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A Scholar's Ride
on the Celestial Horse
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She has served in the Air Force, worked on stage and in film, received a national award for her painting, earned her doctorate in oriental languages and cultures -- and most recently has written a book: Celestial Horses, a study in both word and picture of the role of the horse in Chinese culture, published in 2002, the Chinese lunar year of the horse.

"Just like a celestial horse, I always go after what I want with great tenacity," said Lin Ying, 46, whose book is based on her PhD studies with Charles Willemen, an academician with the Royal Academy of Sciences, Letters, and the Arts of Belgium.

One of the earliest mentions of the special place the horse holds in the imagination of the Chinese people comes from 2,000 years ago, when Zhang Qian, a Chinese political envoy in the Western Han Dynasty traveled far into the Western Regions where in Dayuan (an ancient country) he found the Dayuan steed that came to be regarded as the best horse of that time. Based on Zhang Qian's description, then emperor Hanwudi realized the military advantage of this so-called winged horse. Hanwudi mounted a large-scale offensive against Dayuan to capture a number of Dayuan horses. His Ode to the Heavenly Steed commemorates this successful campaign. Ancient Chinese bestowed the honor of deity on the Dayuan steed -- an image that ever since has galloped off into the Chinese art world as an embodiment of human struggles and aspirations. This is the "celestial horse" Lin attempts to interpret as it roams throughout Chinese history and culture.

"I have a special feeling toward horses," Lin said in a recent interview. On a visit to Beijing, she was about to depart for Paris on the occasion of the presentation of her book Celestial Horses to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) through the Chinese embassy in France.

Born in Beijing in 1957, Lin lives with her husband, a German banker, and their children, Julia, 9, and Lawrence, 7, in Antwerp, Belgium, where the whole family every week rides together at the Royal Horseback Riding Club. Her husband helped Lin with her research by visiting tens of libraries in Germany looking for information on oriental horse culture. Their house in Belgium is decorated with horse designs, and Lin is also a loyal consumer of Hermes dress decorated with celestial horses. Her husband's belt buckle is shaped like a heavenly horse, while their daughter Julia's shoe buckle resembles a hoof. Lin said that in her husband's eyes, the horse is a good partner for body-building and relaxation; in her son's and daughter's eyes, the horse is a good friend. But in her own eyes, the horse is the incarnation of art, representing a sort of spirit, and brimming with poetic sentiment in its every move and act.

Lin also has a sense of humor about the influence of the horse on her life and family: In 1998 Lin's mother arrived in Belgium to see her daughter's family. At the invitation of her son-in-law, she visited the horseback riding club where she came across Lin after a ride groom her horse. Later, Lin said, her mother told her: "You have never given my grandson and granddaughter as good a bath as you did to that damned horse!"

Having earned her master's degree in fine arts at the National Hoger Instituut en Koninklijke Academie voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp in 1991, Lin said she wanted to continue her studies at the doctoral level by looking in a systematic way at the influences of the horse in Chinese culture.

To accomplish her goal, Lin first had to get beyond the dog, the animal first assigned to her by her PhD advisor as part of a cooperative subject on dog culture (dogs are popular pets among many Europeans) sponsored by the University of Ghent and the University of Liege. Professor Willemen urged Lin to give this topic careful consideration. However, Lin persisted in her own vision and persuaded her advisor to agree that she should work on her favorite celestial horse.

Of the some 300 famous "celestial horses" from ancient to contemporary times in China that grace her book, Lin Ying can point to one favorite -- a jade sculpture some 7 cm high (about 2.75 inches) and 8.9 cm (about 3.5 inches long) from the Western Han Dynasty entitled, "A Feathered Immortal Rides on a Celestial Horse." Discovered in 1996 in the vicinity of Emperor Zhao's tomb in Xianyang, Shaanxi Province, the horse and rider for Lin evoke the image of transcending the world to attain enlightenment.

"This piece is of white jade. The horse has wings and is standing on a base decorated with a cloud pattern, as if travelling through the sky. On the horse's back is a feathered immortal with long ears, pointed mouth, long hair that flows to the back, and wings on his back. It is an extremely rare jade ware during the West Han Dynasty."

Other illustrations, accompanied by Lin's text, in Celestial Horses include representations of primitive horse worship in the antediluvian age and the Shang Dynasty and Zhou Dynasty, Qinshihuang's (the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty) terracotta warriors and horses, the celestial horse of the Han Dynasty, the Drawing of A Hundred Steeds of the Qing Dynasty, Xu Beihong's galloping horses and Jia Haoyi's (a contemporary Chinese master of fine arts who is good at sketching horses) freehand brushwork paintings of horses.

Celestial Horses



By Lin Ying

Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, China

(央视国际 [CCTV], edited and translated by Sara Grimes and Shao Da for china.org.cn, May 17, 2002)

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