An­i­mal leg­ends of the Silk Road

China Daily European Weekly - - FRONT PAGE - By ZHAO XU zhaoxu@chi­

In Western mythol­ogy, the most fa­mous horse is that of Troy, the gi­ant wooden ruse that the Greeks used to wrong-foot their en­emy.

If there is any equine image in the East that can match the stature of its Western coun­ter­part, it is prob­a­bly that of the “heav­enly horses” — horses that once trav­eled the an­cient Silk Road con­nect­ing the Chi­nese em­pire with the vast land ly­ing to its west.

And if the Tro­jan horse em­bod­ied mil­i­tary sub­terfuge, then the heav­enly horses, tianma, rep­re­sented raw speed and stamina. The lat­ter have also spawned nu­mer­ous works of art, ones that re­mind us not only of a pow­er­ful ruler’s am­bi­tion, but also of the transcon­ti­nen­tal trade route this am­bi­tion even­tu­ally gave birth to.

That ruler was Em­peror Wudi of the Han Dy­nasty (206 BC-AD 220), un­der whose reign China gained pros­per­ity and might that was with­out prece­dent. Mind­ful of the con­stant ha­rass­ment of his coun­try by the steppe no­mads, Wudi sought to solve the is­sue once and for all, by form­ing an in­vin­ci­ble cavalry that could strike with the same light­ning speed as had those fierce horse­men. (These no­mads, known as Xiongnu, had once laid siege to his great­grand­fa­ther and founder of the Han Em­pire.)

To do that, he needed the warhorse, a breed na­tive to the king­dom of Da Yuan, a Cen­tral Asian coun­try in the Ferghana Val­ley. So around 139 BC, the em­peror sent out a con­voy headed by a man named Zhang Qian on a west­ward journey that even­tu­ally took them to Cen­tral Asia. Their two most im­por­tant tasks: to seek a mil­i­tary al­liance with other coun­tries who were en­e­mies of the Xiongnu, and to look for the re­puted horses.

Dur­ing an event­ful journey that lasted 13 years, Zhang Qian was cap­tured by the Xiongnu twice. When he ar­rived back in the Han cap­i­tal in 126 BC, he was ac­com­pa­nied by just one man — and there were no horses. How­ever, ac­cord­ing to Houhan­shu (the Book of Later Han, penned by a Chi­nese historian dur­ing the fifth cen­tury and con­sid­ered an authoritative record of the Han his­tory between 25 and 220), about 10, or at least five or six, diplo­matic groups were dis­patched an­nu­ally by the Han court to Cen­tral Asia dur­ing this pe­riod to buy horses.

“For the Han peo­ple, the horses had be­come a fetish and a cult, as ev­i­denced by their newly as­signed name, heav­enly horses,” says Rong Xin­jiang, a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at Pek­ing Univer­sity and an ex­pert on the Silk Road.

“Com­pared with the indige­nous Chi­nese breeds, these heav­enly horses had longer and spikier ears that made them look more vig­i­lant. They also had elon­gated bod­ies that ap­peared both ath­letic and el­e­gant.”

One image that best il­lus­trates this ki­netic el­e­gance is a bronze horse un­earthed in Gansu prov­ince, North­west China, across which the an­cient Silk Road wound. With mouth open, ears pricked and nos­trils flared, the steed charges ahead at full tilt. Its wind-whipped mane con­veys mo­men­tum, but what re­ally cap­tures its speed and ren­ders this sculp­ture an iconic work of art is a spar­row that ap­pears un­der one hind hoof of the horse. It is as if the gal­lop­ing horse, in a fleet­ing mo­ment as it over­takes the low-fly­ing spar­row, is stamp­ing on the bird’s wings.

The horse, coated in green patina, turned up in the tomb of a Han gen­eral, with a whole le­gion com­pris­ing lance-hold­ing horse­men and horse­drawn char­i­ots. In most cases, the mane on the horses’ fore­head is por­trayed as be­ing tied high up and blown back by strong wind. Another dis­tinct fea­ture is the tail, raised to form one curve or two. It is as if a pow­er­ful life force has charged through the horse, head to hind, and reached its end­point undi­min­ished.

