DESPITE HAVING HAD A WIDE distribution across the contiguous steppe region and Inner Mongolia for many centuries, horses seem not to have been raised in China until the late Neolithic. Although, as already noted, there is some disagreement about whether these and later Shang horses were larger than those now populating China’s northwest region, skeletons suggest a compact animal about 130 to 140 centimeters high, one presumably derived from Przewalski’s horse and imported from the steppe rather than native to China. Based on trace archaeological finds at Pan-p’o through Erh-li-t’ou and several early Shang sites, horse breeding gradually moved down into the central Luo River region.1 Whether these horses were ever employed as pack animals or as draught animals to power carts rather than just eaten before the Shang adapted them to the chariot is unknown, but it is unlikely despite the discovery of wheel traces at Erh-li-t’ou. However, they still matched steppe horses in size before selective breeding increased their overall dimensions and thus their tractive and transport capability.

Even though late historical writings such as the Shang Shu assert that the Shang fielded seventy chariots when vanquishing the Hsia, and horses and chariots were virtually inseparable in early China, no chariots or intact skeletons have ever been found at any site predating Wu Ting’s reign at Anyang. Moreover, despite vociferous assertions by traditional scholars that riding and hunting on horseback commenced in the Shang following a lengthy period of indigenous development, nothing suggests that horses were being ridden until the Spring and Autumn or even Warring States period, when the cavalry was deliberately created to thwart steppe riders.2

Horses suddenly assumed an integral role in martial and royal life in King Wu Ting’s reign. They not only powered the small number of chariots employed in hunting and military actions, but also functioned as symbols of prestige and authority. Numerous Shang dynasty inscriptions inquire about the general auspiciousness of horses being sent in as tribute, their suitability for sacrifice, and their prospects for martial employment including hunting. They were designated by the colors white, dark, red, bronze, yellow, and gray and their attributes given special names borrowed from other animals, including deer and wild boar. Whether they would survive or perish (because they might be attacked by tigers or slain on the battlefield) was also a matter of frequent concern.3 At least one official position within the proto-bureaucracy, the Ma Hsiao-ch’en (Minor Servitor for Horses), was created to oversee equine matters. The raising of horses and improvement of the stock were matters of focal concern,4 and a number of other menial functionaries were tasked with various duties related to stabling and keeping horses.

Some sixty Shang burial pits containing horses or horses and chariots interred together have been discovered. Nevertheless, horses were generally too valuable to sacrifice except to the highest Shang ancestors or to bury in pairs with a single chariot to honor someone of extremely exalted rank or otherwise distinguished by martial achievement, a practice that would not be abandoned until well into imperial times.5 They also numbered among the superlative gifts that might be forwarded on important state occasions, provided as tribute, employed as bribes, given to ensure loyalty,6 or offered as ransom. For example, in the Spring and Autumn period a captured Sung commander was ransomed for 100 chariots and 400 horses;7 the minor state of Lai managed to halt an invasion by bribing the enemy’s chief eunuch with 100 horses and a similar number of oxen;8 and late in the Shang the Chou secured King Wen’s release from prison with a combination of beautiful women, jewels, and horses.

The great value attached to superlative horses is further illustrated by a famous Spring and Autumn incident that provided the basis for the well-known ch’eng-yü (aphorism or formulaic phrase) “Having a nearby objective yet making it appear distant,” also known as “the Marquis of Chin borrowed a passage through Yü.”9 Subsequently included among the Thirty-six Stratagems, it consisted of tempting Yü’s ruler with some outstanding horses and a famous jade when requesting permission for Chin’s armies to pass through Yü (or “borrow” an access route) and attack the state of Kuo. Naturally Chin’s ultimate intent, easily accomplished by the victorious army on its return march two years later, had always been conquering both states. This objective became strategically achievable only after their alliance had been thwarted (as Sun-tzu advised) and one of them vanquished, eliminating any possibility of mutual sustainment. The Marquis of Chin subsequently remarked that although the jade was unaffected by its storage in Yü, the horses had aged.10

