Revered, Yet a Rarity—The Horse as a Chinese Decorative Motif

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Chinese elite playing the imported Persian sport of polo. while the horse has held an important role in Chinese art history, it’s appearance on Chinese Export Silver is a rarity.

Greetings to a new year: the Year of the Horse; the seventh Chinese sign of the zodiac.

The Horse is a traditional Chinese decorative motif and theme often seen in the Tang and Yuan Dynasties, yet a rarity in Chinese Export Silver. It’s a mystery I haven’t yet fully got to the bottom of, but the journey the horse has made through the centuries of Chinese art and culture is one well worth travelling on. It is, as with most things Chinese, fascinating and a tad complex.

The horse, in the context of China, was not an indigenous animal; in ancient China, the native breed was a much smaller. Back in the Han Dynasty (circa 120 B.C.), the Han emperor Wu-ti sent an envoy Zhang Qian (Chang Ch’ien) west to seek out the Da Yuezhi for an alliance against their mutual enemy, the Xiongnu. Zhang was captured by the Xiongnu, was forced to stay there for some 10 years or so, but was well treated—enough so that he married a Xiongnu woman and had a son. Eventually, Zhang left with his family and after many tribulations, he did find the Da Yuezhi, not where he had expected to—in the Ili Valley—but in Bactria (northern Afghanistan).

A magnificent bronze statue of a young stallion represents one of the fabled “heavenly horses” of the Eastern Han dynasty (A.D. 25-220). Imported along the Silk Road from Fergana, horses were greatly admired for their strength, size, and endurance by the Han military and aristocracy. All members of Han elite owned horses for riding and to pull their beautifully appointed carriages. Bronze horses such as this one were placed in elaborately furnished aristocratic tombs and were meant to provide transportation for the deceased in the afterlife. (Photo: Minneapolis Institute of Arts)

The Da Yuezhi had, however, ceased to be nomadic and had settled down and prospered and, as a result, refused to cross swords with the Xiongnu again. Zhang Qian stayed with the Da Yuezhi for about a year. He escaped with his family and eventually reached Chang’an, the capital of the Han Dynasty, having been away for some 13 years.

It was in this period away that Zhang Qian visited Fergana (Uzbekistan) and it was here that he came across the fine horses they bred there. Zhang related this to Wu-ti on his return to Chang’an and told him of the horses that were 16 hands high; Wu-ti was so impressed that he referred to the horses as “Celestial Horses.” For people from the Han Dynasty, heaven was omnipotent, omniscient and could even possess human consciousness, emotions and feelings. By naming the horse “celestial horse, » he was endowing it with the personality of heaven—divine power and spirit of exploration of the Celestial Horse God would be a recurring theme in Chinese art.

Since the campaigns against the Xiongnu demanded vast numbers of war horses with qualities of size, stamina and muscle not possessed by indigenous Chinese breeds, Wu-ti decided to bring those Celestial Horses to the Han court.

Wu-ti’s initial attempt to acquire the Celestial Horses with gold coins was rejected by the king of Fergana and the Han envoy sent for to negotiate was murdered. When the news arrived in Chang’an, Wu-ti was furious and decided to retaliate by force. He appointed Li Guangli to lead the expedition. In 104 B.C., Li Guangli set off to win the horses with 6,000 horsemen and thousands of foot soldiers. However they were not able to defeat Fergana and were forced to retreat. Li Guangli, with only few remaining men, waited for reinforcements from Wu-ti. In 102 B.C., Wu-ti embarked the second military campaign with an army of 60,000 men, 30,000 horses, 100,000 head of cattle and thousands of donkeys and camels all marching out towards Fergana.

The army reached the capital and successfully besieged it. They returned to China with a great haul of the famous Fergana steeds. Fergana provided them with the best celestial horses, as well as 3,000 ordinary stallions and mares. Furthermore, two celestial horses would be sent every year. The two campaigns had lasted a total of four grueling years.

Since then, the “celestial horse” has been bred widely in China, but not always successfully. Chinese history is peppered with serious failures in horse breeding; it is one of the paradoxes of Chinese history. The Tang was the first ruling dynasty in China with a strong equestrian heritage, making serious attempts to increase both the quantity and the quality of their horses. They established an intricate structure for managing their herds and enacted strict laws governing the treatment of the imperial steeds. However, during the waning years of the Tang Dynasty, their horse management system fell into disarray, eventually leaving a legacy of horse shortages for the Sung Dynasty (960-1279) similar to that encountered at the Tang’s inception. While the horse always had a place in the Chinese cultural hierarchy, they increasingly became status symbols for rich men and court officials after the introduction of the “celestial horse” and by the Tang Dynasty had achieved celebrity status.

