Throughout China’s long past, no animal has affected its history as greatly as the horse. Ever since its introduction in China around the end of the 3rd Millennium BC, the horse has been an integral figure in the creation and survival of the Middle Kingdom. Their importance in the transportation of goods and supplies, and the overall development of Chinese trade, prompted some of the most important innovations in equestrian history. For example the horse collar, the stirrup and a reliable and effective harnessing system based on the breast strap.
One of the great paradoxes of Chinese history is that despite the horse’s significance to the survival of the Empire, domestic horse-breeding programmes were rarely successful. As a result, China was forced to import horses from its nomadic neighbours throughout most of the imperial period. Silk had been traded for horses during the Han Dynasty (157 – 87 BC), whilst tea was the commodity of trade during the Song Dynasty (681 – 907), which initiated the history of ‘Tea for Horses’ markets.
Following their crucial role in both the social and economic sphere, horses became tightly related to Chinese religion and art, appearing on oracle bones and in tombs as animal sacrifices since the Shang Dynasty (1766-1046 BC). Often regarded as supernatural and auspicious creatures, they were also deeply rooted in Chinese mythology, becoming the subject of legends and folkloristic beliefs. An example is the Tiānmǎ (天馬), the heavenly horse, thought to be able to run 300 miles a day and sweat blood at the end of its journey. During the Western Zhou Dynasty (1027-771 BC), horses began to be used for the demonstration and exercise of military practice, with military strength being measured by the number of war chariots available to a particular kingdom. As the military significance of the animal increased, so did its role in court recreational activities, including sports and hunting.
The appearance of horses as a mingqi in burial contexts reflects the desire of having the animal accompany the deceased throughout their journey in the afterlife. Indeed, Chinese belief saw the afterlife as an extension of the worldly life, with mingqi providing a material manifestation of the belief system of a given time period. Buried in tombs since the Warring States (275-221 BC) and popularised during the Han Dynasty (220 BC – AD 220), mingqi endured through the tumultuous Six Dynasty period (AD 220-589) and proliferated during the reunification of China under the Sui (AD 581-618) and Tang (AD 618-918) dynasties.
The horse was the most prominent animal in Han tombs; mingqi figures of the animal have been recovered in various shapes and dimensions, undecorated or painted with unfired pigment, as well as in tombs of people of different social standing. The abundance of such ceramic figures suggests that they gradually replaced animal sacrifice, a practice still in use under the Han Dynasty.
With the unification of North China under Northern Wei, burials sites saw the preservation of Han tomb styles and funerary practices, as well as innovations in mingqi with an increasing number of pack animals. Horses from this period are characterised by stiff legs, projecting trapezoid saddles, arched necks and relatively small heads. Following Emperor Xiao Wendi’s decree, that signed the movement of the capital to Luoyang in AD 494, mingqi were influenced by developments in painting techniques seen in the South. Thus, from the late Northern Wei period, horses became more naturalistic and richly decorated.
The Tang Dynasty marked the resurge of elaborate tombs with the integration of new international influences. Horses from this period were often mass-produced using moulds, but showed individual personality through sancai (three-colour) glaze, a Tang novelty with strong influences from Central Asia. As a symbol of status and wealth in life, horses were also an indication of their owner’s importance in the afterlife, with horse mingqi reflecting the position and rank of the deceased through their forms and scale. The Tang Dynasty saw several developments, including the rise to popularity of female horse-riding, a social change that has been reflected in mingqi through the appearance of figurines of female riders.
Similar to the Renaissance in Europe, the Ming Dynasty signed a period of artistic and literary prosperity in China with porcelain being its most recognisable and admired production. Some of the Ming artistic innovations can be attested on horse mingqi figures from this period, including the doucai (鬥彩, contending colours) and and wucai (五彩, five-colour) glazes.