Conquering Art

By Rachel Chan
Instructor Chinghuey Tiao
Fall 2006


Great powers are most noted for their widespread influence. Economic and military superiority stand primary in this, and can be exemplified through the majestic equine in early China. By way of the horse, armies conquer and dynasties expand. The horse, in essence, symbolizes power. China was united as a great power during the Qin and Tang Dynasties. However, power can be obtained and maintained through various mannerisms. Comparing sculptures of military equines and their riders from the Qin and Tang Dynasties, illustrates the differing ruling styles manifested in the arts.

The period of Warring States came to an end by the upwardly mobile State of Qin (221 BC). Qin Shi Huang Di became the first emperor of all of China. To unify a singular Chinese culture, Shi Huang Di standardized the written language, coinage, weights and measures. Nevertheless, Shi Huang Di held an autocratic rule over China and its people. While during his reign, he may have contributed “an extensive network of roads and canals connecting the provinces to accelerate trade between them . . . [they also served] to accelerate military marches to revolting provinces.” Chinas general population didn’t see Shi Huang Di favorably. Textbook history would record him as great- as he commenced the building of the Great Wall; on the contrary, the people’s history would see quite a different picture. Although the emperor was accredited with the accomplishment of the Great Wall, he took no part in its actual construction. It was the people who were forced to labor over this endeavor, and it was the people who were forced to create his great mausoleum containing the famous terra cotta soldiers and cavalry.

Yet no great power remains forever and the Qin Dynasty fell to the Western Han. After the Six Dynasties period, the Tang Dynasty reunited China once again (618 AD). Under the emperor Tang Tai Zong, 3,000 troops were used to defeat 40,000 troops of the Eastern Turkic Khanate. After this feat, Tai Zong was appointed the Prince of Qin, symbolic of its mighty predecessor. Similarly, Tai Zong desired to open trade and “encourage[ed] the development of manufacturing industries . . . attracting foreign merchants across the Silk Road.” However, Tai Zong did not rule with the same motivation as Shi Huang Di: “He knew the troubles of common citizens” and abolished harsh laws. Furthermore, by increasing traffic along the Silk Road, wealth could be redistributed to the population. Indeed, Sherman E. Lee notes, the Tang Dynasty was the “best-governed polity in the world, the largest in extent and population, the strongest, and certainly the richest” (p. 296). With all of these riches, Tai Zong commissioned artist Yan Liben to create six life-size stone relief sculptures of his favorite horses.

Likewise, as Qin Shi Huang Di and Tang Tai Zong both unified China, the common denominator of their successful expansion lies within the equine. The great terra cotta army and Tai Zong’s sculptures are created in life-size to represent the imminence of their great dynasties (5’8”-5’10”). However, Shi Huang Di had 600 horses in comparison to Tai Zong’s set of six. Shi Huang Di’s preoccupation with massive quantity, already seen in the Great Wall, also yielded a lacking of quality. Even though it may seem astonishing that none of the 7,000 figures in his tomb were identical, it must be remembered too that these figures were created by slave labor. The word of the pompous emperor was final. Once the order was put in, there was no room for artist expression or creativity, thus the genuine individualistic nature of the figures is false. Fig. 72 (p. 59) is a cavalryman and saddle horse. Both man and horse appear stiff and rigid with their legs straight and opposite. This creates a vertical feel, but stagnant and motionless. Although the horse’s ears are forward and alert, they seem to focus beyond its rider. In addition, the horse is a separate entity positioned a few paces behind the rider. There is a physical and emotional disconnect between horse and rider, similar to the disconnect between Shi Huang Di and the people. However, prosperous living interactions require an understanding of both beings: “For the true horseman the cultivation of willing participation is a sacred bind . . . submission is equestrian bankruptcy. Willing participation is a joyful contribution based on understanding. Submission is based on coercion which usually leads to soulless disobedience” (p. 16). Shi Huang Di did not understand this concept of willing participation, and his ruling style is exemplified in the art created under his authority. Even the horse’s tail looks thin and whip-like, dropping straight down to the hocks. A loosely swishing, full-haired tail is characteristic of a content horse. While these horses may have done the job, carrying their mounts across distances, they do not appear to have enjoyed their work.

Within this context, two Machiavellian prompts come to mind: Is it better to be feared than loved? And, does the end justify the means? Tai Zong would probably lean oppositely to Shi Huang Di on both. Fig. 381 (p. 298) depicts Tai Zong’s horse Saluzi, with General Qiu Xinggong removing an arrow from his chest. The muscular detail of the horse is well defined, bringing circulation and life into its body. Legs of the horse and General are staggered, creating a sense of activity. Ironically, this lively sculpture is made out of solid stone, as the former was made from malleable clay pieces. The focal point is where human and horse-face draw closely together. Immediately, the close proximity is indicative of intimacy, caring, and understanding. It is symbolic that the continuity of the stone carries to the connection and intimacy represented. The General has his hand pressed to the horse’s chest, his heart- a gesture of empathy. The arrow was obviously shot while moving forward into battle. In this act of removing the arrow, the General is acknowledging the horse’s courage, honor, and fearlessness. In addition, he is paying his respect to the horse as an equal player, just as another wounded soldier would have been extended those same respects. Horse and rider have gone into battle together for a common goal with mutual understanding. Erik Herbermann comments: “Is it possible to create a work of beauty without the flame of passion fueling the endeavor? Surely, then beauty and excellence in horsemanship must rest on a foundation of enduring love and respect for the horse. These mainstays of our equestrian art originate not from the intellect, but as with genuine friendship, they are an outpouring of benevolence from the heart.” (p. 11)

Horsemanship is analogous with leadership. In both figures, the interaction between horse and rider represent the interaction between the leader and his people; furthermore taken into account within this context of who created the artwork in the first place. As Herbermann mentions, art or beauty is created around passion. Tang Tai Zong had that passion for his people and his work. He commissioned an artist who also cared very much about his work. The art that was produced is beautiful and personal. The horses were his six favorite and the people had names. However, Qin Shi Huang Di did not have benevolent passion. He forced the population to slave for him. What was produced, in essence, is pre-industrial mass manufacturing. It is the sheer quantity of figures that is most intriguing. There is no personalization or connection. The lack of true horsemanship portrayed in the sculpture goes to prove this. Although both emperors united and expanded China, their relative use of power is ultimately reflected in the connection between horse and rider in these sculptures.

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Artist 藝術家 . (簡歷) College Instructor 大學講師 . Newspaper Columnist 報紙專欄作家 . Traveler 旅行者 旅住歐美多年; 藝術碩士(MFA, Honored with Distinction) 美國大學教藝術史,教學評鑑獲特優(College instructor, Art History,Teaching Evaluation Exceeding Excellence).