Horses were important during the Tang Dynasty and were both the reward of successful military expeditions and the foundation of imperial stability. Brought to China by means of the international Silk Road trade network, horses were also a sign of wealth, with strict laws in place limiting the use of horses to people of a certain rank, and even those serving in the military had to provide their own mount. The different colours of horses also appear to have been of particular importance to the Tang emperors, whose favourite horses are described by their colouration. The Tang Emperors Taizong and Xuanzong both commemorated their horses through artistic depictions, with the specific colouring of the horse of vital importance. Prominent painters of the period, such as Han Gan, specialised in painting horses and thus, they appear as a popular artistic motif of the period. Horses’ statuettes, such as this incredibly fine example, were usually meant to be grave goods to be placed in tombs. It was believed that these figures would serve and assist the deceased in the afterlife. Figures of this type are called mingqi (冥器) in Chinese, and depict servants, officials, soldiers, musicians, court attendants, dancers and, in the case of animals, horses and Bactrian camels.
Terracotta figurines depicting female polo players riding a galloping horse have been found in the burials of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-906), with the display of large numbers of figurines and a wide variety of types indicating the high social class that the burial occupants occupied during their lives. The term polo might have derived from the Tibetan word, pulu, initially referring to the wood from which a game ball was made. Polo in Tang China was an imperial game, with both court women and men participating in this activity. Polo seems to have first emerged in China towards the end of Han Dynasty (circa 206 BC – AD 220), and grew in popularity in the early Tang Dynasty under the cultural influence from the Xian’bei, a nomadic tribe of North-eastern China.
To discover more about Tang statuettes, please visit our relevant blog post: Terracotta Tomb Attendants.