomb retinues from the Northern Wei through the

                                  Tang dynasties.  Images of this type were placed in tombs as early

                                  as the Han dynasty, presumably for the use of the deceased, but the

                                  simple equipment and fittings of the earlier era presents a striking 

                                  contrast to what is seen here.


Packhorse: Northern Wei dynasty (386-534)

                                  Apparently reflecting the importance of transport, both military and

                                  commercial, pack animals-camels, horses, donkeys, and mule-

                                  became a standard part of the repertoire of ceramic tomb figurines

                                  in the Northern Wei dynasty.  Although the sturdy, short legged          

                                  pottery packhorses such as this one are somewhat overshadowed

                                  by the figurines of larger, more elegant saddle horses, their regular

                                  inclusion in tombs through the sixth century confirms their value.




Work Cited

Harrist, Robert E. Jr.  Power and Virtue The Horse in Chinese Art. New York:  China Institute Gallery, 1997.


Hansen, Valerie.  The Open Empire. New York, London:  W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.