Silk Road in Rare Books

Narratives on cultural heritage along Silk Road with figures and photographs from rare books.

The Horses of the Steppe: The Mongolian Horse and the Blood-Sweating Stallions

The Arrival of the Heavenly Mare

天馬徠兮 從西極
經萬里兮 歸有徳
承靈威兮 降外國
渉流沙兮 四夷服[a]
The heavenly horses have arrive from the Western frontier
Having traveled 10,000 li, they arrive with great virtue
With loyal spirit, they defeat foreign nations
And crossing the deserts all barbarians succumb in their wake!
--The Shiji, Chapter 24 (“The Treatise on Music”)

This Ode to the Heavenly Horse sings of the Han Emperor Wudi’s (武帝) great joy upon obtaining horses of such a superior breed from the regions to the far west. Generally, when we talk about the Silk Road, we date the origins of the overland trade route to Zhang Qian’s (張騫) great 2nd century journey from China to Central Asia. However, there was another overland route that was in use long before that of the Silk Road. Known today as the Steppe Route, it reached all the way across the northern steppes of Central Eurasia along 40 degrees north latitude (stretching some 10 degrees north and south).

The steppe region of northern central Eurasia has been known from ancient times for its horse breeding and horse-riding nomad peoples. Trading goods and exchanging information on horseback, the Steppe Route served as a great northern overland highway connecting peoples and ideas. Objects originating in faraway places, such as a lacquer finished ear-shaped goblet with a later Han date inscription from China along with a woolen rug featuring Late Scythian-style griffin patterns were found at the Noyon-Uul (Noin-Ula) burial sites in Mongolia, which was excavated by the Russian explorer P. K. Kozlov. Objects such as these tell us much about the historical exchanges that took place along the ancient Steppe Route.

Horse Breeding and the Role of the Horse in Cultural Exchanges

When did humankind first begin to ride on horseback? Although the actual origin remains clouded in mystery, the domestication of the horse is thought to have first occurred on the Eurasian Steppe. This was then followed by the domestication of the sheep and cow.


All species of horses that exist today are thought to be either domesticated breeds, or domesticated breeds that have reverted back to being wild. N. M. Przhevalskii, a Russian explorer at the end of 19th century, reported the discovery of true wild horses in Kyrgyz. This species, the so called “Mongolian wild horse” (1)[b] is thought to be the ancestor of all domesticated horses, and the species is known for various significant characteristics that set it apart from domesticated breeds. These characteristics include the number of chromosomes (2n=66, whereas the number for an ordinary horse is 2n=64); a dorsal stripe and zebra stripes on the back; and a short mane that stands erect. Known today as “Przewalski’s Horse”(Equus przewalskii) the breed was named after the Russian explorer who discovered them.

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Approximately when were horses first domesticated? Among early evidence from ruins and relics, we find a harness excavated from Dereivka in the Ukraine, dating from around 4000 B.C., as well as bit-wear marks found on horse teeth excavated from the Botai ruins in northern Kazachstan, dating from around 3,500 – 3,000 B.C.[c] In addition, with the discovery of the wagon in Mesopotamia around 3,500 B.C., horses took over the role of oxen to be used for pulling work. In no time, use of the wagon spread, with many horse bones(2) discovered from the Anau Mounds(3) in Turkmenistan, excavated by R. Pumpelly. In addition, horses were discovered buried alongside chariots in the Yin site (殷墟) chariot-and-horse burial pit (車馬坑) discovered at Xiaomintun village (孝民屯) in An’yang, Henan Province, China), which date to around 1500 B.C.

Horse Domestication on the Steppe


The nomadic custom of herding sheep and goats on horseback is said to have spread on the steppes from around 1000 B.C. The number of cattle that can be managed on foot is incomparable to that which can be managed by horseback herding. Allowing simultaneous herding of hundreds of animals, the spread of horseback nomadism changed life on the steppes dramatically. With these changes in lifestyle, certain nomadic peoples living on the western outskirts of the steppe around the northern shores of the Black Sea began appearing in written records. Among these peoples, the Cimmerians or Scythians in the west, along with the Xiongnu (匈奴) or Wusun (烏孫) people of the East in particular start making their appearance felt. There are specific descriptions about these nomadic peoples in both Western and Eastern historical records, such as The Histories of Herodotus or the Accounts of the Xiongnu (Xiongnu-zhuan 匈奴伝) in Bangu’s (班固) Hanshu (漢書), which point out similarities in their culture and customs. In addition, petrographs(4) discovered on the steppe show engraved images of horseback herding, from which we can learn something of their customs at the time.

