The Significance of Horses in the Tang Dynasty (618-907)


At the end of the second century, the Han dynasty empire was broken into three major territories of influence. This period is termed the Three Kingdoms (三國) and is marked by organized military campaigns among the three rivals – Wei, Shu and Wu (魏,蜀,吳) - who contended to unify China.  

From the end of the third century onward, China was divided into two major oppositions – the North and the South.  The North saw a series of short-lived dynasties set up by the nomads and the South was the Jin dynasty (晉朝) with its capital being pushed southward from Henan (河南) to present day Nanjing (南京) by the nomads.  The Jin dynasty was further broken up into 16 kingdoms.  

The more than three hundred year’s division ended when the last king of the Chen State in the South surrendered to the Sui troops in 589 A.D. in present day Nanjing (南京).  

Although the Sui dynasty 隋朝 (581-618 A.D.), preceded the Tang dynasty and founded by Yang jian 楊堅 whose daughter was the empress to the last emperor of Northern Zhou (557-581 A.D.), lasted for a short period of time, the comprehensive and ingenious administrative system and governing structure set up by Yang Jian was adopted by the Li family, the founder of the Tang dynasty.  The system was proved very effective and therefore remained with very little change until the end of the feudal China in 1911.

The one reason for the demise of Sui dynasty in spite of its ingenious governing structure is the harsh tax burden on the Sui people resulted from ambitious warfare and construction projects launched.  Ironically, one of the extremely ambitious projects – the building of a canal connecting the North to the South bought the downfall of Sui, but prosperity to the Tang dynasty which followed.

The brilliant and dynamic Tang dynasty is known for many glorious reasons.  One of the reasons which contributes to its brilliance is its acceptance of different cultures and different ethnicity.   The canal joining the North and the South allows genuine integration between the South and the North.  The canal allowed the southerners and merchandises to travel directly to the north and vice versa.  The unharnessed flow of people and goods between the north and the south also means an improved understanding between cultures and people and therefore a harmonious integration of people and cultures achieved in the Tang dynasty was an organic by-product without the need of persuasion or coercion.

In addition to the economic advantages provided by the canal, the Tang dynasty also became the beneficiary of Sui’s comprehensive administrative system and governing structures.  One example is the governing structure termed the Thee Departments and Six Ministries.  The Three Departments were responsible for drafting, reviewing and implementing policies.  The Six Ministries were responsible for personnel administration, fiancé, rites, military, justice, and public work.

Domestically, the Tang dynasty was well founded with sound infrastructure and efficient governing system; externally, the founder of the Tang dynasty understood that the one thing which could make them powerful was the possession of superior horses.  To this end, the central government of the Tang dynasty introduced a new bill which called the Horse Policy to strengthen their military position.  A special unit called the Tai Po Zhi 太僕寺 was set up and given the responsibility of horse husbandry with two goals – multiply the number of horses and bred superior species for military use and other functions. Having superior and well trained horses would mean having powerful cavalry which translated to modern day term would be deadly military weapons!

This strong horse culture of the Tang dynasty is attested by the many and abundant archaeological finds in the last 40 years.  Hundreds and hundreds of horse images have been unearthed from Shanxi, Shaanxi, Henan, Hebei and Gansu provinces.  

The horse image represented in the Tang dynasty was unprecedented in movement, colors, portraiture, and decoration.  These different images reveal a glorious horse culture and a superb appreciation for horses in the Tang dynasty.  

Horse Policy of the Tang dynasty

The role of horses was strategically important in the founding of the Tang dynasty. One of the reasons that the coup instigated in Tai Yuan (太原) by the Li family (the founder of the Tang dynasty) could swiftly overtake the capital in Xian was that the Li father and son team were equestrian masters.  They had the precise knowledge of how to maximize the efficiency of their cavalry and they understood how the number and quality of horses could profoundly affect one’s position in a war and therefore made managing the number and the quality of horses their first priority.

Historical archives (“Zhi Zi Tong Jian”/ 《資治通鑑》, “The Important Matters of the Tang dynasty”/ 《唐會要》 and “the New Classic of Tang dynasty”/ 《新唐書.兵志》), inform that the Tang dynasty owed only a few thousand horses in the beginning due to the prolonged years of battles and internal conflicts.   To change this disadvantageous position of having so few horses, the central government of the Tang dynasty set up a special unit called the “Tai Po Zhi” (太僕寺) to efficiently manage all matters related to horses with a long term vision to help build a nation of horses and horse experts.  

According to the governing structure of the Tang dynasty, there were only nine central officials who held the title/grade called “Xiang” (卿) at one time.

“Xiang” (卿) was a title reserved for the highest grade of court official who reported directly to the emperor.  The head of “Tai Po Zhi” (太僕寺) was one of the nine “Xiangs”.  From the title, one can sense the importance attached to horse husbandry in the Tang dynasty.

From historical achieves,“the Six Codes of the Tang dynasty” (唐六典), we found the following information of the “Tai Po Zhi”:

-A total of 772 people including 601 veterinaries were employed for administrative and managerial positions to ensure that the horses kept in the royal pastures were fed and treated in accordance with the high standard laid out by the “Tai Po Zhi” 

-responsible for the operation of all the royal pastures and stables. 

-responsible for the different types of carriages for the different grades of officials; 

-responsible for the breeding of the superior “Zho Cheng Haung” (總乘黃) horses;

-responsible for the 4 subsidiaries under the “Tai Po Zhi” 

Each staff member of the Tai Po Zhi was given instruction in relationship to the responsibility assigned to them. The line of reporting was clear so that any mismanagement could be detected and traced easily.  

