The important influence of the horse throughout
the history of China cannot be underestimated.
In fact, the ancient expansion of the Chinese
Empire was due in a large part to the horse. The
rapid mobility of horses allowed for enhanced
communication between distant provinces.
Likewise, the military role of horses facilitated
the conquest and submission of other lands as
well as securing the borders against barbarian
invaders. The need to import stronger, faster
steeds from Central Asia (as opposed to the local
Mongol pony) contributed to the creation of
trading routes along what became known as the
Silk Road. The significance of the horse in the
history and culture of China can be viewed, in
part, through the artistic legacy of this great
civilisation. In sculpture, painting and literature,
horses are frequently glorified and revered as
distant relatives of sacred, mythological dragons.
During the Tang dynasty the adoration of the
horse is evident in their burial art. Horse models
excavated from mausoleums of the period are
among the most celebrated and splendid works
of Chinese art. Naturally, owing to their rarity,
horses became a status symbol for the
aristocratic elite. Polo and other equestrian
pastimes became popular. This sculpture,
depicting a lady-in-waiting on horseback, is
remarkable for several reasons. Firstly, the lady
and saddle detach from the body of the horse in
one piece. Small traces of the original
polychromy remain, most visibly on the lady’s
red lips. She wears a long sleeved dress, a type
of which was used in a popular dance where the
lady swirls the excess of fabric around in the air.
Unusually, the horse is depicted with its head
raised, ears upright, and nostrils flaring. It
intimidates us with its open mouth and visible
teeth. Remarkably the lady-in-waiting seems
unaffected by whatever has startled her steed
and retains her dignified pose.
The majority of Tang horses were produced to
accompany the deceased throughout the
afterlife. The striking beauty of this work is even
more impressive, considering that it was created
specifically for internment and was not supposed
to be seen by the living. Today, we marvel in the
beauty of this sculpture as much as its
tremendous history and intriguing legacy.