Accepted Paper:

Guardians of the brave: horses in the Han imaginary  


Katheryn Linduff (University of Pittsburgh)

Paper short abstract:

The second century BCE granite statue of a horse standing over a barbarian stands at the grave of a brilliant Chinese General. This paper argues that it represents the protective instincts and cooperative relationship that develops between horses and riders, especially when trained for battle, and not triumph over the Xiongnu outsiders as is most often suggested.

Paper long abstract:

In 1914, Victor Segalen introduced a group of large granite sculptures located outside of present-day Xi'an and scattered below the peak of a burial mound of the brilliant young Han General Huo Baojing who died in 117 BCE. He wrote: "They look like a herd of stone animals, dead. There is really no knowing what to think of them." Among the pieces is a sculpted figure of a horse standing over the supine body of a bearded and trouser-wearing warrior carrying a recurved bow and pike. He represents a member of the Xiongnu, the enemy of the Han Chinese.

Most often explained as a representation of a fallen barbarian and symbol of triumph of the great Chinese general, that explains neither the prominence of the statue in its setting nor the image itself. When one considers this horse and its human companion in historical context, the function of sculptures in mortuary settings at the time, the role of the horse in the lifeways of the military patron and that of the conquered Xiongnu represented, the depiction gives agency to that relationship.

Corroborated through study of Chinese textual accounts about horses and their significance to Han imperial power and of recent archaeological discoveries that give prominence to horses in burial, this paper will make a case that it is the protective instincts and relationship that develop between horses and riders, especially when trained for battle, that is articulated here.

Panel P14
Understanding humans understanding horses: constructed and co-created cultures