The horse’s importance in the Spring and Autumn and beyond would continue to grow because sedentary China frequently found itself beset by aggressive steppe peoples who raided and plundered the border when not mounting more rapacious invasions. Due to high population ratios and a shortage of agricultural land, the “civilized” heartland would always suffer a severe shortage of horses, placing it at a significant disadvantage when attempting to thwart mounted riders. Moreover, even if arable land were to be devoted to sustaining a herd, the terrain in the interior was viewed as generally unsuitable for their breeding and early training.11


It is frequently written that horses are fundamentally shy and that apart from two stallions vigorously contesting a group’s leadership, they will flee rather than respond aggressively when threatened. (This tendency is sometimes cited as the reason they normally turn away from solid formations and threatening spears, though their wisdom in not willingly impaling themselves hardly seems a cause for disparagement.) Wild horses are also belittled as useless and stupid in comparison with domesticated variants, which, being free from inbreeding, are reportedly smarter, even though it is more likely that the former are simply untrained and too independent to heed human commands, the reason “coercive” training has often been the norm rather than the exception. However, their inherent gregariousness facilitates employing them as pack animals, cavalry mounts, and chariot teams of two or four, as well as their mass use in warfare.

Horses have to undergo training to make them conformable to use, not to mention reliable in the chaos of the hunt or on the battlefield. Confucius therefore employed them to analogize the universal need for instruction12 but Chuang-tzu decried the coercively destructive nature of the process:13

A horse’s hooves can trample frost and snow, its hair can ward off wind and cold. Gnawing grass and drinking water, rearing up and bucking, this is the horse’s true nature. Then Po Le arrives and boasts, “I excel at handling horses!” He then singes them, trims them, shaves their hooves, brands them, entangles them with bridles and leg restraints, and confines them in stables and stalls by which time two or three of every ten horses have died. He makes them hungry and thirsty, gallops and races them, conforms and orders them. Before them they have troublesome bits and cheek pieces, behind them fearsome whips and goads. By then half the horses have died.

Expertise in selecting, training, and employing horses quickly developed, some of it eventually being codified in late Warring States manuals of equine physiognomy. A few men achieved fame for their ability to recognize a horse’s innate characteristics, including Po Le, whom Chuang-tzu selected for condemnation because of his renown.14 Even divination was employed in the Shang to determine a horse’s appropriateness for the right side of the chariot,15 and a few heroes such as Tsao Fu emerged in the Chou who became legendary for their superlative driving skills.

Experienced cavalry riders in the West have frequently commented that the most disciplined horses will still test skillful, even familiar riders whenever an opportunity arises. Greek horses had a reputation for biting and kicking, perhaps the reason Xenophon advised rejecting troublesome horses in his instructions to cavalry commanders, though some tacticians preferred aggressiveness for battlefield employment. From the human standpoint the horses are misbehaving, but from Chuang-tzu’s contrarian viewpoint, the fault lies solely with men, who have constrained and contorted their original nature by exploiting them: “Horses dwell on land, eat grass, and drink water. When they are happy they intertwine their necks and nuzzle each other, when angry they turn their backs to each other and kick out. Horses only know this. But when you inflict cross poles and yokes on them and coerce them to conform with bridles, horses then know how to crack the crossbar, twist their heads out from the yoke, resist the harness, thwart the bit, and gnaw the reins.16 Thus horses acquire knowledge and act like thieves. This is Po Le’s offense.”

Chariot drivers were confronted by somewhat different problems because they were forced to control two or more horses of less than identical physical capability and personality. In contrast, cavalry riders and their mounts are inescapably bonded by their physical contact to the point that it’s often said that they appear as one. This immediacy reportedly allows an accomplished rider to anticipate the horse’s behavior just as the horse can reputedly sense the rider’s intent even while responding to actual commands. Feedback and anticipation are virtually instantaneous, whereas the chariot driver, who must rely on subtle changes in the reins and any hard-earned rapport with the horses, is invariably, if only slightly, reactive. For the chariot to function effectively, either the horses must be conditioned to absolute obedience, an impossibility, or trust, predictability, and an intuitive synergy in the face of their divergent interests and distinct personalities must be nurtured.