So, we have the new horse order firmly established in China, and we know that the horse is widely used and depicted as an essential for any self-respecting aristocrat to have in the after-life, but we have also established it was an import. The same applies to the use of the horse as a decorative motif as does the playing of polo that was introduced to China from Sassania

Here we have an 8th-century Tang Dynasty silver and silver gilt flask that imitates the shape and style of the leather flasks carried by the Turkic peoples of Central Asia. As with much of Tang silver work of this time, a definitive Chinese style that we would recognize has yet to evolve and this flask has tangible Sassanian elements in both style and execution, in particular the use of repoussé work in the main decorative motif—in this case, the horse. While gracefully maintaining a pose most unnatural to horses, the horse is holding between his teeth a footed wine goblet. Tang texts record horses from the emperor’s vast stables that were trained to dance while holding and occasionally drinking from cups of wine!

The Tang era (618-907 A.D.) was a time of prosperity and peace. It was also a high point of Chinese culture, which is often referred to as China’s “Golden Age.” Chang’an, the Tang capital, was a major crossroad of the Silk Route and the city quickly became a cosmopolitan melting pot of foreign traders and craftsmen who all influenced style. Sassanian merchants almost exclusively ruled the silk trade from Chang’an eastwards. Silver, specifically, was almost exclusively influenced by Sassanian (modern-day Iran) silversmiths, many of whom were Jewish. By the Sung Dynasty (1127-1279 A.D.), a significant number of Sassanian Jews, many of whom were silversmiths, settled in Kaifeng, creating the first major Jewish settlement in China. At the same time, we see a significant change in style of silver work that we would recognize as being pure Chinese, as opposed to a transplanted foreign style.

We can see the importance of the horse within Sassanian culture from this 4th-century A.D. horse’s head in silver and silver gilt.

The peace and prosperity of the Tang era encouraged a change in view of the role of the horse; it now became fashionable among aristocrats and court officials to ride for pleasure and this was not just confined to men—the Tang era, for the upper echelons of female society, was an age of relative emancipation, as we can see in Zhang Xuan’s painting below.

“Spring Outing of the Tang Court Ladies,” by Zhang Xuan (713–755).

It goes without saying that we cannot leave the Tang era without paying tribute to the almost ubiquitous Tang horse. The seventh century was a time of momentous social change: the new official examination system enabled educated men without family connections to serve as government officials; a new social elite gradually replaced the old aristocracy; and the recruitment of gentlemen from the south contributed to the cultural amalgamation that had already begun in the sixth century.

The eighth century heralded the second important epoch in Tang history, achieved largely during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong (712–756), known as minghuang–the “Brillant Monarch.” It is ranked as the classical period of Chinese art and literature, as it set the high standard to which later poets, painters and sculptors aspired.

Concepts of women’s social rights and social status during the Tang era were notably liberal-minded for the period. However, this was largely reserved for urban women of elite status. The head mistresses of the courtesan houses in the North Hamlet of the capital Chang’an acquired large amounts of wealth and power. Their high-class courtesans, who likely influenced the Japanese geishas, were well respected. These courtesans were known as great singers and poets, supervised banquets and feasts, knew the rules to all the drinking games, and were trained to have the utmost respectable table manners.

The Persian horse-riding sport of polo became a wildly popular trend amongst the Chinese elite, and women often played the sport, as this glazed earthenware figurine from the time period portrays.

It was fashionable for women to be full-figured, with men enjoying the presence of assertive, active women. The foreign horse-riding sport of polo from Persia became a wildly popular trend amongst the Chinese elite, and women often played the sport. The preferred hairstyle for women was to bunch their hair up like “an elaborate edifice above the forehead,” while affluent ladies wore extravagant head ornaments, combs, pearl necklaces, face powders and perfumes. A law was passed in 671 A.D. which attempted to force women to wear hats with veils, again in order to promote decency, but these laws were ignored as some women started wearing caps and even no hats at all, as well as men’s riding clothes and boots, and tight-sleeved bodices.

A type of glazed pottery with the dominant colors of yellow, brown and green was very popular in the Tang Dynasty, later to become known as tri-colored glazed pottery or Tang Sancai. The Tang tri-colored glazed pottery is a low-melting glazed pottery. It was made by adding metallic oxides to the colored glaze and firing the object to create different colors, namely the predominant yellow, brown and green. The chemicals in the glaze change gradually in the firing process, creating a variegated effect with a majestic and elegant artistic attraction. Tri-colored glazed pottery was usually used as burial objects. Its loose and brittle base and its low waterproofing properties meant it was not as practical as the blue-and-white porcelain that had already emerged at the time.

