Upon death, many Chinese horsemen were buried with clay horse sculptures. The graves of the Shen-si and Ho-nan provinces have been particularly rich in horse figures from the T'ang period (618-906AD).
The sculptures found in the graves included horses without and with human figures.
The horses on which human figures are mounted occupy a special place. Their significance in relation to the dead may be ascertained from their position in the grave. They were found either as preceding or as following the coffin. This seems to allude to the fact that they were regarded as the mounted escorts of the occupant of the grave. The placement mimics the same manner as the living one, when on an official visit riding in a cart or in a sedan-chair, is accompanied by outriders in front and in the rear. As only persons of rank were granted this privilege, it seems certain that the same rule was observed in the grave, and that the clay statuettes of cavaliers appertain to dignitaries.
An interesting cultural and societal difference is that all of the riders of the figures from Shen-si are male, while there are women included in those from Ho-nan. Whether it is due to artistic license or representative of the truth, the women of Ho-nan are better seated in the saddle than the men of Shen-si.
Horseback-riding was a common exercise for women in the T'ang period and many female equestrians were widely represented by pictorial art. Thus, it is not surprising to see them represented in the clay horse figures from Ho-nan. Indeed, it is perhaps more surprising that they are absent from the art of Shen-si.
Some of the sculptures featured women wearing male attire, a girdled coat with triangular lapels, trousers, and boots. The saddle-cloth was formed by a panther-skin.
In others, the women were in the female dress of the time with a flat cap on their head from which a long ribbon floats down her back.
In all of the sculptures, the details of the horse are more realistic modeled than those of the female rider.
For instance, the muscles of the horse's head, the nostrils, jaws, teeth, and tongue are carefully modeled. Special attention was given to the horse's mane whether standing up straight or falling to one side.
One of the most impressive facets of these sculptures is the color applied through the use of lead glazes. I believe that the addition of color enhances each piece and brings out the definitions of the sculpture, especially in the dress of the female riders.
If you have a moment look at the selected artifacts from the Imperial China, the Art of the Horse in Chinese History exhibit at the Kentucky Horse Park International Museum of the Horse.
Horses capture the hearts and imaginations of humans because of their beauty, power, and grace. They have inspired artists and poets through the ages.
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