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The Heavenly Horses of the Han Dynasty

Flying Horse of Gansu. 
Source: Wang Lei (2008)
The Heavenly Horses of the Han Dynasty

The most well-known part of the Silk Road are the so-called northern routes of the overland Silk Road. These routes linked Xi’an in China, with Lanzhou, Dunhuang, Turfan and Kashgar. Traditionally the “opening” of this branch of the Silk Road is attributed to the military and commercial missions of Emperor Wudi, who ruled from 157 to 87 BC during the Han Dynasty. Although silk is often considered to be the main commodity exchanged, but what really kick started the trade over these northern routes was the Chinese demand for horses, and in particular ‘heavenly horses.’ But, as you may wonder, what were heavenly horses? Where did they come from? And what were the motives behind the desire for horses in Han-period China? 

The Discovery of Heavenly Horses
Unfortunately, the breeds of horses associated with these ‘heavenly horses’ are extinct today, but archaeological discoveries can provide us with a glimpse of how they may have looked like. For instance, the remarkable statue of a galloping horse found in Wuwei city, Gansu province. This artifact was discovered in 1969 by a group of workers that were digging an air-raid shelter and by accident found a tomb filled with over 200 bronze figurines of men, horses, and chariots. Archaeologists were informed and further excavated what appeared to be a three-chambered tomb of the Han Dynasty, belonging to a General, named Zhang of Zhangye. Among the burial goods, there was one unique horse statue, popularly called ‘the flying horse of Gansu’ or the ‘bronze galloping horse.’ Although this artefact is rather small, its impact is instant, and its graceful and lively pose are mesmerizing. The horse seems to be running effortless and has its right hoof on top of a flying bird. 

Early historical Chinese sources describe a breed of superior horses, which they called ‘heavenly’ horses, and archaeologists today believe this bronze statue might represent one. According to ancient Chinese mythology these heavenly horses were fabled beings that flew through the heavens on wings and were closely related to dragons.  Zhang Qian, often credited with opening up the Silk Road, is said to be one of the first Chinese travelers who laid eyes on these special horses. Zhang Qian was an explorer send by Emperor Wudi to form a military alliance with nomads living in the west. Unfortunately for him, on his way he got caught for over 13 years by the Xiongnu, another nomadic confederation in the North. He eventually escaped and traveled all the way up to modern day Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, reaching the Dayuan Kingdom in the Ferghana valley.

The Blood-sweating Horses from Dayuan
The meaning of the name Dayuan in Chinese is interesting because the first part ‘da’ 大 means simply big, but the second part ‘yuan’ can have different meanings. One interpretation that stands out is the connection of ‘yuan’ with ‘Yona’, the term for Ionians or Greeks. Ionians were an ancient tribe living in Greece and many civilizations first learned of the Greeks through the Ionians. This is the reason why even today the word for Greece has its root in Ionia. For example, in Punjabi, Hindi, and Persian ‘Greece’ is pronounced as ‘Yuna’, in Arabic as ‘Al-Yunan’ and in ancient Hebrew as ‘Yawan’. Therefore, the name for the Dayuan kingdom might indicate a connection with ancient Greece and its inhabitants might have been descendants of the Greco-Bactrians who ruled Bactria after Alexander the Great’s conquest of the region.

When Zhang Qian returned to the Chinese court in Xi'an he informed the emperor about the special breed of ‘blood-sweating’ horses he had seen in the Dayuan Kingdom. This must have led to the belief that these horses belonged to a divine breed of ‘heavenly’ horses. But why were they called ‘blood sweating’ horses? It is known that some breeds of Central Asian horses have clearly defined blood vessels when they run and emit a reddish liquid around their shoulders and neck. Some scholars have also suggested that the phenomenon of blood-sweating might have been caused by a type of parasite worm enlarging the horse’s blood vessels.

Why Horses?
The Chinese demand for heavenly horses was closely related to warfare and military tactics. Nomads in the Eurasian Steppe had been combining horsemanship with archery for centuries and horses had been a deciding factor in the Xiongnu invasions in Northern China. Tired of these humiliating defeats, Chinese states also wanted to master the art of bow and arrow on horseback. Interesting to note in this regard, is that the Chinese seem to have adopted a new fashion style and replaced their long robes for a short tunic and loose trousers. However, they faced a significant problem in training a Chinese cavalry: good horses. The northern Chinese states were agricultural societies and did not have suitable horses of their own. They also lacked the understanding and grassland required for breeding these specific breeds of horses. Because these difficulties, guaranteeing a continuous supply of horses became a central concern of the Chinese rulers, who used several means to accomplish this.

