The horse has always played an important role in the traditions and history of mankind and no less so in the case of China. With the exception of the dragon, which is a mythical animal, the horse is the most recurrent animal in the Chinese world, having been present from the dawn of Chinese culture, both on a mythical and symbolic level. It symbolises pure male strength (Yang) and at first was regarded as being even more potent than the dragon. Later, the horse came to be confused with the dragon and was finally substituted by the dragon as China's complex symbology emerged.
On a popular level, it is still a symbol of speed, perseverance, imagination and youthful energy. A horse at the peak of its physical and intellectual development is described as a 'thousand-league colt'. It corresponds to the element 'fire' and to the Sun. It is one of the seven treasures of Buddhism and comes seventh in the Twelve Earthly Branches. It is one of the twelve symbols of the Chinese Zodiac.
The history of the horse in China dates back over many centuries. Several sources confirm that horses were recognised in the time of the Three August Sovereigns and that Ch'in shih Huang Ti "also invented carts and ordered that oxen and horses be captured for domestication". （3） It is worth noting that in this case the horse appears in conjunction with the ox. For centuries the God of Horses was worshipped by Chinese and Barbarians alike. His image, that of an ogre with multiple arms bearing weapons and with a tiny horse at his feet, was to be found on 'lucky papers' stuck in temples and stables to ward off illness and evil spirits. To his left, also sitting above the trough which served as an alter, there was the God of the Oxen.
The Chinese dedicated themselves for centuries to improving the horse both in terms of breed and numbers. In the reign of Emperor Wu Ti (141-87BC), at a point when the Chinese had already attained a great deal of expertise in their cavalry, an expedition was led against the Hsiung-nu barbarians. （4） The Chinese managed to seize their capital and capture all the best horses which were stabled there. Once they had acquired this large group of horses, they were able to cross-breed them with higher quality horses from Western kingdoms to the satisfaction of emperor and aristocrat alike. The exquisite Eastern Han bronze statue of the 'Flying Horse' pays homage to this breed. Light-footed, well-proportioned, capable of soaring like the wind, these horses were named Tien Ma, 'Celestial Horses'.
Historically, the horse had such a profound influence on the Middle Kingdom that it might be suggested that it caused the creation of the greatest monument on earth, the Great Wall. If we consider how much protection the Great Wall gave to the eighteen provinces of ancient China which lay to the south of it, we can understand just how great was the threat from the steppes to the north. The Great Wall was erected against the apocalyptic vision of the Barbarian warriors on horseback, who came from the north. We might even go so far as to say that the Great Wall was built against the horse, since the country lived under the constant threat of invasion.