Ac­cord­ing to his­tor­i­cal records, the Han govern­ment later set up breed­ing grounds in Gansu, hop­ing to lo­cal­ize the su­pe­rior genes of the heav­enly horses.

Per­haps the best proof of the horses’ en­dur­ing pop­u­lar­ity can be found in tombs of the Tang Dy­nasty (618907), another golden pe­riod in Chi­nese his­tory that was sep­a­rated from the Han era by four cen­turies. There they abounded as poly­chrome glazed ce­ramic sculp­tures, mir­ror­ing the fact that in 725, dur­ing the reign of the Tang Em­peror Xuan­zong, the num­ber of bred heav­enly horses was put at about 430,000.

Another type of an­i­mal that of­ten found it­self stand­ing side by side with the horses in the burial cham­ber of their masters was the camel, on whose back al­most the en­tire his­tory of the an­cient Silk Road was sus­tained.

The an­i­mal, a ver­i­ta­ble nov­elty when it first set its split hoof in Han China, was no doubt obliv­i­ous to the cu­rios­ity and con­fu­sion it aroused with the lo­cals. See­ing a camel for the first time, many be­lieved they were “horses with swollen backs”, to quote a piece of con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous writ­ing.

How­ever, it was not long be­fore the an­i­mal was im­press­ing all and sundry with its abil­ity to en­dure hard­ship. The two species — the sin­gle-humped camels of West Asia and the dou­ble­humped ones of Cen­tral Asia — be­came the most pre­ferred pack an­i­mals for all traders trekking back and forth along the an­cient Silk Road.

One par­tic­u­larly vivid ren­der­ing can be found in a glazed ce­ramic camel un­earthed in a sub­urb of Xi’an, cap­i­tal in the Han and Tang dy­nas­ties. Cran­ing its neck up­ward, the an­i­mal seems to be grunt­ing loudly. Whether it is be­cause of the heavy load and a crushing sense of tired­ness or the glimpse of an oa­sis or some­thing else will for­ever re­main a mys­tery.

Ge Chengy­ong, a Silk Road re­search ex­pert who acted as a con­sul­tant for a pre­vi­ous ex­hi­bi­tion in Hong Kong, where the camel was on dis­play, says that “a lot could be de­ci­phered by sim­ply looking into what is between a camel’s double humps”, point­ing to another ce­ramic ren­di­tion of the an­i­mal from a slightly ear­lier time.

Strad­dling its back are a pair of sacks dec­o­rated with a drunk propped against another man and a woman.

“The drunk with a thick beard and pot­belly is Diony­sus, the greek wine god who could bring peo­ple a good har­vest — think grape har­vest in par­tic­u­lar — and good for­tune,” Ge says. “Those on his left and right are two of his dis­ci­ples. ... The im­ages are tell­tale signs of a grape wine cul­ture that orig­i­nated in the Mediter­ranean and kept the Chi­nese in­tox­i­cated — lit­er­ally and metaphor­i­cally — through­out the sev­enth and eighth cen­turies.”

It was even blamed for pre­vent­ing Tang from stay­ing sober, when the pow­er­ful and pros­per­ous em­pire, con­vulsed by sud­den re­bel­lion that erupted in 755, plunged head­long into a down­ward spi­ral from which it never quite re­cov­ered.

Other things that of­ten weighed heav­ily on a camel’s back in­cluded wa­ter flasks and, more im­por­tant, bun­dles of silk that, sold in Con­stantino­ple, could fetch hun­dreds of times their cost price in China.

But that is not all, says Li Yong­ping of the Gansu Provin­cial Mu­seum, who com­pares the trad­ing car­a­vans to an itin­er­ant cir­cus. The an­cient Silk Road cut through Gansu dur­ing its west­ward ex­ten­sion.

