The Horse in Pre-Imperial China


A review of The Horse in Pre-Imperial China, by Xiang Wan

This dissertation provides a rich account of the role of the domestic horse in Pre-Imperial China (ca. 1250-221 BCE) using literary, archaeological, and historical resources. Of great significance is the translation of original Chinese text by the author. The dissertation investigates the transmission routes of the horse into China from the Urals via Central Asia, the process of equine domestication, the use of the horse in civil and military affairs, horse breeding, road construction to accommodate travel on horseback, and the relationship between humans and horses.  Cross-cultural comparisons on the role of the horse in China with other ancient civilizations, i.e., Egypt, Persia, and Greece are provided as well. Placing the horse within a hierarchy of status, the author describes how the horse was regarded as a symbol of power for the elite classes and tribute to ancestors in ritual and ceremonial events during the late Shang, Western Zhou and Han dynasties. The dissertation examines how the horse facilitated agriculture and trade and accelerated the pace of military expansion and consolidation of territories, becoming a catalyst that propelled China into the Imperial era.

Chapter 1 provides an introduction to the dissertation, an outline of the subsequent chapters, and describes the original contributions of the dissertation.  A brief introduction defines the three components of the dissertation: the horse, pre-Imperial, and China. The subsequent dissertation chapters are outlined as follows: Chapter 2 traces the origin of the domestic horse and the transmission routes of the horse into China. Chapter 3 examines horse and chariot burials from the Yinxu period (late Shang) to the Warring States period and considers social and historical issues that emerged from archaeological discoveries. Chapter 4 discusses the significance of the horse in military and civil affairs derived primarily from documentary sources and how ritual and warfare were important events during pre-Imperial China. Chapter 5 focuses on the relationship between the horse and humans, using oracle bone inscriptions to interpret horse breeding and the horse as tribute during the late Shang and examining the more advanced horse breeding methods and gift bestowal practices of the royal Zhou stables. This dissertation chapter also discusses horse breeding during the feudal states and the role of the horse in early Chinese philosophy, mythology, and cosmology. Chapter 6 provides a macroscopic view of the relationship between the horse in the formation of early states and the expansion of urbanism during the late Shang and western Zhou periods, as well as the adoption of cavalry and rise of the Han Empire. A major thread of this chapter examines the widespread exploitation of the horse and the concurrent development of the road system. Chapter 7 provides a summary of the horse’s contribution to early Chinese civilization. The three major original contributions of the dissertation include: 1) an annotated translation of pre-imperial and Han texts related to the horse during the pre-imperial period; 2) a discussion of the horse and its relationship with early Chinese civilization; and 3) a survey of horse-related archaeological remains found in the pre-imperial era.

Chapter 2, entitled “Domestication of the horse and possible transmission routes to China” (p. 12) begins with a broad discussion of animal domesticates, i.e., dogs, cats and moves into domestication of mammals as a food source, i.e., pigs, cattle, and later horses. The chapter describes 2 stages of domestication for the horse: 1) taming for food and beginning of breeding (ca. 3500 BCE); and 2) domestication for chariot pulling (ca. 2100-1700 BCE). The Eurasian Steppe as the origin of horse domestication is supported through archaeological evidence, i.e., horse burials in tombs with humans, bit wear on horse molars, chariot pulling. Contrasting viewpoints on horse domestication from archaeological scholars are presented and analyzed. The chapter examines genetic evidence for the origins of horse domestication and the evolution of different horse breeds. The chapter discusses the spread of the domestic horse into China by the end of the 3rd millennium BCE through the region of Xinjiang and how it was related to the spread of copper-bronze metallurgy and the spoke-wheeled vehicle.

Chapter 3 discusses the “Archaeological discoveries related to the domesticated horse in pre-imperial China” (p.26) with a focus on horse and chariot burials. The chapter asserts that horse and chariot burials began to appear in cemeteries and some households during the late period of the Shang Dynasty, becoming more widespread during the Zhou and Qin dynasties but tapering off during the Han Dynasty. The review of archaeological evidence also covers 3 kinds of independent horse and chariot burial pits outside of tombs: 1) horse and chariot pits; 2) horse pits; and 3) chariot pits. A discussion of the structure of the Zhou-Shang chariots along with their horse and chariot fittings comprises a second major topic of the chapter. A detailed historical timeline of the archaeological site discoveries is provided along with rich descriptions of artifact placement within tombs, Original text from excavator’s field notes detailing the finds are also included in this chapter. The chapter concludes with a discussion of social issues, i.e., status, related to horse and chariot burials.

