The most magnificent horses, immortalised in Chinese literature and the visual arts, were the Ferghana horses introduced into central China from the west and first mentioned by Han Wudi’s envoy, Zhang Qian during his campaign against the Xiongnu in Central Asia. These so-called 'celestial' horses, sometimes called 'blood-sweating' horses, were known for their speed, power and stamina. It was these horses that the Chinese armies needed to challenge the cavalry of the barbarian tribes who attacked the western and northern borders of the empire. The Han dynasty Emperor Wudi (r. 141-87 BC) therefore ordered a costly expedition to Ferghana (part of modern Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyztan) to obtain these remarkable horses. Such horses then provided the inspiration for the large, spirited, prancing Han dynasty earthenware burial horse depictions.
Significantly, the first of the Eight Trigrams of Chinese divination is linked to the horse. According to Chinese mythology the trigrams (symbols made up of three lines, broken or unbroken) were devised by the legendary Emperor Fu Xi from the markings on the shell of a tortoise. These trigrams were taken to symbolise the evolution of nature and to represent its cyclical changes. According to the famous Yi Jing or I Ching (Book of Changes, believed to have been compiled 13th-12th century BC), the first trigram of three unbroken lines would represent Heaven, the south, inexhaustible strength and the horse. Many early Chinese writers used real and mythological horses as symbols of strength and endurance and their similitudes must have inspired the creation of beautiful burial mingqi.
For instance, the Shan Hai Jing (Classic of Mountains and Seas) describes a horse with a white silken body, golden eyes and vermilion mane, called Ji Liang. It proclaims that he who rides upon the 'celestial' horse will live for a thousand years. On the other hand, in his Zi Shuo Si (Miscellaneous Opinions) Han Yu used horses to exemplify admirable qualities, and mentioned horses able to gallop a thousand li (Chinese miles). A young man with strength and endurance could be complimented by being called a qian li zhu (a thousand li colt).
It is then not surprising that horses appeared prominently during the Han period in burial contexts, mostly concentrated in the north and south-central areas. The majority of them was painted with pigments and unglazed, being either sculpted or moulded, just like ours. Furthermore, our example almost explicitly seems to be imbued with this celestial connotation, with his fluid abstract swirling decoration on the pelt, evoking the swiftness of a galloping celestial horse. Originally four wooden legs would have been inserted under the belly in the pre-moulded holes and secured with small pegs; also, his tail and ears would have been made of leather and attached in the sunken depressions on the head and back, his vivid look and incredibly refined decoration so intensely capturing the extraordinary beliefs of an era.