My AlMoSt ChIldLiKe IdEaLiStIc BuLlShIt MaNiFeSto

SoMe PeOpLe ThInK OnLy InTeLlEcT CoUnTs: KnOwInG HoW To SoLvE PrObLeMs, KnOwInG HoW To GeT By, KnOwInG HoW To IdEnTiFy An AdVaNtAgE AnD SeIzE It BuT ThE FuNcTiOnS Of InTeLlEcT ArE InSuFfIcIeNt WiThOuT CoUrAgE, LoVe, FrIeNdShIp, CoMpAsSiOn AnD EmPaThY

Friday, June 04, 2010

The Role of Horses (马) in Chinese History

1. Why did China desperately need horses from the nomads? How did Chinese empire try to solve the problem?

Throughout ancient China, no animal has a greater impact on its civilization other than the humble horse. With the onset of domestication of indigenous Mongolian horses back in the Shang and Zhou Periods, the function of horses had evolutionised from an animal doing menial jobs to becoming an animal of great importance in China’s foreign relations, military policies and economic well beings. Previously, horses were used as a mode of transport, function as religious sacrificial and the purpose of drawing chariots.

Although ancient Chinese tends to fully utilize the indigenous breed of Mongolian horses due to its adaptability to withstand harsh environment however these horses proves to be inadequate in term of its usage for warfare purposes as they are often outrun, less resilience and resistance to warfare environment by larger and more capable breeds of horses of the Northern and Western Steppes.

In those primeval times, the Chinese were capable of exploiting the Calvary art of war using chariots drawn by horses however the horses used and mode of fighting proves to be ineffective and vulnerable as compared to the barbaric art of shooting on horseback and the mastery art of horseback riding. These earliest ability of Calvary combat have been taken advantage of by the Shang, Zhou and Qin Dynasties. This obsolete art of war could be seen in excavation sites in and around An-yang (Modern-day Honan) and the excavation of the Terracotta Army in Xian in Shanxi Province during the Shang and Qin periods respectively.

The development and assimilation of these barbaric arts of war into the Chinese Calvary art of war occurred during King Wu-ling of the Northern Chao period as mentioned by the great historian, Sima Jian (司马迁) in his Shiji. As time went by, the Chinese began to gain mastery of such barbaric art of war thus good horses are needed; they are required to enhance military tactics during the rise of the Han Dynasty, reign by Emperor Han Wu-ti. Besides that, the threat of nomadic from the Northern and Western steppes proves to be cause of the Chinese empire to advance in its art of war. Perhaps the Han Dynasty knew that China’s survival relied fully on its equestrian prowess.

As a result, the Chinese were forced to abandon their traditional war chariot warfare in favour of the barbaric art of mounted Calvary which is seen as faster, better and more effective in handling threats from the barbarians. This is the start of using horses for military, economic and social purposes. The need of sufficient steed forces for the army seems to be a common goal through China’s imperial past to combat military threat.

The Chinese empire tried to solve this problem of getting good horses through three means – economic, military and political means. In economics, the Chinese Han dynasty started with the exchange of Chinese Silk with Xiongnu fine horses and other supplies that is necessary. The setting up of the South-Western Silk road which traded tea and horses which links southwest China with Tibet, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and beyond. The opening up of the major route of transcontinental trade called the Silk Road (North) by pioneer Zhang Qian (張騫) which opens to trade in the Central Asia resulted in trading with countries such as Dayuan (Ferghana), Daxia (Bactria) and Shendu (India). These resulted in the mobilization of Chinese Silk across many part of the world in exchange for China’s necessities which in this case good horses for war. In the Song dynasty, several markets were set up which was administered by the offices of horse trades (mamasi). As the desperation of good horses are needed, military campaign is the next steps in acquiring good horses if the economic policy failed as seen in Dayuan (Ferghana- Modern day Uzbekistan) and against the Xiongnu when they failed in sharing their special breed of horses called Kuai-ti with the Han empire. In order to be self-sufficient and self reliant, the Chinese empire did try to create careful breeding of the Ferghana horses but were rarely successful. This may be due to the inadequate expertise in handing such foreign horses, environment and different function of horses in China and Ferghana. Last but not the least, horses are seen as political symbol in a form of tributes and gift to the Chinese Empire such as during the Tang dynasty with the Uyghur which they helped in suppressing the An Lu Shan Rebellion.