Chapter 4 describes the civil and military significance of the horse in pre-imperial China. The first section of the chapter covers the use of the horse as a ritual animal in civil affairs during the Shang Dynasty in the context of ancestral ceremonies and as tribute to the Shang court, noting the preference of white-colored horses, a preference that continued throughout the pre–imperial timeframe. The chapter section references original Chinese writings from oracle bone divinations as well as texts to support the ritual use of the horse, including documentary sources of ritual and elite use of the horse in civil affairs during the Western Zhou, the Spring and Autumn period, and the Warring States period, e.g., a detailed story of chariot racing and betting based on original text The role of the horse in agriculture beginning with the Zhou dynasty is also mentioned. The military use of the horse developed from war victory acquisitions during the Shang where the horse and chariot had limited use as command platforms during battle. Passages from original texts support the use of the horse and chariot by the Zhou dynasty in the takeover of the Shang, as well as the development of military horse riding, cavalry, and infantry during later time periods.

Chapter 5 examines the relationship between horses and humans in pre-imperial China in the contexts of horse breeding and mythology, religion, and philosophy. Horse breeding practices for warfare and elite use during the Shang and western Zhou periods are discussed in detail based on text from original documents and bronze inscriptions. The transition of horse breeding practices from exclusively royal contexts to the context of rural peasant Chinese society is documented. Evidence of the rigorous regulations that guided horse breeding during the Zhou is supported by the author’s original translations from the Zhou li (p. 114). Legal documents from the Warring States period and the Han Dynasty are presented as evidence for the strict regulation of horse breeding, the specifications required for horses used in warfare, agricultural crops grown for feeding, and fines related to horse injury. The chapter discusses archaeological and textual sources to demonstrate the role of the horse as a spiritual medium between heaven and earth in Chinese religion as well as a symbol of maintaining earthly powers by the state, and how these roles may have differed across the pre-imperial timeframe. Confucian and Daoist philosophies on the relationship between humans, horses, and the universe are examined. Written sources on animal welfare, horse physiognomy, and veterinary manuals are also discussed to support the significance of the human-horse relationship in pre-imperial China.

Chapter 6 discusses the horse’s role in the expansion of early Chinese civilization, beginning with the Zhou dynasty and ending with the Warring States. Translations from original Chinese texts are used extensively to document the expansion of the Zhou dynasty through horse-powered communication, road-building (the “Zhou Road”, p. 151) for transport and travel, and military colonization via horse-drawn vehicles. The chapter describes the continued use of the Zhou road-system for travel by horse-drawn vehicles during the Spring and Autumn periods that facilitated the communication of ideas and goods between/within states, and between cities and rural areas. The chapter provides evidence from translated texts concerning the role of horseback riding and the use of cavalry during the Warring States period to suggest these horse-related practices led to the unification of the Qin-Han Dynasty. The chapter concludes with a cross-cultural comparison of the role of the horse in pre-Imperial China with other ancient civilizations and a conceptual discussion of the Axial Age.

Chapter 7 presents the author’s conclusions in summary form of Chapters 2-6. The chapter concludes that the data from the dissertation enables the arguments that: 1)”the advent and exploitation of the domesticated horse was one of the major events at the dawn of Chinese civilization” (p. 177); and 2) the “symbiosis of humans and horses accelerated the elevation of social complexity in early China from the Bronze Age to early Iron Age” (p. 182).

Rheta E. Lanehart, Ph.D.
Department of Anthropology
University of South Florida

Primary Sources
Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Institute of Archaeology
David W. Anthony
Edward L. Shaughnessy
Kaogu Xuegao考古學報

Dissertation Information
University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 2013. 257 pp. Primary Advisor: Victor H. Mair

Image: Mass horse burial for Duke Jing of Qi (reigned 547–490 BCE) of Shang dynasty China;

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