The dawn of equestrianism in China

BY LI WANXIN | 04-11-2024
Chinese Social Sciences Today

A chariot and horse skeletons from the Shang Dynasty, unearthed at the Yin Ruins in Anyang, Henan Photo: Ren Guanhong/CSST

Horses, with their imposing stature, remarkable swiftness, and enduring stamina, along with their deeply social and docile demeanor, stand out as remarkable creatures that have significantly influenced human history. While the Hittite civilization, Mesopotamia, and Ancient Egypt boast numerous portrayals and written records depicting horses and horse riding before the 7th century BCE, the scarcity of skeletal remains renders these historical accounts inadequate in shedding light on the initial introduction and utilization of horses. 

It wasn’t until the 20th century that significant breakthroughs in the study of horses occurred following the discoveries of sites like Sintashta, Arzhan, and Pazyryk on the Eurasian steppe. In the southern Urals of this vast grassland, the herdsmen were the first to cultivate the DOM2 horses, which proliferated both east and west, facilitating the widespread domestication of horses. However, horseback riding remained marginalized in regions dominated by agrarian civilizations.

Following the rise of cultures like Urartu and Luristan around the end of the 3rd millennium and beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE, which actively engaged in the cultivation of superior horses, horse-riding skills were formally adopted for warfare. Cavalries became a mainstay in the Urartu and Luristan armies. Following prolonged military engagements with the cavalries of Urartu and Luristan, Assyrian forces recognized the strategic advantages of cavalry, prompting them to develop their own cavalry units from around the mid-7th century BCE onwards. 

Introduced to China

In the east of the Eurasian steppe, chariots appeared within the Chinese Shang (c. 1600–1046 BCE) cultural sphere as early as the middle to late 14th century BCE. However, research into topics such as the origin and distribution of horses among the Shang people still exhibit notable gaps. No tangible evidence of horse usage or chariot remnants has been found at the early Shang archaeological sites to date. Nevertheless, archaeological studies have established that the later Shang period, also known as the Yin Ruins cultural phase, witnessed a significant influx of horses into northern China and even the Central Plains. The introduction of chariots and horses was likely associated with conflicts and exchanges between the Shang and northern ethnic groups. The expansion of the Shang Dynasty’s western boundaries through military endeavors brought them into confrontation with the northern tribes settled in the northeastern Shaanxi Plateau and the Ordos region of Inner Mongolia. Oracle bone inscriptions from the Yin Ruins also recorded matters concerning the Shang kings’ horse breeding, requisitions for horse tributes from vassals, and the use of chariots. Horse trade and riding skills were transmitted to the Shang through various forms of cultural exchange and trade activities.

Early traces of horse riding

Since the first millennium BCE, large graves emerged in the Eurasian steppe, yielding what academic circles term “the three components of steppe culture:” harnesses, weapons, and zoomorphic ornaments, which have become distinctive cultural features. These graves are collectively referred to as Scythian cultural remains. Active in areas stretching from the northern shores of the Black Sea and the Aral Sea to the Altai Mountains and the vicinity of Lake Baikal between the 9th and the 2nd centuries BCE, the Scythians thrived on horse breeding, horsemanship, and pastoralism.

The Arzhan tomb complex found in the eastern Eurasian steppe is currently recognized as one of the earliest known Scythian burial sites, forming the basis for dating the emergence of nomadic cultures. At that time, the Altai-Sajan mountain ranges were inhabited by several interrelated nomadic groups, connected through military activities and religious ceremonies, thus forming a large political entity.

The rise of horseback riding had a profound impact on the Eurasian steppe. The Arzhan culture, in particular, transformed the previous pattern of dispersed settlements among nomadic tribes and developed more organized tribal networks through practices such as building large graves and holding grand sacrificial ceremonies. This shift also led to the evolution of religious beliefs closely tied to horses and their riders. 

In the central and eastern regions of Mongolia, no relics closely associated with horseback riding have been discovered to date. However, at the easternmost end of the Eurasian steppe, corresponding in age to the Arzhan culture, the Upper Xiajiadian Culture (c. 1000–600 BCE) located in northeastern China has yielded numerous artifacts resembling those found in the Arzhan culture, serving as the evidence of the cultural exchanges within the eastern part of the Eurasian Steppe. These artifacts also suggest that the horseback riding culture of Arzhan and related religious beliefs had spread along the northern border of China by around the 7th century BCE.

The renowned Pazyryk burial ground is a significant discovery pertaining to the late Scythian culture in the eastern Eurasian Steppe, dating back to approximately the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE. With the advantage of horseback riding, the Pazyryk ethnic group established extensive connections with various neighboring cultures. Numerous tomb artifacts, including items imported from ancient Persia (modern-day Iran) and the Chu region in southern China, indicate significant interactions between the late Scythians and the Chinese mainland prior to the reign of King Wuling of Zhao (r. 325–299 BCE), who was known for his military reforms including the adoption of nomadic dress and cavalry tactics. Moreover, abundant animal-shaped plaques in the Pazyryk style have been unearthed in Inner Mongolia, serving as evidence of long-standing commercial and cultural exchanges between these areas.