In conclusion China not just need any horses but good horses from the western steppes, northern steppes and Central Asia which are used in building up their military capability to combat external threats. The role of horses is further elaborated in question 2.

2. What was the role of horses in the Sino-foreign interaction?

The role of horses in the Sino-foreign interaction is very holistic in nature which encompasses in the form of economic, military and political agenda as briefly explained in Question 1.

Since the policy of desperately needing good horses from the nomads, the Chinese empire bolster up its demand of horses through peaceful means such as trading in order to expand its economic agenda and in return getting what they hopelessly needed which are horses. This idea of peaceful and non intervention policy was first seen with the opening up of the North Silk Road in which Chinese Silk was used to trade with Central Asia during the Han Dynasty in exchange for their needs. On the other hand, the opening of the South West “Silk Road” between Tibet and Yunnan traded Tea and horses.

Another such policy is the Heqin policy in which women and Silk are being exchange for peace. We assumed that the Chinese Han is implementing such policy to buy time in building up their own military capability before launching a full attack on them. In addition to that, strategy of using horses as a symbol of peace making is actually to protect the Chinese empire dominant position in the central plain and to drain their enemies’ resources and slow down their economies and catch processes in terms of horse riding and the art of shooting on horses before fragmenting them. Although this policy is often short lived due to a great inadequate of good horses, failure of Chinese breeding program and great military threat with the barbican thus resulting in a rise of urgency in acquiring good horses.

As the survival of the Great Chinese Empire relies solely on its equestrian prowess, massive military campaigns are being formed in search of good horses. As the Xiongnu failed in keeping peace with the Han Dynasty as constant raids are happening in the North Silk road, a war is inevitable. As a result, the need for horses is just an agenda to attack and exploit them. In Central Asia, in the state of Dayuan (Ferghana), military campaign led by General Li Kuang Li (李廣利) against Ferghana is also being held after numerous failed expeditions to bring back as many “Blood Sweating” Horses as possible. This act of intervention helps to achieved two possibilities – to acquire good horses for its military usage and also for empire expansion to states outside China Proper. Although the Chinese did acquire numerous horses from Ferghana, the outcome of the expedition proves to be arduous and onerous for the horses thus many died on the way back. Possibly, the idea of possessing such horses is not just military but supernatural as well.

In terms of political agenda, the functions of horses are as tributes or gifts from vassal states to the Chinese Empire. This could be seen in the Tang Dynasty during the reign of Emperor Taizong when he conquered the Eastern Turks and became the Heavenly Qaghan of the Turks thus they presented horses as a form of allegiance to the Chinese empire. After the An Lushan rebellion, horses are seen as gifts when the Uyghur helps in suppressing the rebellion.

In conclusion, the function of horses comes in numerous forms such as financial income, an agenda to attack another country, acknowledgment of power and most important of all the role of horses is that it brought about great interaction to the outside world as compared to other dynasties before Han dynasty which in turn brought about changes in foreign relations, military conquest, economic well being and social interaction of Chinese Empire.

3. Can you suggest any historical and cultural legacy of horse in our contemporary society?

All the way through China’s illustrious past, horses are symbols of power, elitism and success.

