The horse in China: history, culture, legend and sport of kings (the Polo)

The horse in China: history, culture, legend and sport of kings (the Polo)

For those few who still don't know me, my mother and I love horses and they have been very important to us in order to overcome life's difficulties. That's the reason why we’ve created the Horse Museum Foundation and went to China.

Because of the battle that China is now fighting against the virus, we have decided to dedicate to it a space in our Museum and tell the story of the relationship between China and the horse. After all, the history of the horse started in Asia, where they have been tamed first, harness have been created, polo has been played for millennia and even a zodiac sign is dedicated to the horse.

And ideally we would like that a horse could help our Chinese friends right now, as it helped us in our difficult times.

The Horse in ancient Chinese culture

The first historical evidence of its domestication dates back more than 5,000 years ago, when Mongolian breeders began training Tarpan horses.

In ancient China the history of horses is intertwined with legend and their importance has been so profound as to irreversibly change the history of China and Central Asia. It is important to remember, in fact, that the foundation and success of the Chinese Empire is due precisely to the adoption of cavalry.

"Horses are the foundation of military power, the great resource of the State”.

This phrase of General Ma Yuan (14 BC - 49 AD), a famous horses’ connoisseur, brilliantly sums up the vital importance and esteem with which horses were treated in China during the Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD).

The supply of good war stallions, in fact, was considered essential to fighting the Xiongnu nomadic populations, located in today's Mongolia. These nomads were considered so dangerous and destructive that the Qin dynasty (221 BC - 206 BC) had already begun the construction of the Great Wall to protect China from their attacks.

Relations between the early Chinese dynasties and the Xiongnu were complex, with repeated periods of military confrontation and intrigue alternated with exchanges of tributes, trade and marriages combined for political purposes.

Another important testimony of technology, military life and culture at the time of the Qin Empire (221-206 BC) is the world-famous Terracotta Army, part of the largest ancient tomb complex in the world: the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China.

The archaeological excavations of this site, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987, and considered the Eighth Wonder of the World, have so far brought to light the statues of more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 wagons and 670 horses.

Horses and trade

During its long history, China has often had to face periods in which in its vast territory the number of horses was scarce or not of great quality. To compensate for this lack, the Chinese have often used their flourishing markets and their most excellent goods as a source of exchange, bartering them for horses.

One of the main reasons for the opening of the so-called "Silk Road", during the Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD), was precisely the search, in the western regions, for bigger and sturdier horses. During this period even the invaluable Jade, of which we will tell in one of our future articles, was used to acquire better quality horses.

Even Tea was used as a bargaining chip, since the beginning of the Tang dynasty (618 - 907 AD). The history of the "tea for horses" market is very famous and we also talked about it recently in one of our articles on the The Way of Tea and Horses. The Tibetans needed tea to burn the fat of their rich diet and the Chinese needed their horses to fight the Mongols.

Horses, however, were not only considered a wealth, but also a strong social status symbol for the Chinese elite and one of the most represented subjects in the art of imperial China.

The legend of the “Celestial Horses”

Emblems of nobility, elegance, speed and power, the horses have been enriched over time with supernatural values ​​shrouded with legendary chronicles.

Among the most famous myths, there is the one of the "Celestial Horses", extraordinary steeds, capable of transporting those who rode them in the lands of the immortals. The legend, born in China in the early centuries, around 120 BC, spoke of a race of magical horses, slender and imposing, which ran faster than the wind, were invincible in war and came directly from paradise.

Their trademark: tiny drops of blood on the mantle instead of sweat to testify to their divinity.

The Legend tells that an imperial official said he witnessed the birth of a supernatural horse in the waters of a river in northern China and composed a poem to celebrate the event, in which the horse was put in close relationship both with the God of the Heaven and the Emperor himself, to form a vessel of cosmic power.

According to some scholars, in fact, the horse assumes in this sense a religious importance, like a sacred vehicle, that can raise the one who possesses it to the immortal state, residing in heaven alongside the God.

Furthermore, popular beliefs considered the horse a close relative of the dragon, being both originated from the water and both capable of reaching the supernatural world of the immortals.

The spreading of Polo, the kings’ sport

The hypotheses on the origins of the equestrian pole are many and very different from each other. Still, all lead to a single geographical area: Asia.

Polo seems to be one of the oldest sports in the world and its origins can be traced back to the area between China and Mongolia. Some sources date the first official game back to 600 BC., played between Persians and Turkmen.

According to this theory, the movements and the style of the game should derive directly from the hunting in which the Mongols chased the prey on horseback and hit it to death with a stick.

There are several theories on the origin of the name: the most accredited derives the term Polo from the Tibetan word "pulu", or ball. Instead, another hypothesis interprets pulu, as the name of horse races in Persia. Finally, a third translates the same term with the willow, the tree with which the game ball was made.

To reinforce the idea that Polo is the sport of kings is the legend according to which even the Mongolian king Genghis Khan loved to play this game: it is probable, but not sure, that its diffusion in China took place thanks to him starting in 1211.

In China Polo became so crucial that in order to access the most important public positions it was necessary to be, also, skilled Polo players.

From China Polo spread to India. Here too it was very successful, especially among the Indian Kings, the Maharaja. Thanks to the Maharaja, Polo managed to succeed also in Europe, and from there all over the world: in the eighteenth century, in fact, the British soldiers who arrived in India thanks to the colonial expansion got familiar this peculiar sport and were fascinated by it.

The horse in the Chinese horoscope

The Horse (马) is also one of the twelve zodiac signs of Chinese astrology, the seventh.

According to tradition, those born in the years of the Horse have a strong aesthetic sensitivity, a great flair and a brilliant creativity. They have a deep passion for art in general, and an innate talent, which can also turn into a real profession, especially in the field of literary criticism and photography.

They are very self-confident, and for this reason they are not only comfortable in any situation, but also manage to be admired and appreciated by the most varied people they meet.

At work, in social life and in love they seek elegance and refinement, have great allure and possess charm: they live passionate and unpredictable relationships, as they have fun surprising and wrong-foot their partner.


To China have been attributed the most essential innovations in equestrian history: the invention of the bite, the harness and the saddle, probably as early as the third millennium BC. Also the invention of the stirrup is Chinese, in the second century BC.

The stirrup remained an important advantage of Asian cavalry (of horse archers in particular) over European cavalry until well beyond the ninth century.

The surname Ma, that is "Horse", ranks 19th among the more than 22,000 surnames existing in China. Therefore it represents a very common surname: in fact, the first 20 surnames are carried by more than half of the population (which is around one billion and four hundred million people!).

The use of the horse, in Chinese symbolism, is widespread. For example, the scene of one or more monkeys on the back of a horse expresses the wish to obtain a high degree "hou" with great rapidity "ma shang". The paintings or statues with this representation are given as a wish for a dazzling career.

The history of the horse and China is not over and we will continue it. Still, in the meantime, we hope that the horse will be able to help all of us, we love these free figures, and we admire their elegance.

Written by
Maria Vittori

Enterprising girl, president of the Horse Museum Foundation and young agricultural entrepreneur, with a march in pui' the knowledge of the Chinese language, actively collaborates in the group...