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The Significance of Horses in Chinese Culture – Hors

The Significance of Horses in Chinese Culture – Hors

Horses have a very high status in traditional Chinese culture. The traditional Chinese character of the word horse (馬, mǎ) looks exactly like a standing horse.

In ancient China, there were six main kinds of domestic animals: horse, cattle, sheep, chicken, dog and pig. The horse was the most important one. It represents the image of  courage, integrity, diligence and power. In addition to its contribution to transportation, horse was also an important part of the military force.

In this article we’ll discuss the meaning of horses in Chinese mythology, history, literature and art.


In ancient Chinese mythology and legend, Dragon Horse (龙马, lóng mǎ) is a horse that has the head and the claws of a dragon, the body shaped like a horse and covered with dragon scales. As an auspicious symbol, Dragon Horse is considered the spirit of the Yellow River. It represents vigorous spirits and Chinese people’s ethos.

An interesting fact is that horses over 8 feet tall were once called ‘dragons’ in China in military. Those between 6 -8 feet are classified as ‘lai’ (mare), while horses below 6 are regarded as common horses.


The Ancient Tea Horse Road

The Ancient Tea Horse Road refers to the routes that horse caravans used for transporting tea and various goods in the past. As the international corridors, these routes promoted the economic and cultural exchange of southwest frontier of China.

Tea Horse Exchange

Tea Horse Exchange originated in the Tang and Song dynasties. For a long period of time. Tea for horse was the main form of commercial trade between China’s central plains and its western areas.

To learn more about the ancient tea route, you can watch this video documentary.

White Horse Temple: Carrying Sutras

White Horse Temple in Luoyang
White Horse Temple in Luoyang

In the Han dynasty, when Buddhism was first introduced to China, the sutras were carried by a white horse. The first Buddhist temple in China, Bai Ma Temple (White Horse Temple) was built in memory of this diligent white horse. Since its establishment  in 68 AD in Luoyang, the temple increased in significance as Buddhism spread within China and to the neighbouring countries.

Year of the Horse

The Chinese zodiac is a 12-year cycle originated in the Hang Dynasty. Each year in the cycle represents one animal sign. Like how the western zodiac works, it is believed that each year represented by the animal affects the characters of people who were born that year. The latest year of the horse was 2014, which means the next year of the horse will be in 2026.

Idioms & Sayings in Chinese Literature

There are countless literature works and idioms about horses in China. Many of the idioms are used frequently in the daily life of the Chinese. Here are some of them:

Mǎ dào chéng gōng (马到成功)

Success when the horse arrives, means to achieve immediate success / victory. People often use it as a blessing at the start of a new task.

Tiān mǎ xíng kōng (天马行空)

The horse gallops so rapidly as if it is flying in the air. It is used to describe a powerful and unconstrained style as well as someone who is not down-to-earth.

Zhǐ lù wéi mǎ (指鹿为马)

Point at a deer and call it a horse. It means deliberately distorting the facts.

Yī mǎ dāng xiān (一马当先)

Take a lead with a horse when fight in the war. It means being ahead of people, also means take a lead in doing things with people.

Yī yán jì chū, sì mǎ nán zhuī (一言既出, 驷马难追)

Once a word has come out of the mouth, it’s hard to get it back even with a carriage of four horses. It means one should keep one’s promises, as what has been said cannot be changed.


Galloping Horse Treading on a Flying Swallow (马踏飞燕)

Galloping Horse Treading on a Flying Swallow
Galloping Horse Treading on a Flying Swallow

As a national treasure, this bronze sculpture has been regarded as a symbol of China’s superb casting skills of nearly 2000 years ago. When you look at this piece, you can feel the strength as well as the moving rhythms. The sign of China tourism was designed based on this piece.

Besides artworks, horse symbols also appear in teaware such as teapots, cups, jars, and this Yixing tea tumbler.

8 Horses Chinese Painting: Meaning

Picture of Eight Horses - Xu Beihong
Picture of Eight Horses – Xu Beihong

The picture is of the eight royal horses that belonged to King Mu of zhou, a legendary emperor. It was written in the Biography of King Mu of zhou that he took a ride with his eight precious horses and travelled thousands of miles to the Kunlun Mountains. According to modern scholars, his western tour should be somewhere between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea, which is the earliest historical record of communication between China and the western region.

The picture of eight horses has been a popular subject of artworks from the Six Dynasties. The best-known artwork of them all was a Chinese painting done by renowned painter Xu Beihong. This subject often showed in other art forms as well, such as wood carving and brick carving.

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