“That cir­cus was stuffed with a big va­ri­ety of an­i­mals — mon­keys and ea­gles, pea­cocks and os­triches, lions and leop­ards, and pos­si­bly ele­phants and rhi­nos,” Li says.

Af­ter a journey that must have been ex­tremely de­mand­ing, if not costly in lives, most of these rare an­i­mals ended up in the pri­vate gar­dens or en­clo­sures of the aris­to­crats, to be looked at by a priv­i­leged few. Artis­tic ren­der­ings also ap­peared, of­ten in the burial cham­bers of these men who had gone to great lengths to make sure that their af­ter­life would be lived in the fash­ion to which they had be­come ac­cus­tomed.

One ex­am­ple in­volves a pair of splen­didly re­al­ized gilt bronze leop­ards, their spot­ted bod­ies curled up and eyes set with ru­bies. The Han peo­ple liked to place them­selves in a kneel­ing po­si­tion, and the leop­ards, de­signed as mat weights, would keep the mat from mov­ing as the sit­ter shuf­fled. They be­longed to Liu Sheng (165-113 BC), a Han Dy­nasty vas­sal king who was the half brother of Em­peror Wudi, the man who was be­hind the open­ing of the Silk Road.

The leop­ard can also be found on a gilt sil­ver plate un­earthed in Gansu and dated to some­time between the fourth and sixth cen­turies. On the an­i­mal’s back sits Bac­chus, the Ro­man equiv­a­lent of Diony­sus, a fact that has led re­searchers to at­tribute the beau­ti­fully wrought plate to crafts­men from the Byzan­tine Em­pire.

“By con­nect­ing the dots, you get a line of not only the trade route, but also the two-way flow of cul­ture,” Li says.

Another an­i­mal that left its paw prints on the cul­tural his­tory of an­cient China was the lion. The fe­ro­cious beast, na­tive to today’s In­dia and Iran, is be­lieved to have first en­tered Han China through the Silk Road, and was soon adopted as a dec­o­ra­tive mo­tif. The inside cen­ter of a Tang Dy­nasty sil­ver bowl un­earthed in Xi’an was oc­cu­pied by a pair of con­fronting lions, high­lighted by gild­ing.

A 16-piece set of jade belt or­na­ments was found in the same place. A lion ap­peared on all but one piece, each of which fea­tures the an­i­mal in a uniquely dif­fer­ent pos­ture. Al­though jade tra­di­tion­ally came from He­tian (also known as Khotan) in what is now the Xin­jiang Uygur au­tonomous re­gion, by the Tang era it had long en­tered canon­i­cal Chi­nese cul­ture.

Tang em­per­ors rou­tinely gave jade or jade-em­bed­ded gold belts to their high-level of­fi­cials. The royal fa­vor was be­stowed not on a mere whim but ac­cord­ing to strict pro­to­col that dic­tated, among other things, the spe­cific pat­tern that would ap­pear on the belt plaques.

“The com­bi­na­tion of a ‘for­eign’ mo­tif with a typ­i­cal Chi­nese carv­ing ma­te­rial, as well as its in­cor­po­ra­tion into the court cul­ture, all sig­naled an as­sim­i­la­tion process that lay at the heart of the Silk Road ex­changes,” Li says.

Un­earthed in Xin­jiang and dat­ing back to Tang is a clay ren­di­tion of the lion dance, widely per­formed dur­ing the Chi­nese lu­nar new year then and now. The two pairs of legs pro­trud- ing from the un­der­belly of the lion in­di­cate that there were two per­form­ers.

Com­pared with Han, the Tang Dy­nasty had re­mark­ably more trueto-life por­tray­als of lions by artists and ar­ti­sans, who, pre­sum­ably, had more op­por­tu­nity to ob­serve the an­i­mal first­hand. Con­crete de­tails bris­tle where free imag­i­na­tion used to reign.

