What an ancient horse breed tells us about the ‘Chinese dream’

Chinese billionaire Chen Zhifeng has spent over US$300 million buying and rearing Akhal-teke horses, rare prized steeds with a “blood-sweat” pedigree going back to ancient times

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 January, 2018, 8:30am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 January, 2018, 11:30pm

An ancient breed of Asian horses that has long been the stuff of legend is gradually coming back to life in China, thanks to a billionaire’s persistence.

Chen Zhifeng, founder and chairman of Yema Trading Group in Urumqi, has spent 2 billion yuan (US$312.2 million) since 2009 buying and breeding Akhal-teke horses, a national breed from Turkmenistan that dates back to prehistoric times.

Chen has boasted that he owns the world’s largest collection of Akhal-teke horses – called “heavenly horses” in ancient Chinese texts – with more than 300 to his name.

His latest batch – 12 females and nine males – has been under quarantine at the China-Kazakhstan border since arriving on December 23.

When they are cleared to leave, the horses will be moved to Chen’s horse farm in the northwestern Chinese city of Urumqi, Xinjiang, where they are to join 120 other members of the breed.

The Akhal-teke’s speed and stamina was so prized during military conflicts that China’s emperor Wu, the seventh ruler of the Han dynasty (206BC-AD220), waged two wars just to acquire some.

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The horse’s long history and association with Turkmenistan – its image is embedded in the Central Asian country’s national emblem – has given it a prominent role in animal diplomacy.

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov presented President Xi Jinping with one in 2014 during Berdymukhamedov’s four-day visit to Beijing. The Turkmen leader also gave then-president Hu Jintao an Akhal-teke during a 2006 summit meeting in China’s capital; and former president Jiang Zemin received one during his 2000 visit to the Central Asian country.

The horses are regarded as symbols of power and social status in China despite the country’s ban on horse racing.

“It’s not the horse the presidents sent to China,” Chen said. “They sent the dream of emperor Wu.”

Known as Han Xue Ma, or the ‘sweat blood horse’, the Akhal-teke has roots in the Ferghana Valley. It originally was imported to China by emperor Wu, who believed that its traits would position the dynasty for military success.

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Wu sent a force to Dayuan, a country in the valley, to capture horses for future breeding but was defeated. The emperor tried again with a stronger force and this time was triumphant. The expedition returned with dozens of high-quality Akhal-teke horses and 3,000 medium-quality specimens.

Chen said his effort to import the horses was expensive, long and troublesome. Sometimes it resulted in the animals’ death.

More than 100 staff attended to the horses, which had been on public display since 2016 at Chen’s horse culture park, he said.

He said he aimed to expand the herd to 1,000 horses within eight years.

He had yet to reap any financial return from the endeavour because he had been unwilling to sell the horses, he said.

Chen, 55, said he sought to bring the best of the Akhal-teke horses back to China to “realise the emperor Wu’s dream” of making the country more “combat-effective”.

“If the dragon is the totem of China, the horse represents the spirit of the Chinese,” Chen said.

“Our children learn arts and piano and dancing while foreign children learn taekwondo, equestrian [skills] and karate.

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“Han children should have been tougher and more manly. What harm would I do if buying these horses raises awareness and makes our nationality more courageous and tough?”

Chen said his father was a soldier who marched into Xinjiang in 1949 under general Wang Zhen, one of the Eight Elders of the Communist Party of China, to bring about the area’s incorporation into the People’s Republic of China in the last days of the Chinese civil war.

Chen, who later worked as a miner in the mountains of Altai, said he developed his interest in horses while growing up on the Xinjiang prairie. Horses also were part of his life while he was living in a part of Xinjiang where there were many members of the Kazakh ethnic minority.

He worked as an art editor for a local newspaper before founding the Yema Trading Group in the 1990s. “Yema” means wild horse in Mandarin.

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Chen said Akhal-teke horses played a major role in connecting the countries along the “Belt and Road Initiative”, Xi Jinping’s major infrastructure plan that revives the original Silk Road.

“There would be no Silk Road, an ancient trading route from China to the Mediterranean Sea, without Zhang Qian, the first diplomat envoy sent by emperor Wu of the Han dynasty to central Asia,” Chen said.

“We don’t have the emperor Wu nor Zhang Qian, but the Silk Road is still there.

“Akhal-teke horses are the ancient element that connects the countries on the [belt and road map].”