“My Kingdom for a Horse…”

This well known and widely quoted phrase of Shakespeare’s, pronounced by King Richard III as he sees his ill-begotten kingdom slipping from his grasp, is only one expression of the enduring relationship between the horse and mankind (and of the contingencies of power, of course.) It is this relationship which is being not only celebrated, but explored, in a new British Museum exhibit, opening tomorrow (24th May) entitled The Horse: From Arabia to Royal Ascot. 

Horses on a 9th century BCE Assyrian frieze, part of the British Museum exhibition.

In order to pique the curiosity of those who are able to go, and also to mollify those (like myself) who don’t expect to make it, I thought today’s post should celebrate a fascinating aspect of the history of the horse–its use by China and its status as one of early Central Asia’s most valuable exports.

This trade had its roots in the fundamental environmental differences between China (much smaller in the ancient and mediaeval periods) and the central Asian steppe. With arable lands and plenty of water, Chinese civilisation easily produced a surplus of agricultural products, allowing for the specialisation of trades and the creation of commodity goods. By contrast, the dry conditions of the inner Asian steppe made pastoralism the norm, and self-sufficiency difficult. These same conditions, however, facilitated the rearing of superior quality horses, which could be traded for silks and other Chinese luxuries.

A pottery horse statuette from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) in China illustrating the highly developed riding gear of the time. (Wikimedia Commons)

In ancient China, for example, the horses of Ferghana were greatly respected. Originating from only this one oasis town, they were known as ‘Heavenly Horses’ with fine breeding and a fiery spirit, which reputedly sweated blood. When we fast-forward to the Tang dynasty of the Middle Ages, the horses reared by nomadic peoples were still in high demand. Required for transportation, postal communication, and military operations, horses in China numbered in the tens of thousands. A modern scholar Christopher Beckwith has shown, for example, that every 1,000 soldiers required 163 horses in peacetime. In war, that figure could be much greater.

To obtain them, the Tang relied upon a group known as the Uighurs (only vaguely related to the modern ethnic population), who ruled a steppe empire based in Mongolia from 744-840 CE. The Uighurs had aided the Tang dynasty during a rebellion in the 750s, as a result of which they negotiated very favourable terms of trade. Each animal could fetch between 38-40 pieces of silk, an item used as a currency throughout Asia.

A Song Dynasty painting of horses, from the 12th century. The horse remained important to China even after the fall of the Uighur Empire in 840. (Wikimedia Commons)

It’s clear that some Chinese officials resented the high-handed, and at times even extortionate prices the Uighurs charged for their horses, but the need for the animals could not be ignored. China at this time had military outposts far to the West, clashed often with Tibetan forces, and required a forceful military–which required horses. On the other end of the exchange, the Uighurs used the silk to purchase other goods, or exchanged it with Arab merchants for silver.

Thus, even this short glimpse into the history of the horse reveals how it was both revered and exploited. Quick and strong, they helped to knit the political universe of Tang China together, but also aided the flow of wealth between sedentary and nomadic populations. And, when in 840 the Uighur Empire was decimated by their nomadic rivals, the Kirghiz, the cost of obtaining horses in China skyrocketed, precipitating massive government debt and perhaps prompting the ensuing confiscation of monastic wealth.

Clearly Tang China, like Shakespeare’s Richard III, understood the importance of the horse.

Learn More:

Frances Wood, The Silk Road: Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia, (London, 2004) is an excellent general work on this region throughout history.

Beckwith, Christopher I., ‘The Impact of the Horse and Silk Trade on the Economies of Tang China and the Uighur Empire,’ Journal of the Economic and Social HIstory of the Orient, 34.3 (1991), pp.183-198.


3 thoughts on ““My Kingdom for a Horse…”

  1. I did not know silk was used as a currency in China. That is extremely interesting. So did they patch up all the silk pieces and make themselves cloth of the currency? And what if the silk perished? LOL, all kinds of questions in my head now. But I suppose silk is no worse than salt as a currency.

    • I believe the silk was counted in bales as units, and then sold on. I don’t think it functioned as a re-circulating currency, since China had coins since ancient times, but it was a reasonable universal medium of exchange along the Silk Routes. I don’t know about its perishability, but I presume that it reached people who used it to make goods, and that stocks were replenished by new production.

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