Below, we will consider several aspects of this relationship between horses and people along the Silk Road.

Horses in Daily Life

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Humans have long used domesticated animals for meat and milk. They have also used them as well as assets for trade. One may observe, such an instance, in a wooden slip(5) that M. Aurel Stein excavated at Niya in N.xv.109 site, in the southern part of the Taklamakan Desert. The document inscribed in ink(6), dating from more than 1000 years ago, in records how horses were used as collateral for loans[d]. In addition, a wooden slips found at the N.xv.324 site(7), documents the appearance of a horse with white spots[e]. Such records serve as evidence to show the way in which horses were handled as assets at the time in this area.

Horses and Power

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A mural which Stein obtained in Mazar-tagh(8) depicts a herd of horses with their saddles removed being led by a groom. Such images show the way in which horses were highly valued as livestock.

Being on a horse naturally raises one’s level of vision, and in order to maintain a large herd of horses, one would need to obtain a reasonable stretch of land. That is to say, a person would need wealth to own a large herd of horses. In this way, since ancient times, horses adorned with beautiful accessories and large herds of horses were considered symbols of power. In the Yan State cemetery of the Western Zhou period at Liulihe (Liulihe 瑠璃河 Xizhou 西周 Yanguo-mudi 燕国墓地) in Beijing, 121 tombs and 21 horse-and-chariot pits have been found. In these tombs, remains of fourteen horses and five chariots were found in the M1100 horse-and-chariot pit, which is thought to be attached to the great tomb, M1046. In addition, in the early Sychian era Arjan royal tomb site-- located in Russia’s Tuva Republic to the north of Mongolia-- there is a site where horses were sacrificially interred along with humans in burial . All the horses discovered in the grave were older than twelve years in age, and it is thought that the horses were buried in such arrangement whereby six were placed in the middle around which a total of 161 horses grouped according to their color were buried in groups of fifteen or thirty. Furthermore, uncovered relics such as a coin minted in Kushan Kingdom, which flourished in the. 1st--3rd century in northwest India, show a figure of a king on horseback. A mural in the Mogao Caves also shows a figure of a nobleman riding an extravagantly decorated horse (The Expedition of Zhang Yichao 張儀潮統軍出行図(9)). Such findings are all proof of how horses functioned to accentuate the position and power of their owners.

The Deification of Horses

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Throughout human history, horses have not only been associated with power but have also been taken up as sacred image. 4th century ceiling painting above the eastern Great Buddha of Bamiyan, Afghanistan, for example, depicts white horses drawing the chariot of Surya, the sun god. In ceiling painting(10) at the Kumtura Thousand Buddha Caves in Xinjiang, China, we also find a similar image of the sun god(10) which has horses drawing the sun god’s chariot. In a Sui era (隋) piece of silk fabric with pearl medallion patterns(11) found by Stein at the burial ground site of Astāna, we see a pair of winged horses facing one another under the influence of Sasanian art. Similar pearl medallion decorations have been found in Afrasiyab, in Samarkand, as well—a site also surveyed by Stein. The horse came to be deified as humans lived together and came to depend on the animals. They were in this way incorporated them into the worlds of gods or imaginatively displayed with wings in art, etc. These examples show us the way in which horses were understood by the peoples who lived in close proximity and depended so heavily on these animals for their livelihood. They were clearly set apart from that of livestock used for meat.

