by A. M. Buxman
A brief history about the 'Prancing Horse', Han art from China.
This captivating piece of Han art from the China: Eastern Han period 25-220 CE can be found today in the Portland, Oregon art museum. The Prancing Horse stands 44 1/2 inches high by 39 inches wide, the medium is gray earthenware with traces of calcified green lead glaze. There are many pieces of Han art including paintings, sculptures, and tomb tiles that were created to share the essence of these seraphic horses. This piece was donated by Arlene and Harold Schnitzer, their private collection of Han ceramics led to the creation of the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Collection of Early Chinese Art.
This horse represents the "celestial or heavenly horses" brought into China to use for rituals as well as their wars against wandering tribes of the Northern Steppes. These horses were first discovered off of the Silk Road in the fertile valleys of Ferghana (pearl of Central Asia) after an expedition in the second century BCE. The reason these horses became so widely recognized as well as admired by the Han armed forces, lords and ladies, was that they were much stronger than the native horses. These horses started to be used to symbolize power and prestige during the Han Dynasty and were used as status symbols for the wealthy and government officials to ride and also use to pull carriages. Among everything else these horses were believed to have a great power and be able to send souls to heaven. Many pieces of art crafted showing these horses have been found in numerous cliff burials in Szechwan, the largest province in China stretching its terrain slopes from the west to east over 187,000 miles. The horses found in these sites often have the same design of movement in an untrammeled gallop, open mouth, muscular with the clipped mane, knotted tail and large eyes. Many sculptures like this particular one were placed in tombs then and were believed to offer safe travel in the afterlife.
Looking back at the Han Dynasty 207 BC-9 AD, both north and west China had been threatened by semi-autonomous tribes. A tribe the Chinese called the Xiongnu or Hsiung-nu (later known in Europe as the Huns), which were ancient nomadic people. In order to protect themselves, the Chinese needed large, strong horses. The only horses they possessed at this time were not very sufficient; they were short and pony-like. Once the Han heard of the new breed of horses is when the Han Wu-ti (Wudi), the fifth emperor of the Han Dynasty of China, also known as (the son of heaven) who was a true horseman, had sent out the expedition including Chang Ch'ien, the emperors right hand, a big hearted man who treated all men fairly no matter their race, and 100 men to locate these horses. These men travelled the Silk Road past the western end of the Great Wall toward China's largest desert Takla Makan, which lies in the middle of the largest basin called Tarim. Finally these soldiers passed over the Tien Shan Mountains to Fergana where they would discover trade potential with the west. Chang Ch'ien was captured by the Hsiung-nu and held hostage for 10 years before he could finish his mission. In that time Ch'ien took a native wife and had children but with his honorable nobility, he never forgot his mission from the Han emperor and later escaped. When the king refused to trade the celestial horses with Wu-ti is when he organized large numbers of military fleet back to Fergana and successfully besieged the capital gaining almost 3000 male and female celestial horses. Historians have named this event "the first war to obtain horses". It was said that the emperor was hoping for immortality from this heavenly horse and that it would carry him to Kunlun, the home of the immortals. Later the following poem was dedicated to these steeds from Emporor Wu-ti himself:
The Heavenly Horse comes down,
A present from the grand unity,
Bedewed with red sweat,
That foam in an ochre stream,
Inpatient of all restraint,
And of abounding energy,
He treads the fleeting clouds,
Dim in his upward flight;
With smooth and east gait,
Covers a thousand leagues. (Woods, Frances, 2004)
It's astounding just to think how deeply these horses meant to Wu-ti, one of the seven ancient Chinese emperors that greatly extended the Chinese empire. The seven rulers is how the seven dynasties Qin, Han, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing came to be. These "heavenly horses" played a huge role in history.
L., Paul. Portland Art Museum: Photos. 2013. website. http://www.yelp.com/biz_photos/portland-art-museum-portland?select=z2r32F7cDJ--s...
Portland Art Museum. Prancing Horse. 1892. Website.http://www.portlandartmuseum.us/mwebcgi/mweb.exe?request=record;id=33116;type=10...
Silk Road Study Group. Civilization. 2000. Website. http://gallery.sjsu.edu/silkroad/civilization.htm
Silkroad Foundation. Han Emporor Wu-ti's Interest in Central Asia and Cheng Chien's Expeditions. 1997. http://www.silk-road.com/artl/wuti.shtml
Wikipedia. Emporor Wu of Han. 2014. Website. http://wn.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emporor_Wu_of_Han
Woods, Frances. The Silk Road: Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia. University of California Press, 2004. Print.
(Woods) (Silkroad Foundation) (Portland Art Museum) (L.) (Silk Road Study Group) (Wikipedia)