This utterly superb pair of Sancai glazed pottery horses demonstrate not only the skill employed in the making but also the highly elaborate saddlery and adornment the Tang lavished on their horses. This particular pair was offered for sale at Sotheby’s, New York, and achieved a staggering $4.2-million hammer value.

After the Tang Dynasty, the horse remains in Chinese culture but in a far less prominent position. By the late 18th century and the dawn of the Chinese Export Silver period, the horse appears again as a decorative motif but rarely on its own; figural battle scenes and various allegorical depictions have become the rule.

Here we have a profusely decorated circa 1865 scholar’s box by Bao Xing of Canton (as opposed to Bao Xing of Nanjing). The inclusion in prime position of an elephant xiang indicates that this somewhat complex battle scene probably has Buddhist connotations, the horse being very much second fiddle.

This pair of late 19th-century champlevé enamel on silver horses, while technically not Chinese Export Silver, they are Chinese and of the period and very much reminiscent of the Tang style, including how the horses are fitted out.

This late 19th-century miniature Chinese Export Silver horse and carriage with driver by Cum Wo is actually not a particularly common sight. While miniatures abound in the thousands, they are mostly of rickshaws and other modes of transport or carrying that require human power.

Generally, though, from the mid-19th century onwards, the horse features as a decorative motif on Chinese Export Silver only as part of a battle scene, as we can see in this milk jug that belongs to a set made by Tu Mao Xing that depicts scenes from the Battle of Yangcheng in 1140 A.D.

There always is an exception to the rule. This superb horse racing trophy cup by Wang Hing almost by default has a group of horses as part of the overall decoration.

As you can see, the trophy is dated 1891, presented for the “Union Jack Trophy” that was held at the Peking Race Club.

By a strange stroke of luck, here is a photo of that very race!

For me, the pièce de resistance of the Chinese Export Silver period is a small box by De Xiang (pictured below) that seems to bring back to life the glory of Tang silver in the 19th century. Shaped as a pomegranate, we have a reluctant horse that isn’t too enamored at the idea of crossing this swiftly flowing river. The use of champlevé enamel work makes this box a true gem—naïve yet highly sophisticated in its simplicity.

Finally, a small Chinese Export Silver-period box by De Xiang that features a horse.

The use of champlevé enamel work makes this box a true gem—naïve yet highly sophisticated in its simplicity.

The horse may have diminished in practical importance in modern China, but its spirit of still runs deeply throughout Chinese art and culture. This is not to say that horses do not constitute a significant presence in China today; it is estimated that the horse population of China exceeds 11 million—one-sixth of the horses in the world—and comprises more than 26 distinct breeds.

So it’s an interesting and at times complex 1,800-year journey the horse makes through Chinese culture, beginning in the realms of mythology, at times having super-natural powers and acquiring the use of wings and emerging as a very real and much sought after outward symbol of affluence and position in society as well as an essential accoutrement for the journey in the afterlife.

Having embedded itself firmly into the Chinese psyche, the horse seems to make a retreat from the forefront of the Chinese mindset to dwell more as an omnipresent subconscious ideal of Chinese folk history. Ask most Chinese people today and they will tell you the horse is a much-loved animal in reality as well as folklore, amply demonstrated by the main street in Singapore’s Chinatown, where 1,000 giant, illuminated horse sculptures are dramatically galloping above the road in honor of the Year of the Horse.

The main street in Singapore’s Chinatown features 1,000 giant, illuminated horse sculptures dramatically galloping above the road in honor of the Year of the Horse.

Thanks: Danny Cheng, for his translation skills. Acknowledgments: National Archives, UK; Christie’s, New York; The Metropolitan Museum, New York; Eloge de l’Art par Alain Truong; Sotheby’s, New York; The Silk Road Foundation; Sino-Platonic Papers Issue 177

Unless otherwise stated, all images are from the archive, managed by Christopher Hunter at

Adrien von Ferscht is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for China Research and also works with museums and universities around the world. His ever-expanding website, Chinese Export Silver, is the largest online information resource on the subject. His new 250-page Third Edition of the “Collector’s Guide to Chinese Export Silver 1785-1940,” is the largest information reference resource for this unique silver category. The single purchase price acquires the Catalogue plus all subsequent editions free of charge. Adrien also encourages people to share images and ask questions at

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