Antiquity recognized that achieving the requisite competence required a long period of dedicated training, any lack of focus in the driver or horses easily resulting in disaster for both.17 From the Spring and Autumn onward the image of Tsao Fu, the Western Chou charioteer whose superlative skill supposedly allowed King Mu to travel an impossible 1,000 li a day and penetrate the distant regions, loomed large. More than a hero to be emulated, he continued to be employed in both common parlance and the military writings as an exemplar of measure and constraint. For example, the somewhat enigmatic statement that “Tsao Fu’s skill was not his driving” was explained by saying that “Tsao Fu excelled at ‘looking’ at his horses, constraining their liquids and food, measuring their strength, and examining their hooves. Therefore he was able to take distant roads without the horses becoming exhausted.”18 It was also said that because he was essentially in resonance with his horses, able to instinctively respond to them, Tsao Fu was able to hunt successfully and race far.19

In marked contrast, Yen Hui predicted that the horses of a highly regarded charioteer, Tung Yeh-pi, would soon dissipate their strength. The ruler attributed his remark to mere jealousy, but Yen Hui proved correct when Tung, although capable of arranging a stirring display for the court, exhausted them in actual use. Yen then (perhaps too smugly) commented, “In traversing narrows and going far he exhausted their strength, yet ceaselessly sought more from the horses.”20

A few well-known incidents in which drivers became disaffected and therefore subverted the mission by deliberately driving into enemy forces have been preserved in the Tso Chuan.21 However, distraction was equally deleterious, as evidenced by a chariot driver at the Battle of Yen-ling (575 BCE), who kept fearfully looking about at his pursuers.22 The horses could equally affect battlefield operations adversely if they were unfamiliar with the driver or the terrain, as reflected in the following famous incident that unfolded in 645 BCE when a highly motivated Ch’in force invaded Chin in reprisal for several perverse actions on the latter’s part:23

After Chin suffered three defeats in succession, Ch’in’s army reached Han-yüan [the plains of Han]. The duke of Chin said to Ch’ing Cheng, “These brigands have penetrated deeply, what shall we do?”

He replied, “Since my lord has caused this deep penetration, what can we do!”

The duke retorted, “You are insubordinate!”

He then divined who should serve on his right [in the chariot] and found it would be auspicious to employ Ch’ing Cheng. However, he didn’t use him. Instead, P’u Yang drove the war chariot and a foot soldier from among his clan forces acted on the right. They were hitching a team presented by the state of Cheng to their war chariot where Ch’ing Cheng commented: “For great affairs the ancients invariably employed native horses. They are nurtured by its water and soil, know the hearts of men there, are settled in their instructions and training, and are thoroughly familiar with the roads. Only when they are used will everything proceed in accord with intentions. But if you now yoke a foreign team to undertake martial affairs, they will prove inconstant when frightened and go against the driver’s intent. When their ch’i chaotically races and the yin components thoroughly arise in their blood,24 their engorged veins will protrude prominently. They will look strong outside but be dry within. When they cannot advance or retreat, nor turn and wheel about, you will certainly regret it.”

Once the battle began, Ch’ing Cheng’s analysis proved highly prophetic, because the duke’s chariot turned into a muddy patch and was stopped, resulting in the duke being captured when Ch’ing ignored calls to aid him. Although he did dispatch others, who futilely mounted a rescue attempt, he was of course executed after the duke was released. Before citing a number of these passages, the T’ai-pai Yin-ching would assert that “martial horses must be accustomed to the water and grass of the places they dwell and their hunger and fullness should be constrained.”25

The quality of the horses similarly had a significant battlefield impact. For example, one warrior gave his two best horses to his uncle and brother during a conflict, making it impossible for him to escape the enemy with a lesser team, resulting in his being slain after he abandoned his chariot and fled into nearby trees.26 Although no equine manual comparable to Kikkuli’s famous short tract on conditioning or Xenophon’s two focal discussions, The Cavalry Commander and The Art of Horsemanship, ever appeared in China, rules for nurturing horses and employing them for the chariots and eventually the cavalry evolved over the centuries.