After hearing the wonderful tales about heavenly horses, Emperor Wudi became particularly obsessed with obtaining them. The Book of Han records that an envoy was sent to the earlier mentioned Dayuan Kingdom in Ferghana. This envoy did not arrive empty-handed and carried a golden horse and a thousand pieces of gold. But the Ferghana king was not impressed and killed the whole envoy. Angered by this Wudi sent over a hundred-thousand soldiers under the command of general Li Guangli, who eventually conquered Ferghana and collected its best horses for the Han Empire. From then on, the Dayuan kingdom made a promise to send a certain number of horses to China every year, hereby initiating tribute relationships with the Han empire. The emperor's excitement of acquiring a steady flow of heavenly horses can be seen from a poem called ‘Ode of the Heavenly Horse’ that goes as follows: 

The heavenly horses have arrived from the Western frontier 天馬徠兮,從西極
Having traveled 10.000 li, they arrive with great virtue               經萬里兮,歸有徳
 With loyal spirit, they defeat foreign nations                                        承靈威兮,降外國
And crossing the deserts all barbarians succumb in their wake 渉流沙兮,四夷服
(The Shiji, The Treatise on Music, Chapter 24)

Some scholars doubt the emperor's fondness for getting heavenly horses was only driven by practical considerations. Instead, they believe it may be related to mythical beliefs at that time and the emperor's quest for immortality. Chinese emperors had been obsessed by living forever for some time and even the famous first Emperor is known for taking potions made by alchemists to become immortal. The belief of that time was that heavenly horses belonged to the same family as dragons and were a medium of communication between the human world and that of the immortals. Following this logic heavenly horses could fly (just like dragons) and were able to transport the emperor to heaven.  

Besides costly military expeditions, horses were also imported through trade and diplomacy. As early as the third century BC, a merchant of the state Qin, in the Central Plain, selected unusual silks to present to a ruler of the northern nomads, who gave him large numbers of horses and cattle in return. The Qin and later Han Dynasties continued this practice and send out large quantities of silk in exchange for horses. During the Han Dynasty some emperors also started to resort to diplomacy to appease nomad tribes such as the Xiongnu. Princesses of the Han court were promised to Xiongnu chiefs and brought with them a dowry, including mostly silks and food grains. Their new husbands would present horses as gifts to their fathers-in-law. One of these marriage alliances was that between a Wusun ruler and the Chinese princess Xijun. She was swapped for no less than a thousand horses! In later periods, horses were also used as collateral for loans, as we know from the record of a wooden slip dating from more than 1000 years ago found at the Niya site, in the southern part of the Taklamakan Desert.

Horses, were not merely everyday necessities, they were essential for military cavalry, diplomacy and trade in and around the Silk Roads. Besides this, heavenly horses were also status symbols. During the Han, ownership of imported horses was restricted to officials and the elite class. The status acquired by horses in China resulted not so much from their usefulness as from the power vested in them by their divine origins. This is also why bronze horses have been found in tombs of the Han Dynasty. Numerous small yet beautiful sculptures of horse and horse-drawn chariots were created as status symbols to be buried with wealthy masters. ‘The flying horse of Gansu’ is an example of this. Images of horses are also found on painted wall murals of Han Dynasty tombs and who can forget the famous ceramic horses of the Tang dynasty painted by craftsmen with yellow, green, and brown glazes.

Since the Warring States period (475-221 BC) Northern China had placed high-value on Central Asian horses. This is also mentioned by Valerie Hansen: Among the most treasured gifts were the horses that grazed in the Central Asian grasslands; because they roamed free, they were always stronger than the smaller, less powerful Chinese breeds that ate fodder hand-carried to their stables (Hansen, The Silk Road, p. 16). During the Han Dynasty, blood-sweating horses were the foundation of commercial exchanges, diplomatic relationships and military might. Although the term ‘heavenly horses’ became in disuse after the Han, horses remained key commodities traded across the Silk Road(s). In the early periods often in exchange for silk, while in later periods for tea, they continued to play an important role in the Silk Roads all the way up to 17th century.

Read more about Horses
  • The Horses of T’an T’ai – Tsung
  • Katheryn M. Linduff. 2006. Imaging the Horse in Early China: From the Table to the Stable. In Horses and Humans: The Evolution of Human-Equine Relationships. Bar International Series 1560: 303-322


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