But that does not mean there was lit­tle room for imag­i­na­tion; in fact, the re­verse is true. A Tang Dy­nasty cup un­earthed in He­nan prov­ince had a pea­cock’s re­s­plen­dent tail wrapped around it to form a horn shape, the pea­cock it­self be­ing an ex­otic bird. The con­i­cal shape points un­equiv­o­cally to a spe­cific type of wine con­tainer known as a rhy­ton, which first ap­peared in the Aegean re­gion dur­ing the Bronze Age, be­fore be­ing pro­duced over wide ar­eas of an­cient Eura­sia. This par­tic­u­lar one, re­al­ized in Tang Dy­nasty tri-col­ored porce­lain (yel­low, green and white), is most likely the work of a Chi­nese crafts­man.

Another im­ported an­i­mal worth not­ing is the ele­phant, not merely be­cause of its bulk, but also be­cause of its close as­so­ci­a­tion with Bud­dhism, which con­tin­ued to ex­ert its in­flu­ence through the an­cient Silk Road. Bricks painted with white ele­phants have been dis­cov­ered in the city of Dun­huang, Gansu, whose fa­bled grot­toes are home to gor­geous reli­gious paint­ings and rare Bud­dhist scrip­tures.

More earthly ver­sions could be found in a gilt bronze ele­phant and a rhi­noc­eros, un­earthed in the burial ground of a Han Dy­nasty vas­sal king in East China. Both an­i­mals were ac­com­pa­nied by their grooms, who must have trav­eled the same dis­tance be­fore ar­riv­ing in China two mil­len­nia ago.

In life as well as in death, these real-life an­i­mals had com­peted with mythical ones to win the fa­vor of artists, and thus the chance of eter­nal life. The lat­ter group in­cluded the makara, a sea crea­ture in Hindu mythol­ogy that has the body of a fish and the head of a dragon. Another was the kalavinka, a Bud­dhist cre­ation with a bird’s torso, a hu­man head and the most ex­quis­ite voice. Very of­ten their im­ages grace a gilt sil­ver plate or even gold hair­pin for an aris­to­cratic lady.

Cul­ture and com­merce, spir­i­tual and mun­dane, the Silk Road an­i­mals are em­blems for all.

On dis­play at the pre­vi­ous Hong Kong ex­hi­bi­tion were a poly­chrome painted horse and its tamer, both un­earthed in the cen­tral Chi­nese city of Luoyang, a bustling com­mer­cial cen­ter and des­ti­na­tion for end­less streams of car­a­vans dur­ing the Tang era.

De­spite be­ing lav­ishly har­nessed, the horse shows no sign of obe­di­ence. This has re­sulted in ten­sion and drama between the steed and the man, who, with legs wide apart, arms out­stretched and veins on the wrists swelling up, tries des­per­ately to rein in the mus­cu­lar an­i­mal.

Ge says: “Un­daunt­ed­ness: Man or an­i­mal, that’s what they need to mea­sure the length of the Silk Road, with their own steps. And those who did so can never be con­tained.”


A Tang Dy­nasty painted clay model de­pict­ing lion dance per­form­ers. It was un­earthed in Xin­jiang Uygur au­tonomous re­gion.


Han Dy­nasty painted wooden horse, un­earthed in Gansu prov­ince.

Han Dy­nasty bronze gal­lop­ing horse and spar­row, un­earthed in Gansu.



4 1. Tang Dy­nasty poly­chrome painted horse and tamer, un­earthed in Luoyang city, He­nan prov­ince; 2. Han Dy­nasty gilt bronze ele­phant and groom, un­earthed in Jiangsu prov­ince; 3, 5. Sui Dy­nasty (581-618) pot­tery camel and load, un­earthed in Xi’an. The sacks on the camel’s back are dec­o­rated with im­ages of the greek wine god, Diony­sus, and his dis­ci­ples; 4. Re­mains of the an­cient Silk Road re­lay sta­tion in Xin­jiang Uygur au­tonomous re­gion; 6. Fourth-sixth cen­tury Byzan­tine gilt sil­ver dish, un­earthed in Gansu, fea­tur­ing the Ro­man wine god Bac­chus re­clin­ing on a leop­ard.





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