Whatever their date of composition, the earliest Chinese passages on the chariot’s employment are now preserved in two Warring States compilations, the Ssu-ma Fa and the Wu-tzu, the latter attributed to the great commander Wu Ch’i. Though they postdate the Shang by nearly a thousand years and thus represent fully articulated views probably not held a millennium earlier, they identify essential operational issues worth contemplating. In view of the need for even well-conditioned horses to have intervals of both brief and extended rest, the Ssu-ma Fa emphasized measured control.27 In addition, in order to prevent chaos on the battlefield the individual chariots had to be synchronized with each other, as well as be coordinated with the infantry forces:

Campaign armies take measure as their prime concern so that the people’s strength will be adequate. Then, even when the blades clash, the infantry will not run and the chariots will not gallop.28 When pursuing a fleeing enemy the troops will not break formation, thereby avoiding chaos. Campaign armies derive their solidarity from military discipline that maintains order in the formations; not exhausting the strength of the men or horses; and not exceeding the measure of the commands, whether moving slowly or rapidly.29

When asked what would ensure victory, Wu Ch’i stressed measure and control:30

Control is foremost. In general, the Tao for commanding an army on the march is to not contravene the proper measures for advancing and stopping; not miss the appropriate time for eating and drinking; and not completely exhaust the strength of the men and horses. These three are the means by which the troops can undertake the orders of their superiors. When the orders of superiors are followed, control is produced.

If advancing and resting are not measured; if drinking and eating are not timely and appropriate; and if, when the horses are tired and the men weary, they are not allowed to relax in the encampment, then they will be unable to put the commander’s orders into effect. When the commander’s orders are disobeyed, they will be in turmoil when encamped and defeated in battle.

Thorough knowledge of the terrain was vital for avoiding impediments and effectively exploiting the topography so as to reduce the burden on the animals:

[The commander] should arrange the employment of terrain so that it will be easy for the horses; the horses so that they will easily pull the chariots; the chariots so that they will easily convey the men; and the men so that they will easily engage in battle. If he is clear about treacherous and easy ground, the terrain will be light for the horses. If they have hay and grain at the proper time, the horses will easily pull the chariots. If the axles are well greased, the chariots will easily convey the men. If the weapons are sharp and armor sturdy the men will easily engage in battle.

Although probably compiled in the middle Warring States period prior to the inception of cavalry,31 the Wu-tzu also preserves insights on equine training and care that would subsequently be incorporated intact by the T’ang dynasty T’ai-pai Yin-ching and Sung dynasty Wu-ching Tsung-yao:

The horses must be properly settled with appropriate grass and water and correct feeding so as to be neither hungry nor full. In the winter they should have warm stables, in the summer cool sheds. Their manes and hair should be kept trimmed and their hooves properly cared for. Blinders and ear protectors should be used to keep them from being startled and frightened. Practice galloping and pursuit, constrain their advancing and halting. Only after the men and horses become attached to each other can they be employed.

All the equipment for the chariots and cavalry such as saddles, bridles, bits, and reins must be complete and durable. Normally the horses do not receive their injuries near the end of the battle but are invariably injured at the start. Similarly, they are not injured so much by hunger as by being overfed. When the sun is setting and the road long the riders should frequently dismount, for it is better to tire the men than overlabor the horses. You should always direct movements so as to keep some strength in reserve against the enemy suddenly turning upon us. Anyone who is clear about this can traverse the realm without hindrance.32

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