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Celestial Steeds: A Celebration of the Year of the Horse

Zhixin Jason Sun, Curator, Department of Asian Art

Posted: Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Han Gan (active ca. 742–756) Night-Shining White

Han Gan (active ca. 742–756). Night-Shining White. Tang dynasty (618–907), ca. 750. Handscroll; ink on paper. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift, 1977 (1977.78)

«To celebrate the Year of the Horse, the Metropolitan Museum is presenting a selection of exceptional works in Gallery 207 for a limited period.

Since its domestication in prehistoric times, the horse has played an essential role in Chinese life. During the Shang and Zhou dynasties (ca. 1600–256 B.C.) horse-drawn chariots were a sign of high social status and the premier weapon of war. By the fourth century B.C., increasing encounters with nomadic horsemen led to the adoption of mounted cavalry as a dominant force in the battles between rival states that culminated with the unification of the country and establishment of the first Chinese empire—the Qin dynasty (221–206 B.C.).»

In the first century B.C., when Chinese envoys brought the first Bactrian horses back from western Asia to the Han dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220) capital, these tall, strong, noble-looking steeds immediately caught the imagination of the emperor and his court. These "heavenly horses" were associated with dragons, animals capable of carrying humans to the land of the immortals. The importance of horses rose to new heights in the Tang dynasty (618–907) when, as emblems of imperial power, they marched in state processions, galloped through royal hunting parks, raced across polo fields, and even danced before the emperor. Their portraits were painted by leading court artists, and their majestic form was modeled in brightly glazed pottery as tomb figurines and sculpted on marble plaques to adorn emperors' tombs as symbols of dynastic vitality.

Figure of a Horse

Horse and Female Rider (left) and Figure of a Horse (right). Both: Tang dynasty (618–907), late 7th–first half of the 8th century. Earthenware with three-color (sancai) glaze and pigment. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Stanley Herzman, in memory of Adele Herzman, 1991 (1991.253.10; 1991.253.12)

The horse remained an icon of state authority through the Manchu Qing dynasty (1644–1911) and even today horse imagery carries many positive associations. As one of the zodiac animals of the lunar calendar, it symbolizes power, strength, and vigor, and is expected to bring prosperity and success in the year that bears its name.

Happy New Year! 恭賀新年!

Department(s): Asian Art
Tag(s): China, Chinese, Qing


  • Neusa Scalea says:


    Posted: February 1, 2014, 2:57 p.m.

  • Ulrich says:

    Some Asian images of horses has a pattern consisting of two rather large circles located respectively on the horse's frontal part and at its rear.

    Has this ritual / magical importance (I have read that "eye" - circles placed little random acts protective - but these are larger circles and placed front and back: sun? Moon?)
    From where comes the pattern?
    (I became interested in the issue because I have such a horse.)
    Examples from 'The collection online':
    As two circular holes:
    Pectoral in the Shape of a Horse Date: ca. 6th century B.C. Accession Number: 2002.201.34
    - Garment Plaque in the Shape of a Przewalski Horse; Date: 6th–4th century B.C. . Accession Number: 2002.201.173
    "eye" - circles and a large circular pattern - sun? - On the horse's rear part:
    Head of a pin in form of a winged horse. Date: ca. 8th–7th century B.C. Accession Number: 43.102.26

    2 circular patterns:
    Horse bit cheekpiece in form of a winged, human-headed quadruped. Date: ca. 8th century B.C. Geography: Iran, probably from Luristan. Accession Number: 1988.102.24
    Found on the Web - eg. : 'Relief mit dem Auszug Siddharthas'. Gandhare. 2. - 3. Jh. n. Chr.

    Posted: June 3, 2015, 9:10 a.m.

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About the Author

Zhixin Jason Sun is a curator in the Department of Asian Art.

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