Emperor Wudi and the Blood-Sweating Horses

During the Former Han era, Emperor Wudi was under constant pressure from the Xiong-nu, a nomadic people living in an area north of China. Deciding to end the humiliating peace treaty, the empeor embarked on an aggressive policy of punitive force. For these ends, Wudi sent his envoy, Zhang Qian, to travel west of China to the territory of Yuezhi (月氏) in order to try and secure an ally who would attack the Xiongnu from the west while China attacked from the south under the leadership of the Han generals Wei Qing (衛青) and Huo Qubing (霍去病). Despite the rough journey, which included Zhang Qian being held captive by the Xiongnu for more than ten years, the emperor’s loyal envoy eventually continued on his journey throughout much of the lands of Central Asia, bringing back a vast amount of information. It was this information that enabled the Han to eventually gain a foothold in Central Asia. This is known as the “Zhang Qiang’s opening of the western frontier.”

Under the military leadership of Wei Qing and Huo Qubing, the Han gradually drove out the Xiongnu and achieved suzerainty in Central Asia. It was Zhang Qing who first reported to Emperor Wudi about the magnificent “Blood-sweating Horses” (Hanxue-ma 汗血馬) of Central Asia. These magnificent animals, believed to have descended from heavenly horses, were said to come from the kingdom of the Dayuan (大宛), in an area located in the Ferghana valley (Hanshu, “Xiyu zhuan”(12)). Desiring the horses, Wudi sent envoys with “a thousand pieces of gold and a golden horse,” to the Dayuan, but the king was unwilling to give any animals to the Han. Underestimating the chances of the faraway Chineseattacking Dayuan, the king killed the envoys, taking the treasures which they had brought. Upon hearing the news, Wudi sent over a hundred-thousand soldiers under command of Li Guangli (李広利) and the general of Ershi (貳師), and this force was to defeat the Dayuan. Thus Wudi came to possess the famed horses. His great joy at this was expressed in the poem “Ode of the Heavenly Horse” introduced at the beginning of this article. Up until this time, the Han had been given horses as tribute from the Wusun (烏孫) people. However, with the arrival of these more splendid horses from Dayuan, the Wusun horses came to be known as “the western-end horses (Xiji-ma 西極馬),” while the name “heavenly horses” came to be reserved for the horses of Dayuan (Shiji, “Dayuan-liezhuan”(13)).

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The expedition to obtain the blood-sweating horses of Dayuan was under the greatest effort, and the crushing victory over Dayuan resulted in the other nations of Central Asia to recognize Han power. After the defeat of the Dayuan the nations of Loulan (楼蘭), Anxi (安息), and Kangju (康居) began to send tribute to the Han, and this tribute included many kinds of new goods from Central Asia. The “Accounts of the Western Area (Xiyu zhuan)” appearing in the Hanshu describes this state of affairs as follows.

Reports of the heavenly horses and of grapes necessitated the opening of the roads to Dayuan and Anxi. From this, rare treasures such as brilliant jewels, turtle shell, rhinoceros horn, and kingfisher feathers filled the palace. The four splendid horses: Pusao (蒲梢), Longwen (竜文), Yumu (魚目), and the blood-sweating horses are kept within the palace gates; and elephants, lions, fierce dogs, ostriches kept in the outer gardens. Rare items of foreign lands arrive from all four directions.

Silk-horse Commerce

Hisao Matsuda who is a leading authority in Silk Road studies proposed the term “silk-horse commerce” in explaining the way in which trade in these two commodities served as the foundation for all the cultural and trade exchanges which occurred along the Silk Road. Although the role of the steppe peoples and their horses tend to be forgotten when we think of the “Silk Road,” in fact this represents the other great pillar that cannot be ignored in considering the history of cultural exchange along the Silk Road.

[a] Shiji (史記) vol. 24, “Yueshu (楽書)” number 2.
[b] Photograph taken at Beijing Zoo (December, 2007) by Yuko Tanaka.
[c] There are different theories on the dating of Dereivka. According to C14 measurement, the ruins may date as far back as 2000 B.C. Experimental research on marks of bit wear on horse teeth has been conducted mainly by D. Anthony of U.S.A.
[d] “去三月一日騎馬詣元城收責期行當”
[e] “白駁馬故素鞍勒”

To Learn More

English Edition : 2008-11-05
English Revised Edition : 2010-03-16
Japanese Edition : 2008-02-06
Author : Yuko Tanaka, Sonoko Sato, Makiko Onishi
Translator : Suijun Ra ; English adaptation by Leanne Ogasawara

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