More than 2,100 years ago, an official named Bao Lichang was relegated to the remote region known as Dunhuang in today's Northwest China's Gansu Province. While herding horses for the government, he noticed an outstanding steed among a herd of wild horses, who often came to drink at a small lake.
With mud and grass, Bao shaped a man of his stature holding a rope in the hand. He put the sculpture by the lake and it frightened the wild horses at first.
Gradually, the horses discovered the sculpture couldn't hurt them, so they came to drink water as usual.
One day, Bao himself held the rope by the lake. Before the horses realized what was happening, Bao had put a tight rope around the neck of the fine steed.
Bao presented the horse to Emperor Wudi (who reigned 140-87 BC) of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24), saying the steed had arisen mysteriously from the lake. Emperor Wudi rejoiced over the belief the horse was a token from heaven to acknowledge his achievements, and restored Bao Lichang to his original post.
The horse gained many names in history, one of which was "Zhuifeng Zhima(Horse to Catch the Wind).''
After reading the story in "The Book of Han,'' one might be curious to see what a fine steed the horse must have been. There is one way to catch a glimpse of this ancient horse: from the special coins known as maqian, or "horse coins.''
Originated from the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the horse coin wasn't a real currency. In a poem by famous poet Li Qingzhao (1084-1151), she said playing the horse coins was a favourite past-time for women.
Although many literary figures noted the horse coins, few made clear how the coins were played. Today, collectors believe the horse coins had either been the pieces on chessboards or the counters for gambling.
As this year's Spring Festival marks the beginning of the Year of Horse on the Chinese lunar calendar, researchers Jian Ning and Wang Liyan of the National Museum of Chinese History probed the features and stories of the horse coins in an article on the "China Cultural Relics Newspaper.''
The horse coins were made of metal, such as bronze, red metal or copper. In some rare cases, ivory and horn were used.
Ranging from 2.3 to 3.5 centimetres in diameter, the most common horse coins measure 3 centimetres in diameter. The central hole of the round coins can be circular or square.
The horses moulded on the coins vary in position: lying on the ground taking a nap; turning the head and neighing; or galloping forward with the tail rising high.
It's a pity all of the horses' saddles are put at the central hole of the coins, forbidding present people to learn more about the ancient horse culture, the researchers said.
Jian and Wang said that among all the horse coins, those made in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) are the finest. They were made from high-quality metal, the moulding was very careful, and the Chinese characters and the horses' images are vivid and powerful.
Two representative examples of the Song Dynasty are marked with "Yan jiang Yue Yi (General of the Yan Kingdom Yue Yi),'' and "Zhao jiangTe Le (General of the Zhao Kingdom Te Le).''
Horse coins made in the following centuries were obviously inferior to the ones in the Song Dynasty, while the contemporary coins are unworthy of collection, said the researchers.
The design of the horse coins can be put into several categories. One has the coin front printed with the name of a famous general and the kingdom or dynasty he had lived, with the other side of the coin depicting the general riding his horse.
Another common type puts the names of the general and his horse on one side of the coin, with the general riding the horse on the other side.
For example, the coin "Wu'an Fei Lian'' is about General Bai Qi of the Qin Kingdom during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) and his steed named "Fei Lian.'' Bai conquered the Kingdom of Chu in 278 BC, and King Zhaogong of Qin granted him the title "Wu'an Jun (Duke Wu'an).''
The third type of horse coin has the Chinese characters sanjion one side and the picture of a horse on another. Sanji was the title of an official who could ride the horse to guard the emperor during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220).
In the Three Kingdoms Period (AD 220-265), the title became sanji changshiand the duty also changed into accompanying the emperor, providing advice and keeping the emperor from committing mistakes. This title was carried on for some 1,000 years and finally abandoned during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).
The last category has the horses' names on the front side and their pictures on the other. The steed that Bao Lichang caught in the Western Han Dynasty was thus memorized with the characters zhuifeng zhima (horse to catch the wind) and the horse was depicted as one that is running with the tail rising high.
The horse coins almost include all of the famous steeds in the Chinese history. For instance, in the early Western Zhou Dynasty (c. 11th century-771 BC), King Muwang once rode on a chariot with eight fine steeds.
The names of the eight horses had three different versions in history, all of which can be found in the horse coins.
When Ying Zheng, king of the Qin, put an end to the Warring States Period and united China into the first powerful feudal empire Qin (221-207 BC), he chose seven best steeds from thousands of military horses who had fought in the battles.
Among the horses, the name zhuifeng(catching the wind) was applied to the wild horse Bao Lichang found some 80 years later.
Emperor Wudi, of the Western Han Dynasty, loved horses even more, and that could be the reason why Bao Lichang could regain his post when he presented the horse "Catching the Wind'' to his emperor.
Still, this was not the best horse in the eyes of Emperor Wudi.
To improve the quality of his horses, Emperor Wudi searched for fine stallions outside the empire. To get the mysterious hanxue(sweating blood) horse, he even staged a three-year war against a small kingdom located in today's Uzbekistan.
While the emperor's army caught some 3,000 hanxue horses, only 1,000 survived the long trip. They gained unrivalled care at the imperial stable. Many legends and historical records say, when such horses ran, they would have crimson sweat just like blood.
Some modern scientists attribute the blood sweat to the parasites which harmed the tissues beneath the skin of the horses.
After strenuous movement, the blood would flow out with the sweat.
Another set of famous steeds are connected with Emperor Taizong (Li Shimin) of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907).
While fighting to establish the Tang Dynasty with his father, Li Yuan (reigned AD 618-627), Li Shimin (reigned AD 627-649) found six horses.
In AD 636, he asked famous painter Yan Liben (AD 601-673) to portray the six horses.
Sculptors, using the portraits as models, made six stone sculptures which guarded the Zhaoling imperial tomb for more than 1,200 years. The sculptures thus gained the well-known name of "Zhaoling liujun(six steeds of the Zhaoling imperial tomb).''
In 1914, when China was in the warfare engaged by the warlords after the fall of the feudal Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), some collectors from the United States bribed the warlords in today's Shaanxi Province and took away two of the Zhaoling steeds, named "Saluzi'' and "Juanmaogua.''
The two stone horses are kept in the museum of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The remaining four sculptures are treasured in the Shaanxi Museum in Xi'an. While the sculptures are kept thousands of miles away, Chinese horse-lovers and collectors can find all the six steeds on the horse coins.
From these horse coins, modern people can feel the deep love of the ancient Chinese for their horses.
"Horses are people's friends,'' said the researchers. "They've contributed a lot to us. We shouldn't just remember this point on the Year of Horse.''.
( China Daily March 25, 2002 )