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Heroic Horses of Ages Past

Horses that galloped onto the history books


Heroic Horses of Ages Past

Horses that galloped onto the history books


Animals don’t always get an easy ride in China, (unless it’s a panda, those lazy fur balls can do no wrong) but if you were a horse in ancient China, life wasn’t bad. Ever since their domestication in northern China around 5,000 years ago, they have been an integral icon of Chinese culture.

In the anthropomorphism stakes, they have a pretty good reputation. They are believed to be loyal, understanding and brave, and have a close combination with their owners. They reflected the social status, wealth, and even power of their owners, so they didn’t tend to get mistreated. In famous heroic romances, a powerful warlord always had a  famous and extraordinary steed to match. There is even a Chinese saying which goes, “宝马配英雄 (a swift horse deserves a real hero for an owner)”.

So without further ado, here are a few heroic horses of ancient China.

The “Eight Horses” of Emperor Mu of Zhou 穆王八骏

As early as the Shang Dynasty (1600-1100 BC), horses and the vehicles they powered were entombed with their masters so as to be with them in the next life. During the Western Zhou Dynasty (1100-771 BC), military might was measured by the number of war chariots available to a particular kingdom.

Emperor Mu, of the Western Zhou Dynasty, was widely known for his famous “Eight Horses (八骏)”. It was said Emperor Mu had eight precious horses driving one carriage for him. Each of the horses had a beautiful name, like “faster than light (超光)” and “on the cloud(腾雾)”, depicting their unbelievable speed.

Though legends about Emperor Mu evolved into many different versions, his horses remained a consistent subject for many poets and painters. Even today, when you enter a living room of a Chinese house, it’s possible to see a picture of eight horses hanging on the wall.

Xiang Yu’s Wuzhui Horse 乌骓

Wuzhui Horse was the steed belonging to the “King of Western Chu” Xiang Yu (232- 202 B.C.). Xiang Yu was said to be a military genius, known in some quarters as some kind of unbeatable killing god. Wuzhui was said to be entirely jet black, save for his four white hoofs, so people called it “Black horse stepping on snow”. Wuzhui was believed to be the best war horse at that time. After being tamed by Xiang Yu, the horse never left him, even after Xiang Yu was defeated by Liu Bang in “The Contest between Chu and Han” and committed suicide by the Wujiang River.

Before his death, Xiang composed a famous poem called “The last song (垓下歌)”, with a line saying “I could lift a mountain by might; but now my time is gone and Wuzhui won’t run (力拔山兮气盖世,时不利兮骓不逝)”. The poem was so popular that the name Wuzhui is still famous among Chinese.

It was said before his death that Xiang asked a soldier to take Wuzhui onto a boat and leave. But just after Xiang killed himself, Wuzhui neighed loudly and jumped into the river from the boards on the riverbank.

Four Famous Horses in the Three Kingdoms 三国四大名驹

If you ask a Chinese individual to name some famous horses in history, it is most likely that he would throw light on the Three Kingdom Period (220-280), an age producing hundreds of heroes and swift horses. Almost every hero had a precious horse. Thanks to the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the horses of those mighty heroes are no less popular than their owners. Among them the most celebrated four were called the “Four Famous Horses in the Three Kingdoms”.

The Red Hare 赤兔

The Red Hare was mentioned in Lü Bu’s biographies in the historical texts Records of the Three Kingdoms and Book of the Later Han. He was described as very powerful, and capable of “galloping across cities and leaping over moats”. There was even a famous saying, “人中吕布,马中赤兔 (Lü Bu is the most masculine of men, just like Red Hare is the best of horses).”

Being a romance tale, the horse had a pretty dramatic story. Because Lü Bu was reckless and pretty far from loyal, many people thought he didn’t deserve such an amazing horse. So in the classic novel, the Red Hare was given to Guan Yu (another famous military general and the ideal incarnation of loyalty and righteousness in Chinese culture) after Lü Bu was defeated and died. Then, the Red Hare spent the remainder of its life in the battlefield in company with Guan. After Guan finally died in the battle in Maicheng, it was captured and presented to Sun Quan, the lord of the state of Wu, but then it starved itself to death, which was cited as proof of its loyalty to Guan.

Dilu Horse 的卢

Dilu belonged to Liu Bei, the lord of the state of Shu. When Liu Bei first got this horse from Liu Biao, others told him that there was a tear notch under its eyes with white spots on its forehead, which was a sign that it would obstruct its owner. But Liu Bei didn’t mind and continued to ride the horse.

On one occasion, Liu Bei’s enemy set a trap at a grand banquet. When Liu Bei sensed subterfuge, he escaped on Dilu. Liu Bei was chased by the enemy to Tan Stream. He attempted to ride across the stream, but Dilu fell forward in the water. Liu Bei whipped the horse and exclaimed, “Dilu! Dilu! Today you obstruct me!” Dilu suddenly rose above the surface and leapt  across the stream to the opposite bank, leaving the enemies behind and saving Liu Bei. Though Dilu was not as legendary as Red Hare Horse, it still processed a certain place in people’s heart for coming through for Liu Bei at his time of need.

Shadow-runner and Yellow-hoof Thunder 绝影和爪黄飞电

The other two famous horses were Shadow-Runner and Yellow-Hoof Thunder, both steeds of Cao Cao, the head of the state of Wei. Shadow-Runner gained its name because it ran extremely fast, people said even its own shadow couldn’t catch it. In a battle against Zhang Xiu, Cao was trapped. Shadow-Runner carried him, bolting from enemies who were drawing tight around him. The horse was shot with three arrows but still kept running, and finally saved Cao. But it didn’t survive that battle.

Yellow-Hoof Thunder had a beautiful appearance, with all its body pure white and only the four hoofs being a shade described as yellow. Because of its handsome figure and special aristocratic charm, Cao usually rode it when he returned with a victory after a battle.

The Six Horses in the Zhao Mausoleum 昭陵六骏

Li Shimin (598-649), the Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty, also deeply loved horses. During his early life, in the military, there were six war horses serving him in his six milestone battles. All the six war horses made huge contributions to Li’s victories and carried severe wounds. In honor of these horses, Li built six sculptures for them, located in his mausoleum in Shaanxi Province.

The six sculptures were collectively called “Six Horses in the Zhao Mausoleum (昭陵六骏)”. Each of them has a distinctive gesture, recording their brave image in the battlefield. The sculptures are regarded as ancient Chinese art treasures. But they were broken by smugglers in 1914 and two of them were shipped out. Now four of the stoneworks are exhibited in the Stele Forest museum of Xi’an, and two are in the Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania, USA.

To some extent, in the eyes of Chinese people, horses are more than mere animals. They are also the most common metaphor for talented people. Horses were often mentioned in conjunction with a man named “Bole”.  Bole, who lived in the Spring and Autumn period (770-476B.C.), was so famous for his ability to judge horses, that his name essentially became a metaphor for a good judge of horses, or even more.

When Chinese people say Bole, chances are that they are referring to a good judge of talents. In the Tang Dynasty, Han Yu, a famous essayist and poet, voiced a famous line in his article, reading “千里马常有,而伯乐不常有 (It is easy to find a swift horse, but it is hard to meet a Bole)”, stating that people with unrecognized talents usually expect someone can detect and value them.

Successful people always express their gratitude to the person who first find and recognizes their talent. In China, you will probably hear people say “Thank my boss! He is my Bole!”

Potentially a smart move, as it also indicates that this successful person is a pretty swift horse.

Cover image from Pexels