Here Come the Heavenly Horses

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 August, 2008, 12:00am

Oi Ling Antiques Aug 12-Aug 26

Mindful of Hong Kong's Olympic equestrian events kicking off on Saturday, horses in all forms and sizes have been invading museums and galleries alike. The latest herd arrives at Oi Ling Antiques next week in 'Here Come the Heavenly Horses', featuring antiques and related accessories, some from private collections.

Gallery owner Chiang Oi-ling says the exhibition's main purpose is to explore the varied depictions of the horse throughout history.

Recent archaeological finds of carriage tracks in China date back more than 6,000 years. The Chinese are credited with inventions such as the stirrup and horse collar. 'To commemorate one's contribution to the country, the emperor would present them with a horse,' says Chiang.

Crucial in warfare and in transportation, the horse was essential. 'In ancient times, a good horse policy meant a strong country,' she says.

During the Han dynasty (206BC-AD220), Emperor Han Wudi imported a superior breed of horses from modern-day Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, calling them Heavenly Horses. As they were swift, it was believed horses were close relatives of dragons. Horse sculptures of this period are both realistic and stylised, with a slightly oversized head and projected jaw, to highlight inner strength. 'A good piece of art had to convey strong spirit and power,' she says of the Han style.

The Tang dynasty (AD618-907) is perhaps best known for developing China's strong equestrian heritage. The animals featured more prominently in paintings and stories. 'They really understood horses. They improved them, breeding the animals for different purposes,' Chiang says.

Described by historians as a golden age of Chinese civilisation and cosmopolitan culture, the Tang dynasty was influenced by Persian cultures. This bled into artistic conventions. Tang horse antiques (above) became highly realistic and well-crafted. The Tang dynasty's reverence for the horse is evident in the way artists used a firing technique to apply rich colours and depict the animal in different positions and temperaments.

By the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), a period characterised by social stability and maritime trade, military horses were in short supply. The merchant breed was no longer as necessary for transport. Horses were no longer as valuable as before, says Chiang. 'Therefore, depictions were more fun and cartoon-like.'

By relating artistic depictions of the horse to the cultural, social and economic trends of China, Chiang hopes the exhibition can be an educational tool. 'Young Hong Kong people often don't know much about these things,' she says, adding that when Hong Kong was a British colony, studying Chinese history was not encouraged. 'If one is clear about one's own country's history, then one can better interpret other things around them.'

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