Within China, by the Western Zhou Dynasty (c. 1046–771 BCE), the practice of interring horses and chariots as part of burials grew common, although direct evidence of horseback riding during this period remains elusive. During the early Spring and Autumn period, around the mid-8th century BCE, several cultural circles emerged successively in northern China, formed by semi-agricultural and semi-pastoral northern ethnic groups. Between 1958 and 1980, nine batches of tombs belonging to the Upper Xiajiadian Culture were excavated, mainly distributed in present-day Ningcheng and Jianping counties at the border junction between Inner Mongolia and Liaoning Province. According to the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, these tombs roughly date from the 9th to the 7th centuries BCE, corresponding to the dating of the Arzhan No. 1 and No. 2 graves. Among the unearthed harnesses were horse bits featuring “stirrup-shaped” rings. Animal figurines and gold foil decorations unearthed from Ningcheng bear stylistic resemblances to objects found in tombs across the South Siberian region, strongly suggesting that Scythian culture had expanded to northeastern China by the time.

The earliest evidence of horseback riding in China can be obtained from a bronze belt buckle excavated from Tomb No. 3 at Nanshangen, Ningcheng in 1961. This buckle depicts two riders galloping in opposite directions, with one chasing a hare in full flight. Though the decorative motif of “hunters chasing rabbits” is rare in China, it carries symbolic meaning within the Eurasian steppe cultures.  

Cultural spheres with distinctive steppe features emerged in the Warring States Period (475–221 BCE), concentrated primarily in the central and southern regions of Inner Mongolia. The Maoqinggou culture (4th century-3rd century BCE) yielded numerous animal-shaped bronze ornaments and weapons. Concurrently, the Taohongbala culture arose in the Ordos region. At the Taohongbala Tomb M1 in Honggin Banner of the early Warring States Period, nine horse skulls were unearthed, two of which still retained bronze bits attached, suggesting that they might have been the mounts of the tomb occupant.   

Rise of Chinese cavalry 

As can be deduced from the above text, North China and South Siberia had already established commercial exchanges by the 4th century BCE. The Zhao State [present-day northeastern and central Shanxi and southwestern Hebei] was renowned among the six states [the political geography of the Warring States Period was dominated by the seven warring states, or Qin and the other six states] for its possession of Kunlun jade [a precious stone from the Kunlun Mountains in Northwest China], horses from the Dai region [extending from present-day inner Mongolia to Shanxi and Hebei], and Qing-han [an ancient species possibly referring to wild dogs resembling jackals]. This indicates that Zhao played an important role in trading these commodities and animals, thus forging closer ties with northern ethnic groups. Prior to the reforms of King Wuling of Zhao, which introduced nomadic-style clothing and cavalry archery, it is reasonable to infer that cavalry had been already adopted among the states in northern China.

In the course of his advocacy of his diplomatic strategy to the six states [to create an alliance against the state of Qin], political strategist Su Qin mentioned varying numbers of cavalry troops among them, with both Zhao and Chu possessing ten thousand cavalry horses each, followed by Yan (six thousand) and Wei (five thousand). According to this account, during the reign of Marquess Su of Zhao (r. 349–326 BCE), Zhao had the highest cavalry count among the six states.

King Wuling of Zhao ascended to the throne in 276 BCE and embarked on an inspection tour of his northern borders, venturing into the domains of the Loufan [originating from the Beidi ethnic groups who lived north of the Chinese realms during the Zhou Dynasty] and Linhu [nomads who settled in forests in the east of the Ordos Plateau], and likely encountered the Maoqinggou and Taohongbala cultures. This tour led him to recognize the paramount importance of mounted archers in warfare. He specifically realized that the adoption of Hu (nomadic) attire would greatly facilitate the wielding of weapons on horseback, particularly for archery purposes.

In 307 BCE, the policy of adopting Hu clothing and mounted archery was implemented, and Zhao quickly benefitted from its cavalry force. It swiftly annexed the southern part of Inner Mongolia. The horses needed for Zhao’s cavalry were directly imported from areas such as Loufan and Linhu, and training grounds for cavalry units were established in newly conquered Yuanyang (southeast of present-day Hohhot, Inner Mongolia). 

The development of human civilization is inseparable from exchanges and fusions among various civilizations and cultures. The historical evolution of Chinese civilization is itself a chronicle of continuous convergence of diverse cultural elements. Over the past two or three decades, both Chinese scholars and their counterparts in Europe and America have shown great interest in archaeological findings from the Eurasian steppe region. The open and level terrain of the grasslands, combined with the nomadic lifestyle characterized by long-term migrations, have facilitated contact between Europe and Asia. Currently, archaeological materials related to horses during China’s Bronze Age and early Iron Age are becoming increasingly abundant. Through meticulous research on skeletal horse DNA, human osteology, detailed analysis of harness designs, and studies on pastoralist groups, horse breeding, and horse trade, these materials can provide richer information for examining the origins and development of China’s ancient horsemanship, which have great potential for contributing to the study of mutual learning and exchanges among human civilizations.

Li Wanxin is an associate professor from the Center for the Study of Chinese Archaeology at Peking University.