Branding policy is mandatory applied to the different species of horses kept in the royal pastures. The species, the gender, the age, the superiority grade of each single horse were registered and recorded in detail.  In addition, loss and mishandling of horses would be punished accordingly.  

With the set up of Tai Po Zhi, written laws and rules were provided.  Proper structures allowed the Horse Policy of the Tang dynasty to thrive on solid ground; the result was that the number of horses multiplied hundred folds within two decades. 

The high esteem of horse husbandry in the Tang dynasty also means a high esteem of horse experts in the Tang dynasty. Two outstanding experts who greatly multiplied the number of horses in the royal pastures worth mentioning were Zhang Wan Shui (張萬歲) appointed by Taizong (the second emperor and founder of the Tang dynasty); and Wang Mao Zhon (王毛仲) appointed by Xuangzong 玄宗 (685-762 A.D.).  

Zhang Wan Shui raised the number of horses from a few thousand to exceeding seven hundred thousand in the beginning of the Tang dynasty.  Wang Mao Zhon doubled the number of horses in the royal stables during the tenure of his term and was therefore awarded with an upgrade in his official title.

In addition to having good experts and good management of horse husbandry, the central government of the Tang dynasty had other channels to multiply the number of horses in the royal pastures.  These channels included tributes from friendly neighbours and wins from wars with unfriendly neighbours.  

According to the information found in -“The New Classic of the Tang dynasty”, the number of horses multiplied to 706,000 that the new lands had to be found to accommodate the overflow.  The royal pastures of the Tang dynasty concentrated in the North-west of China which created a problem for the Tang dynasty when the central government became weak and the nomads in the North-west became powerful.  At the decline of the Tang dynasty, the government had to spend a huge amount of money to buy superior horses.

Types of Horses in the Tang Dynasty

The “Tai Po Zhi” bred superior species for military purpose and also other species for transportation, sport, entertainment and etc.  

The six stone images carved in Taizong’s mausoleum provide a clear picture of the type of horses used for military purposes in the Tang dynasty.  These six images represented the 6 different horses Taizong used in major battles to unify and consolidate the empire for the Tang dynasty.  These six images are realistically portrayed with the right anatomical detail.  The proportion of the head is relatively smaller than the head found in the horse image from the Han dynasty suggesting that the species used in the Han and pre Han dynasty is different from the species used in the Tang dynasty.  

In the beginning of the Tang dynasty, hunting was the most popular sport.  Taizong, the founder and second emperor of the Tang dynasty was said to have said the following – The three things which made a man truly happy are first to live in a harmonious society where all men are equal, second, to have the ability to provide sufficiently for one’s wife and children, and the third is to be able to hunt on luxurious pasture.  This philosophical ideology of Taizong is reflected in the abundant artworks such as wall paintings and pottery sculptures, unearthed from archaeological digs.  

Another equally popular sport next to hunting was polo playing. Polo playing became the chic sport in the high Tang dynasty among the upper class.  To play a polo-game requires one to have excellent equestrian skills.  

Xuangzong, the seventh emperor of the Tang dynasty was said to be a fan of and a skillful polo player.  His fondness of the polo game intensified the fever for the game.   One of the best known examples of polo playing was found in the wall paintings decorating the entry way to the main chamber of the Crown Prince Zhanghui’s 章懷太子 mausoleum unearthed in 1971.  

Xuangzong is known today for his 400 dance-horses (Wuma 舞馬) that he used for entertaining on special occasions.  “Wuma” literally means dance-horses.  They were selected regularly to be trained to dance rhythmically in response to music and do simple task such as lifting a wine cup with their mouth.    In view of the abundant pottery made dance-horses unearthed in Henan province, we have reason to believe that the use of dance-horses as a form of entertainment was not restricted to the imperial family but commonly used also among the upper class as a sign of good taste and wealth. 

Characteristic & Features of a Tang dynasty Horse

The abundant materials we have today of the Tang dynasty was from burial.  Therefore it is important to understand the source of all the burial items.  The sumptuary law of the Tang dynasty as recorded in “the Six Codes of the Tang Dynasty” informs that a special department was set up to handle the burial of court officials and nobility.  The number and size of burial items dictated according to different grades of nobility and officials; unless otherwise instructed by the court for special honors.

1)    From the use of materials, there are two different types of pottery horses – the glazed and the painted pottery.   The glazed pottery was unprecedented and first appeared only in the Tang dynasty.  The use of different colors of glaze allows the image of horses in the Tang dynasty to be more decorated and artistic. 

From the body shape and proportion of horses, the head and the ears of a horse from the Tang dynasty is smaller compared to horse of previous dynasties i.e. the Qin and the Han dynasties.  The rump and musculature of the horse is round and big.  The tail is normally represented hanging down in the back in a natural manner instead of flying in the air like the image of the Han dynasty horse.

The modeling of the Tang horses varies from piece to piece although they are all portrayed in a realistic manner.  Some are modeled as if they were standing straight, some are running, some prancing and some with their heads turned backward.  The abundant movements and portraitures are also features which we don’t see in horses from previous dynasties. 
From the proportion of the head and body, the artistic image of horses from the Tang dynasty is realistic.  Horses of the previous dynasties are normally represented with selective exaggeration.  One example is the image of horses from the Northern periods, the proportion of the neck is elongated to form an impressive curve.

The representation of the horse image from the Tang dynasty used multiple and various decorative elements. In the early Tang dynasty, the mane was cropped in the style which was termed the “three –flower” as can be seen in the Six Stallions guarding Taizong’s mausoleum. The trappings were made into many different shapes – some are in the shape of gingko leaf, some are in the shape of trailing plants, some are in the shape of a plant which call the Buddha face, some are in the form of animals and fowls.