Horse Standing: 21.5 cm

Suggested Attribution: W. Han (206BC – 24AD)    Size: 21.5cm

This beautifully colored and marked jade horse at 21.5cm is not only rare for its size among early jade animal 3-D sculpture, but even more so because it is standing, which makes the creation far more labor intensive and material loss expensive than with an animal lying with legs tucked underneath.  There is also the far greater risk factor that a leg could break along an unseen fault line while carving or by accident at any time after completion.  The same is true of the extended tail.

What makes it most like no other, however,  is that it is a large standing animal in Han badao (‘Han eight cuts’) style, whereby the design is created by a small number of deep and beveled cuts, usually seen on much smaller Han dynasty jades, such as cicadas, pigs and rabbits found with human burial remains.  These cuts serve to define and accentuate the jade horse’s neck, pectoral, shoulder and thigh.  They appear as effortless as having been done in butter or wet clay with one deft stroke, giving an impression of spontaneity, like the one line, one chance brush work of a master calligrapher  instead of time-consuming, exacting, bit by bit abrading.   This is the first jade horse with cuts such as these – as far as we can determine.


This amazing animal can be further defined and identified by its style of docked tail, a style of tail dressing found on horse pictures and statues excavated from W. Han burial sites, such as this gilded bronze horse found in Emperor Wu-di’s Maoling Tomb.

Both this bronze and the jade horses have the feel of realism that is called upon when creating a commemorative work of art such as one commissioned by an owner to capture the likeness and honor a beloved animal.  Alexander the Great named a conquered city in honor of his legendary horse, Bucephalus, after it was finally killed in battle.  Had he believed as did the Han Chinese that replicas of the living buried with their master would once again serve him in another life, then Alexander may well have had Bucephalus replicated in the most valuable material to await burial together; for him it would have been gold, but for the Chinese W. Han, it was jade – and, as this Shaanxi Maoling Museum horse above proves, it was also done in the more easily produced and reproduced gilt bronze material.

The jade horse in our collection, indeed appears to be a particular one, a portraiture of a favorite steed and friend after many years of faithful service.   Both of these animals are recognizable not just as horses, but perhaps of a special one known and loved by name.  And in the case of our jade horse, one that is no longer young and lithe and full of restless vigor.  No, this horse is old.  And the sagging belly and overly broad and swayed back attest to a life of rider supporting service for a perhaps corpulent Emperor or General, further weighted by armor and dress of battle.  No, this jade horse is not in the style of one √of the 16-hand tall Ferghana stock, the ‘Heavenly Horse’ with long, thin legs, with head held high by an erectly arched neck, and a sleek and slender body; a creature so selectively bred for beauty and speed: a ‘Thoroughbred’ by today’s standards and ‘From Heaven’ by those of the Chinese. Yet, for the Chinese so hard to acquire and maintain that they were only used for breeding and ceremonial occasions.  They were selectively bred to the hardy, easily kept, and ubiquitous Mongolian mares to acquire a hybrid result in numbers large enough to supply a calvary and which were the most suitable for the rigors and dietary restrictions of battle campaigns.  One Ferghana stallion could sire hundreds of hybrid horses such as those bred by the Wusun nomadic people.


“In 115 BC, Zhang Qian was sent on a second mission by Emperor Wudi.  South of Lake Balkhash in the Yili River valley, he encountered the Wusun, who also possessed horses that were larger and more refined than those of the Chinese.  These are thought to be a cross between the horses of Ferghana and the Mongolian-type pony.  As a result of Zhang Qian’s mission, the Han court, on two occasions, received a large number of the Wusan horses in tribute.  While the Wusan horses were not as strong nor as large as those from Ferghana, they were superior to the Chinese native stock.” (from: Imperial China, The Art of the Horse in Chinese History; edited by Dr. Bill Cooke)

The head to neck and legs to body proportions of both this jade horse and the Maoling bronze suggest a Wusun type hybrid, larger than the Qin life size terra-cotta horses, but smaller and less ‘heavenly’ than those of Ferghana and even Bactria, although they could have been of Bactrian hybrid stock.  And like the smaller Qin terra-cotta horses, also Mongolian pony hybrids, these are more realistic than the later stylized and romanticized horse depictions from E. Han throughout Tang.

Compared to the ‘heavenly’ standards of the Ferghana (derived from Thracian ‘Bucephalus stock’ of the Greeks?), the W. Han horses of our jade and the Maoling bronze are more robust, with stronger skeletal system and more compact, with embossed muscles, large head, strong neck and short, upright mane.  All influenced in a retroactive sense by the Mongolian pony and its Przewalski type wild pony predecessor.  This W. Han jade horse, however, is anatomically exacting and accurate in the carving of the hock and ham string of the back legs, areas that are almost never given enough attention to detail.  The hoofs are well modeled and appear to be deeply calcified as does the cropped mane, which most likely is thoroughly calcified – as can be verified by a very thin diameter drill bit,  in both mane and hoof.

Emperor Wudi – Parthia Bactria Ferghana Heavenly horse source

Emperor Wudi – Parthia Bactria Ferghana

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