The most magnificent horses, immortalised in Chinese literature and the visual arts, were the Ferghana horses introduced into China from the west (from modern Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyztan) during the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). Obtaining these extraordinary stallions was still a priority for the Tang dynasty Emperor Taizong (r. AD 626-49), despite the fact that by the middle of the 7th century the Tang government owned more than 700,000 -built up through tribute gifts and the careful management of official herds. Emperor Taizong was so devoted to his own horses that he ordered bas reliefs of his six favourite battle steeds to be carved and placed at his tomb. Even Emperor Xuanzong (r. AD 847-59) was said to have had two consuming passions - beautiful women and horses, and a dramatic painting of one of his favourite horses, Night-Shining White, by the renowned horse painter Han Gan (AD 720-60) can now be seen now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Such horses were used both for military campaigns and for leisure activities - for the Tang dynasty élite they became symbols of power and prosperity. Furthermore, during the early years of the Tang dynasty, the increasing cross-cultural fertilisation between sedentary Chinese and Central Asian semi-nomadic people encouraged the fashion of horse riding. Its tremendous popularity was very soon restrained by an imperial edict in 667, decreeing that only aristocrats (of both sexes) should be allowed to ride horses: owing a horse then became a privilege dispensed only to members of the higher class.
It is then not surprising that during the Tang Dynasty this mania would permeate and greatly influence the mingqi (burial) artistic repertoire. In terms of technical and artistic achievement, as sculptural representations of the fashions of the time, the highest quality painted pottery mingqi tended to be more successful than those glazed. In fact, while sancai objects required greater expenditure of material and labour, the application of the rich glaze meant instead, that the replication of fine details in drapery and physiognomy was generally overseen, while for the unglazed painted pottery the artisans felt best able to explore the details and overall decoration that fascinated the Tang aristocracy.
Our horse perfectly exemplifies the early artistic production of the Central Plains (Henan and Shaanxi provinces) during the 7th- early 8th centuries AD, when more detailed sculptures of caparisoned horses were placed in the tombs of the wealthy as companions for the afterlife. This impressive sculpture with a carefully groomed mane and tail -its legs, torso, and head individually moulded and then attached together- still retains much of the original paint intact. The elongated prancing legs would have been strengthened in the core with an iron armature, covered up by clay and subsequently painted; the saddle –painted in orange- was added to the moulded figure. Horses with saddles appear frequently already in tombs dated to the Northern Wei period, where they would have symbolized the presence of the deceased. Furthermore, the quite unique -seldom found in mingqi- rendering of his pelt with a maculated effect would suggest a dappled bay steed specific to Central Asia, sometimes portrayed in silk panel screens dating to the Tang dynasty, such as the one found in tomb 188 in Astana, Turfan, Xinjiang Autonomous Region.
For the silk portrait from Astana see , J. Y. Watts et al, China, Dawn of the Golden Age, 200-750 AD, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004: No.177, p. 284.
Medley, Margaret. Tang Pottery and Porcelain. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1981.
Sullivan, Michael. The Arts of China. Los Angeles: University of Califonia Press, 1999.
Watson, William. Tang and Liao Ceramics. New York: Rizzoli, 1984.
Wood, Nigel. Chinese Glazes: Their Origins, Chemistry, and Recreation. London: A and C Black, 1999.