Western Han Terracotta Sculpture of a Horse and Carriage - H.717
Origin: China
Circa: 206 BC to 9 AD
Dimensions: 38.5" (97.8cm) high
Collection: Chinese
Style: Western Han Dynasty
Medium: Terracotta

The overextension of the labor 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 deity 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 subject, 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.

Expressively modeled in a firm pose standing at 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 caparisoned with an arrangement of ornamental harnesses and decorative bridal. Its mouth is held slightly ajar, teeth showing, and with upright ears and flared nostrils combine to imbue this work with the spirit of the steed. While the size and beauty of this horse are enough alone to impress, even more stunning is the complete carriage that this horse hauls behind him, comprised of two delicately modeled wheels, an axel rod, the carriage, and the neck yoke and poles.

Considering that this sculpture was discovered buried in a tomb alongside the deceased, we can assume that the individual for who this work was created was likely carried by horse and carriage during his life as he would continue to be in the afterlife, thanks to this terracotta effigy. It is fascinating to think that this device, a horse drawn carriage, here over two-thousand years old, continued to be the major means of transportation up until the 20th century; in some parts of the world, they still are. 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 vigor. The way the horse is depicted speaks of the great love the Chinese have for the mythology and form of the horse. This horse is an expression of that affection. - (H.717)