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Equestrian in Ancient China

From the broad sense, equestrian refers to horse riding skills. It is an important component of Olympics and an ancient and prominent sport in China.

According to historical records, equestrian enjoys a long history in China. First used in hunting, equestrian was applied in military area later. Due to its significance on these two areas, it was greatly valued by ancient Chinese. In Zhou dynasty (1046BC-249BC), together with morality, ritual dance, archery, math and calligraphy, equestrian was listed as one of the Six Noble Arts of gentlemen in ancient China.

It is believed equestrian was invented by the north nomadic tribes in China. Along Guansu province’s Hexi Corridor and Dunhuang area inhabited by Xiongnu, Xianbei, Tujue and Huihu tribes, plenty of ancient rock carvings are spotted. According to archeologists, these paintings themed with hunting on horseback and war-fighting can be traced back to 4000 to 10,000 years ago.
The history of training and riding horses in the middle area of China dates back to Shang (1600BC-1046BC) and Zhou era (1046BC-249BC) when equestrian was one of the Six Noble Arts at that time. Horses were also used to pull the chariots. In Zhou era, the emperor would honor the military officer with the title of “Sima”(literally means the man manage the horses) to highlight the importance of horses.

In 305BC, to resist the consistent raids from Xiongnu tribe in North China and the expanding Qin State, Emperor Zhao Wulingwang determined to adopt the north tribes’ tight attires featuring shorter sleeves which are more convenient to fight enemies. Perceiving the advantage of cavalries used by north tribes which are faster and more flexible than chariots in war, he discarded the use of chariot later and listed equestrian as a key assessment indicator of his soldiers.

Emperor Zhao Wulingwang adopted the North tribes' attires and used cavalries in war instead of chariots

During Spring and Autumn period (770BC-476), horse racing prevailed. A famous story happened at that time: Both Emperor Qi Weiwang and his general Tian Ji love horse racing, so one day, they decided to initiate a gambling competition. The rules go like this: both of them divide their horses into three classes: excellent, good and average. During the contest, the excellent group should compete with the counterpart’s excellent group, the good class should fight the counterpart’s good class and the average fight the average. Tian Ji, whose three classes of horses turned out to be inferior to that of Emperor Qi Weiwang, failed and lost all his gold. Depressed,he went home. Sun Bin, Tian Ji’s good friend, gave Tian Ji a good advice which cheered him up. The following day, Tian Ji and Emperor Qi Weiwang had a horse racing again. Following Sun Bin’s strategy, he sent his average horses to fight Emperor Qi Weiwang’s excellent horses, and undoubtedly he failed in the first round. Qi Weiwang could not help showing his contempt when beheld this. He remarked: “what a genius plan”. Tian Ji stayed calm and let his excellent horses fight Qi Weiwang’s good horses, and won in the second round. Qi Weiwang was surprised this time. Then, he let his good horses fight Qi Weiwang’s average horses, thus he won in the third round. In the end, Emperor Qi Weiwang had no choice but to return Tian Ji all the gold. Horse racing prevailed as a gambling game among the nobles at that time, and from this story we can see ancient Chinese has mastered horse racing skills in Spring and Autumn period.
 Ancient China 's Equestrian depicted in Mogao Grottoes' Fresco Wooden plaques showing the rankings of horse racing

 Equestrian emerged in Zhou dynasty and fourished in Tang and Song dynasty

 Emperor Tang Taizong was a good horse rider

One sport closely associate with equestrian is polo (also called maqiu or Jiju): people hit the rubber ball by bats on horseback. Cao Zhi in Three Kingdoms Era (220-280) mentioned polo in his poet, which served as solid evidence that polo had existed in the end of Han dynasty (202BC-220). The following dynasties include Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) have witnessed its rapid development. Tang dynasty, in particular, has seen its unprecedented popularity. Polo game demands high on equestrian, thus it is more a horse ride race than a ball game.

Acrobatics on horseback was the main content of Baixi (a comprehensive entertainment comprises acrobatics, singing and dancing, ect) since Han dynasty (202BC-220). Numerous stone carving masterpieces of acrobatics on horseback have been unearthed by now. Among them, one piece of Baixi fresco unearthed in Shandong province depicting the scene of a child performs acrobatics on horseback is very impressive.

Equestrian was attached great importance in Tang dynasty and strict rules were specified to train horse riders. Emperor Tang Taizong was an excellent rider at that time. There was an amazing equestrian skill like this: the horse rider will go through a gate full of swords without hurt.

During Ming(1368-1644) and Qing dynasties(1636-1911), equestrian was not only an entertainment performance but also a important military training item. Lang Shining, a painter in Qing dynasty, finished a masterpiece named as Equstrian Painting which sheds light on a profusion of postures during military equestrian training.
In 1979, Chinese Equestrian Association was founded. In 1982, China joined the International Equestrian Federation. In 1983, the nationwide equestrian contest and Olympics equestrian were restored in China.

 North Tribes' Horse(this one is preserved in one  museum of England)

 Sculpture on Equestrian

Jade of  Equestrian in Ancient China

Fresco themed with Ancient Equestrian

Place to See Equestrian
(1) Inner Mongolia: You can see the most thrilling equestrian contest in Inner Mogolia during Naadam Fair. The Mongolian horse racing falls into three categories:  speed contest, pace contest during which the horse with the most stable and light steps will be the winner and the contest of acrobatics performance on horseback (also known as equestian).
(2) Tibet: The history of equestrian contest in Tibet can be traced back to 1499.Originated from Inner Mongolia, equestrian performance in Tibet resembles that of Inner Mongolia in many aspects. According to rules, a team of 12 participants will join this competition. Losers will be humiliated before they pick back their own weapons.

 Equestrian in Tibet: Archery on Horseback

 Equestrian in Tibet: Shooting on Horseback

 Equestrian in Tibet: Dance on Horseback

 Equestrian in Tibet: One Person rides two horses


 Equestrian in Tibet: Pizan Performance

 Equestrian in Tibet: Dieluohan Performance on Horseback

 Equestrian in Tibet: Picking Hada on Horseback

 Equestrian in Tibet: Handstand on Horseback


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