Asian Review of Books

Book review by David Chaffetz who is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019). He is working on a new book about the horse in Asian history.

“When people talk of horses, no one ever thinks of China,” complains Yin Hung Young in the opening lines of The Horses of China. By “people” she may have in mind the kinds of people who compete in  dressage, follow thoroughbred racing or work on Kentucky stud farms, the “horsey” people to whom Young dedicates this book. While horses have had an immense impact on China’s ancient civilization, this super power in so many aspects of the modern world is an also-ran in the world of breeding and racing. Young delves into the many reasons why this is, and why this should not be the case. In this enjoyable-to-read and instructively-illustrated book, readers will learn that this chapter of China’s rise remains to be written.

Young discusses frankly the challenges facing equestrian sport and culture in contemporary China. In the west, as in Hong Kong and Macao, support for thoroughbred racing depends on legalized gambling. China’s efforts to promote racing on the mainland without the gambling that enlivened the race tracks of Pre-Revolutionary Shanghai and Wuhan have foundered. Competing in dressage is complicated by the fact that China does not maintain an internationally-certified, disease-free space for horses. The 2008 Olympic equestrian competitions had to be held in Hong Kong for this reason. Attempts to promote interest in amateur horsemanship, for example by building polo pitches besides luxury condominiums, has not led to the reincarnation of the hard-riding, mallet-wielding Tang Dynasty tai-tais. 

This deceleration of horse culture is a pity, for as Young points out, the horse has played a major role in Chinese culture. China has produced the world’s greatest equestrian art. In Western art depictions of horses rank as genre paintings, while in Chinese art they form part of the Chinese cultural canon. Some are recent discoveries, like the Han Dynasty-era Flying Bronze Horse of Lanzhou, discovered in 1969, that has become as readily recognizable as the Mona Lisa. Others, like Flying Night White, by Tang Dynasty painter Han Gan, have long been admired and commented on. This painting in New York’s Metropolitan Museum is as vibrant as any subject of Rembrandt or Caravaggio. In helping us appreciate these works Young’s sensitive writing really shines, as in this description of a granite sculpture:

carving granite is a subtractive process and cannot be corrected if mistakes are made. As such the sculpture is succinctly created; the lines and detail are reduced to a minimum. The fluidity of the line goes through the horse’s legs, hip and neck resulting in the almost tangible movement and intense impetus.

She provides alternative, thought-provoking explanations for why Chinese equestrian paintings are always riderless.

The Horses of China repeats traditional narratives about the horse in Chinese history that have been questioned by more recent research.  For example, current scholarship is skeptical about the traditional filiation of existing breeds with ancient horses. Young (and many other writers) describe modern horses as the product of interbreeding Arabs, Tarpans, Nisseans and Blood-Sweating Horses. It makes a nice story, but it probably isn’t true. While our scientific knowledge about ancient horse breeds is limited, we know that horse breeds can evolve rapidly, over a couple of centuries, influenced by their habitat and feeding. Young tells the dogged-eared story that today’s Akhal Teke breed is a descendant of the Blood Sweating Horses of Ferghana, prized by the Han Wudi Emperor in the 1st century BCE. In fact, the Tekes only began raising these horses in the 18th century, and the first stud book for the breed appeared only in 1917. Recent discoveries in horse genetics illuminate the biological relationship between modern and ancient horses, though admittedly this is an inchoate field, are not discussed in this book. In any case the notion that the Akhal Tekes are somehow related to the Blood Sweating Horses has powerful supporters. China’s President Xi Jingping has received gifts of such horses from their native Turkmenistan in a symbolic affirmation of his continuation of the diplomatic successes of the Han Wudi Emperor in Central Asia.

Young correctly acknowledges the legacy of the steppe in the creation of China’s equestrian traditions. The Tang Dynasty emerged out of a cultural fusion between the peoples of the Central Plans and those today’s Mongolia and Gansu. How else to explain the popularity of the game of polo among court lady’s of Chang’An? The dangers of this game, entailing playing bumper cars with other horses weighing 500 kilos at 60 kilometers an hour appealed, unsurprisingly, to China’s only official woman ruler, the Wu Zetian Empress.

The steppe legacy is what makes the future of horses in China problematic. Horses are creations of China’s dry, arid and high plateaus, and suffer from heat and humidity. In Hong Kong they enjoy, like expats, their summer air conditioning. The fragile ecosystems of these steppes and high-altitude meadows are succumbing to erosion and desertification. The declining demand for horses in transportation, herding, agriculture and security further threaten their survival. The population of horses has declined from 5.6 million to 3.7 million in the last decade.

Young is best at describing how horses live and the problems they face adapting to fast changing China. She is not optimistic about the change in attitudes and regulations that would allow China to rank in equestrian sports as it does in basketball.

This book is a nostalgic glance to the glorious past and a wish list of things that need to happen for China to reemerge as a premier equestrian power. One hopes that the people who decide these things will take Young’s earnest analysis as seriously as it deserves.

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