A horse on a flying swallow?

By HUANG JINQIAN / 04-15-2021 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The Han Dynasty bronze galloping horse displayed at Gansu Provincial Museum on June 17, 2020 Photo: CNSPHOTO

Bronzeware is one of the most important categories of China’s cultural relics. The Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties, between the 21st and 3rd centuries BCE, marked the peak of China’s Bronze Age civilization. Massive quantities of unearthed and handed-down antique bronze artifacts have been catalogued in China. Hence, the study of ancient bronzeware and their inscriptions is essential to understanding ancient China’s culture and history.  
A horse on a flying eagle
A short time ago, many WeChat accounts reported or reposted a new discovery about an unearthed bronze galloping horse from the Leitai Tomb M1 of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) in Wuwei City, Gansu Province. The discovery claims that the bronze galloping horse, which is named “Galloping Horse Treading on a Flying Swallow,” should be renamed “Galloping Horse Treading on a Flying Eagle.” According to Ning Qiang, a professor from the School of History at the Capital Normal University, the bird under the hoof of the bronze horse might not be a swallow but an eagle. Eagles were viewed as a symbol of power by the Xiongnu people, the nomadic pastoral people who were constantly in war with the Han regime. The eagle-topped gold crown from the 4th-5th century BCE, unearthed in a Xiongnu burial site in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, is a typical example. Meanwhile, the bronze horse appears to be modeled on trained military horses bred in the Hexi Corridor during the Han Dynasty. The bronze galloping horse may have the same symbolism as the “Horse Stepping on a Xiongnu Soldier,” a Han-Dynasty stone sculpture in front of the tomb of General Huo Qubing (140–117 BCE) in Shaanxi Province—both commemorate the generals’ victories over the Xiongnu army. 
Ning believes that the bird underneath the horse is not a swallow, but an eagle, as a swallow would have a deeply forked tail. There is certain logic to this. Images of eagles on China’s excavated cultural relics show that eagle is usually characterized by a hooked beak, large wings, and a relatively short tail that is not forked. Considering these characteristics, the bird that the horse treads on is, as Ning asserted, more like an eagle than a swallow. 
According to Ning, the Xiongnu were a constant threat to the regimes of the Qin (221–207 BCE) and Han dynasties. The M1 Leitai Tomb dates to the late Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220), and this tomb belonged to a general whose surname was Zhang. This general might have rendered distinguished service in the battle against the Xiongnu army. Therefore, Ning believes that the bronze galloping horse, together with a large group of bronze figurines of soldiers, horses, and chariots, excavated from the Leitai Tomb, might have been made to celebrate this triumph over Xiongnu. 
Date of the bronze horse
The bronze galloping horse was unearthed in 1969. Its name and meaning have long been a subject of debate. Guo Moruo (1892–1978), one of the leading historians of 20th-century China, named it “Galloping Horse Treading on a Flying Swallow.” Later, several names were given to this bronze artifact, including the “Bronze Galloping Horse.”
Considering the features of the bird under the horse’s hoof, the historical context of the Eastern Han era, and the fact that it was common for images unearthed from tombs dated to the Han and Wei (220–265) periods in the Hexi Corridor to portray real life, Ning’s speculation seems to be more reliable, if the Tomb M1 indeed dates to the Eastern Han Dynasty. 
However, it’s necessary to correctly identify the age of the bronze horse first. The date of the bronze galloping horse has been highly contested since the statue was discovered in Tomb M1. There are two different theories about the potential date of Tomb M1. Some believe Tomb M1 was constructed during the Eastern Han period, while others consider it a tomb of the Western Jin period (265–316), which was founded later than the Eastern Han. Although a section of Tomb M1 was looted, the tomb was not severely damaged, and archaeologists continued to excavate a rich collection of cultural relics from this tomb. Together with historical archives, these cultural relics make it possible to estimate the date of this tomb. 
Based on the layout and structure of Tomb M1, and unearthed artifacts such as wuzhu coins (a type of Chinese cash coin first produced during the Han Dynasty and remained in circulation for hundreds of years until the Tang Dynasty), scholars including He Shuangquan, Wu Rongzeng, Sun Ji, and Guo Yongli, dated the tomb to the Western Jin era. “In terms of relative dating, [the tomb] was probably constructed between the late Jin and the early Former Liang (318–376) periods, or the period after year 313,” said He Shuangquan. Wang Keshe, deputy director of the Research Department of Gansu Provincial Museum, identified four silver stamps discovered in Tomb M1 as the stamps of “Anxi General,” “Zhenxi General,” “Cheqi General,” and “Piaoqi General” (these were honorary titles of generals in ancient China). The four stamps dated from the late Eastern Han to the Jin Dynasty. Among all the historical figures who were linked to the city of Wuwei (historically referred to as Liangzhou), only Zhang Gui (255–314), founder of the Former Liang regime, had the aforementioned four titles. Therefore, the general buried in Tomb M1 might be Zhang Gui, which would make it likely that the tomb was constructed in 314, the year of Zhang’s death. If the funeral objects date to the same period as the tomb, the bronze galloping horse would be an artifact from the Western Jin period, which invalidates all the speculations based on the precondition that Tomb M1 dates to the Eastern Han era.
Heavenly horse catching a crow 
It’s necessary to consider the date and historical context of the tomb when rethinking the meaning of the bronze galloping horse. According to Cao Dingyun, a research fellow from the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the bird that the bronze horse steps on is a crow, which symbolizes the sun in some Chinese myths or legends. Similar images can be found in an ancient stone relief, underground in the Longyou Grottoes of Zhejiang Province. In the center of the relief is a galloping horse. On the bottom left of the horse is a giant bird, and a semicircle is found to the top right of the horse. A character “yue” (the moon) is inscribed in the semicircle.  Therefore, the bird might be a crow, which represents the sun, in accordance with the mythical belief that the moon should be paired with the sun. Moreover, the horse running between the sun and the moon might be a heavenly horse. Evidence also lies in the silk manuscript Xiangma Jing (Classic of Evaluating a Horse), which was found in the Han Dynasty Mawangdui site in Hunan Province. Xiangma Jing mentioned a fast breed of horse named “Dai Wuya” (catching crows, literally). This name was derived from the mythical heavenly horse. Hence, among all views about the bronze galloping horse, the “Heavenly Horse Catching a Crow” seems highly reasonable. 
The study of the bronze galloping horse shows that dating antique bronzeware should be based on rigorous archaeological methods including classification and typology. Archaeologists should estimate the approximate date of an antique object before further studying it, said Li Xueqin (1933–2019), one of the most eminent and important Chinese historians.
Huang Jinqian is a professor from the School of History and Culture at Lanzhou University.