During the reign of Eastern Han Dynasty, Emperor Mingdi (汉明帝) ordered the construction of White Horse Temple to honor the arrival of Buddhism in China and the horse that carried back the sutras. During the Tang dynasty, six steeds are being immortalized by Emperor Taizong (唐太宗) because they were once their sole companion in the battles towards the reunification of China. They are known as the six steeds of the Zhao ling Mausoleum whereby Emperor Taizong and his empress are buried.
During Tang’s Golden age of the Kaiyuan era, great cultural and Chinese art flourished. The horse statues which come in different shapes, sizes and material are seen as true artistic burgeon during that time. Statues during that time depict the popularity of riding for pleasure instead of just military purposes. Horses are used as tributes by the Tang dynasty as a form of gift for helping them with the suppression of the An Lu Shan Rebellion.

In our contemporary society, many things got something to do with horses one way or another. Horse racing seems to be an equestrian sport that has been practiced for many centuries with the onset of chariot races to horseback races as we have now. Although it has a bad connotation with gambling, horse racing is fully assimilated in our culture till today. Equestrian is also an internationally recognized and well documented sport during the Olympic Games. Polo is also a sport that played outdoors on horseback. This sport is known to be dated since the Tang Dynasty.
Culturally, the word horse or ma (马) is being incorporated in surnames such Ma Yuan (马远) (Chinese general of Eastern Han Dynasty), Ma Chao (马超) (Chinese general during the Three Kingdoms Era) and Great Historian, Sima Jian (司马迁). Into the bargain, Chinese Muslims often have the surname Ma (姓 ) in accordance to the Prophet Muhammad.

In addition to that words that are correlated to the words ma such as Mother (mama), Prince consort( fu ma), Horsewhip (Ma Bian), Cart (Ma Che), Engine (Ma Da), A careless person(Ma Da Ha), A herd of horses(Ma Dui), Careless (Ma Hu), Potato (Ma Ling Shu), Road(Ma Lu), At once(Ma Shang), Prince Charming (Bai Ma Wang Zi) and many more. In addition to that many idioms revolves around the word horse as well such as the horse gallops on without stopping (Ma Bu Ting Ti) which means non-stop, take the head of the general’s horse as guide (Ma Shou Shi Zhan) which means to follow somebody’s lead, Horse arrives success comes (Ma Dao Gong Cheng) which is a Chinese traditional expression of complementing someone successful carrer or achievement. One of the first idiom I learned during Dr Yang’s lecturer is calling a deer a horse (Zhi Lu Wei Ma ) in which it is often describes someone who is unreasonable, forcing his or her opinion on other and to a certain extend someone who is stupid. The Chinese zodiac consists of the horse as well.

In our modern context, one of the best car’s companies, Ferrari adopts a black horse as its logo. Horsepower (Ma Li) the unit of power is also used in ancient unit of measurement. Ancient civilization also uses horse as their story line such as the story of the Trojan horse and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse which describe in the bible.

4. Conclusion

This gives a good insight of how men and animals correlate to each other in the rise of the Chinese Civilization. Although role of horses have been long forgotten and diminished in practical importance in modern context due to the development of technology, the attitude and the spirit of the horses still run deeply throughout Chinese culture and art. In conclusion, the function of such legendary creature should not be forgotten in which the role it plays in shaping our civilization.


[1] H.G. Creel. “The Role of Horse in Chinese History.” The American Historical Review, Vol. 70, No. 3 (April, 1965), pp. 647-672.

[2] Bin Yang. “Horses, Silver, Crowies: Yunnan in a Global Perspective.” Journal of World History 15:3 (September 2004), pp. 281-322

[3] Stanley J.Olsen. “The Horse in Ancient China and its cultural Influence in Some Other Areas.” Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 140(2) (1998), pp. 151-189

[4] Charles Benn. “China’s Golden Age – Everyday Life in the Tang Dynasty.” Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2002


At 10:10 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

We purchases a painting and we are trying to find out more about it. It is called horse of success. Could you tell us something about it? It has a symbol in the right hand corner of a red strip green strip and a yellow crown. Also has a number 310 in the same corner. There is something below that but can't tell what it is . Thank you Tiny

At 8:06 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

did you know that Li Quangli May be original Mar or Ma ancestor given that name by Kig Wuling in gratitude? This according to our Mar family oral history.


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