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HOME : Chinese Art : Masterpieces of Chinese Art : Han Large Terracotta Sculpture of a Horse
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Han Large Terracotta Sculpture of a Horse - H.631
Origin: China
Circa: 206 BC to 220 AD
Dimensions: 50.5" (128.3cm) high x 42" (106.7cm) wide x 13" (33.0cm) depth
Collection: Chinese
Medium: Terracotta

Location: Great Britain
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The over-extension of the labour force during the Qin Dynasty would result in a popular uprising against the empire. In 206 B.C., Liu Bang, a Qin official, led an army composed of peasants and some lower nobility to victory and established his own dynasty in place, the Han. However, unlike the Qin, the Han would unify China and rule virtually uncontested for over four hundred years. It is during this time that much of what is now considered to be Chinese culture was first actualized. The bureaucracy started under the Qin was now firmly established. The vast lands of China were now under the firm grip of a central authority. Confucianism became the state ideology although the worship of Taoist deities remained widespread, both among the peasants and the aristocracy. Ancient histories and texts were analyzed and rewritten to be more objective while new legendary myths and cultural epics were transcribed.

The Han era can also be characterized as one of the greatest artistic outpourings in Chinese history, easily on par with the glories of their Western contemporaries, Greece and Rome. Wealth pouring into China from trade along the Silk Road initiated a period of unprecedented luxury. Stunning bronze vessels were created, decorated with elegant inlaid gold and silver motifs. Jade carvings reached a new level of technical brilliance. But perhaps the artistic revival of the Han Dynasty is nowhere better represented than in their sculptures and vessels that were interred with deceased nobles. Called mingqi, literally meaning “spirit articles,” these works depicted a vast array of subjects, from warriors and horses to ovens and livestock, which were buried alongside the dead for use in the next world, reflecting the Chinese belief that the afterlife was an extension of our earthy existence. Thus, quite logically, the things we require to sustain and nurture our bodies in this life would be just as necessary in our next life.

The Han Dynasty is divided into two distinct periods, the Western Han (206 B.C.-9 A.D.) and the Eastern Han (23- 220 A.D.) with a brief interlude. Towards the end of the Western period, a series of weak emperors ruled the throne, controlled from behind the scenes by Wang Mang and Huo Guang, both relatives of empresses. They both exerted enormous influence over the government and when the last emperor suddenly passed away, Mang became ruling advisor, seizing this opportunity to declare his own Dynasty, the Xin, or “New.” However, another popular uprising began joined by the members of the Liu clan, the family that ruled the Han Dynasty, the Xin came to a quick end and the Eastern Han was established in its place with its capital at Loyang (Chang’an, the capital of the Western Han, was completely destroyed).

However, even as Chinese influence spread across Southeastern Asia into new lands, the Eastern Han Dynasty was unable to recreate the glories of the Western Period. In fact, this period can be characterized by a bitter power struggle amongst a group of five consortial clans. These families sought to control the young, weak emperors with their court influence. Yet, as the emperors became distrustful of the rising power of the clans, they relied upon their eunuchs to defend them, often eliminating entire families at a time. During the Western Han, the Emperor was viewed as the centre of the universe. However, this philosophy slowly disintegrated under the weak, vulnerable rulers of the Eastern Han, leading many scholars and officials to abandon the court. Eventually, the power of the Han would completely erode, ending with its dissolution and the beginning of the period known as the “Three Kingdoms.”

Expressively modeled in a firm pose, standing to attention with tail erect, this horse of the Han Dynasty depicts the power and grace of the new breed of horse from the west known as the "Heavenly Horse of China." This horse is tall and large, head bridled and torso saddled as if it were ready to engage in battle. Remarkably, the saddle still bears traces of the original red pigment that completed the decoration. It intimidates us with its open mouth, teeth showing, visible tongue, upright ears, and flared nostrils. This horse has a powerful rounded neck with hogged mane reaching up between the ears and head. Its torso, proportionately smaller than its chest and neck, is delicately sculptured, and its long legs appear to be mounted on block-like hooves. The exaggeration of the chest and neck area draw attention to the horse who is strenuously amassing energy to release a bellicose cry, while the shape of the hooves not only gives it a feeling of solidity, but indicates that it was created to maintain an upright position in the tomb of its master.

During the reign of Emperor Wu, in order to improve the breed of horses in central China and strengthen the cavalry, the so-called "heavenly horse" was imported from the western region (present-day Middle East). Most horse sculptures found in Han Dynasty tombs portray horses with great strength and vigour. The way the horse is depicted speaks of the great love the Chinese have for the mythology and form of the horse. - (H.631)


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