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Eastern Han Era (25 – 220)
Sichuan (?)
Terra cotta
H : 135 cm L : 130 cm D : 30 cm
M.C. 2007-25

The historical context explains why so many horses are represented among Han Era funerary furniture. For a long time, the only horses the Chinese were familiar with were the smaller Mongolian horses. Emperor Wudi (who reigned from 141-87 B.C.) began to seek alliances in the west in order to defend his land from raids by Xiongnu nomads, who occupied a vast territory that stretched up to just south of the Great Wall.

An imperial envoy, Zhang Qian, went on several long voyages from 139 – 126 and after 115 B.C., encountering barbaric peoples and particularly the Wusun, enemies of the Xiongnu. The Wusun occupied the Ferghâna (Tayuan), today in Uzbekistan, and, further north, the Ili Basin, south of Balkhash Lake. These robust men, with red beards and blue eyes, raised fast thoroughbred horses, often called “Caspian” in ancient Eastern literature and quickly named “heavenly horses” by the Chinese, or even “horses that sweat blood”, perhaps due to their speckled coat.

In 121 B.C., the Xiongnu led a devastating raid that stopped only twenty kilometres from the capital Chang’an. A counter-offense led by General Huo Qubing defeated the Xiongnu and forced them to withdraw to the north, liberating the Hexi region and providing direct access to central Asia for the Chinese. From 115 B.C. onwards, western marches led to the creation of several prefectures, including the Wuwei prefecture in the Liangzhou district (Gansu). Beginning in 108 B.C., the colonisation of central Asia was begun by imperial order. Ferghâna, which had yielded to Li Guangli in 102 B.C., was forced to pay an annual tribute of a quota of stallions for the imperial stud farm. The stallions were moved towards China with great difficulty. The development of the cavalry, based partly on the Barbarian model, was supported by the acclimatisation of clover and alfalfa, which were needed to nourish the animals.

The steeds were considered a type of divine apparition and a symbol of favour from the heavens. For this reason, their representations were included with funerary furniture. Several sites in Guangzhou, Jiangsu, Hubei, Sichuan and Gansu have also revealed wooden horses, with or without their legs preserved. The presence of a large steed of such good quality in a western museum is nevertheless exceptional. Note the vigour of the relief and the expressive power of the mouth, open in the middle of a neigh.

Auteur de la notice : Gilles Béguin
Collection : Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220)
Mode d'acquisition : Donation of Mr and Mrs Philippe and Eliane Wahl, 2007.

© Musée Cernuschi