This delicate openwork plaque takes the form of a beautifully stylized recumbent horse. It is composed of a series of rounded forms that convey a sense of the beast’s muscular frame, narrow body contrasting especially with its voluminous hind quarters. The animal’s eye is represented by a large perforation, giving a wide-eyed, alert expression to the creature, even though it is captured in a moment of repose. The small perforation at the mane, and the eye, may have been used for attachment. It is unclear for what purpose the extension from the horse’s nose, now broken, was intended. The petal-shaped hooves and ear suggest the influence of Xiongnu design, and some related attachments of stylized animals have been excavated from the Ordos region of Inner Mongolia.
The Xiongnu were a nomadic pastoral people inhabiting what is today Mongolia. They first appear in the historical record in the fifth to fourth century BC. Towards the close of the third century BC, they were responsible for forming a great tribal confederate that was to dominate much of central Asia for the next 500 years, with influence stretching to Southern Siberia. Their presence was a constant threat to China’s northern frontier. It has been suggested that depictions of real animals, as opposed to fantastical and hybrid beasts, on artistic creations of the Xiongnu represent clan relationships; the wearing of such zoomorphic plaques therefore acted as a conspicuous marker of tribal allegiances or individual status. The horse is known for its special relationship with man among many cultures of the ancient world, from Greece to China. This was nowhere more pertinent, however, than among the nomadic peoples of the steppe, who entirely depended on them for their itinerant way of life. This plaque, with its graceful contours and characterful charm, is a celebration of the steppe’s most important and magnificent creature.
For the Ordos region examples, Duan Shuan, ed., Zhongguo qingtongqi quanji 15: Beijing minzu (Beijing, 1995), pls 152 and 154.
For more on the way of life of the steppe nomads, E.C. Bunker, T.S. Kawami, K.M Linduff, and W. En, Ancient Bronzes of the Eastern Eurasian Steppes from the Arthur M. Sackler Collections (New York, 1997).
Poon Collection, Hong Kong, 1970s.
Published: Published: T. Pang, Treasures of the Eurasian Steppes: Animal Art from 800 BC to 200 AD (New York, 1998), no. 98.