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Origins of Tian-Ma (天馬)

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The Heavenly Horses (天馬) have been depicted in numerous Chinese paintings and poems during the Tang dynasty.

Yet the real origins of these "heavenly horses" is somewhat of a mystery.

During the Han dynasty, the biggest foreign threat to China came from the Xiongnu. The Han rulers' policy at first was to appease them by sending them Han princesses and gifts. This appeasement policy was predominant during the reigns of Emperors Wendi and Jingdi, but this policy was much cheaper in the short-run to maintain than launching costly military attacks against the Xiongnu.

Jingdi's son Wudi, an energetic and ambitious boy who loved hunting big game, came to the throne at the age of 16, and wanted to stop this appeasement policy towards the Xiongnu. He was a strong and often ruthless, but decisive emperor who felt that China was strong enough to go on the offensive and end this appeasement once and for all.

The Xiongnu wreaked fear and bloodshed with their raids across the Great Wall from their steppes in Mongolia. They wore wolf-shaped masks and reptilian armor. The Chinese with their chariots were no match for the Xiongnu bowmen mounted on cavalry horses.

Previously the Xiongnu had ousted a nomadic tribe called the Yuezhi (月支) from Dunhuang (敦煌) in Gansu province. The Yuezhi had reddish hair and blue eyes and spoke an Indo-European language similar to Gaelic. After their defeat, the Yuezhi migrated from Dunhuang and setup a kingdom of their own in Bactria in current-day Afghanistan. Wudi heard about the Yuezhi and was interested in forming an alliance with them against the Xiongnu. He asked Zhang Qian to lead an expedition west to seek out the Yuezhi. Zhang Qian was eventually captured by the Xiongnu and spent 10 years in captivity. Gradually the Xiongnu treated Zhang as one of their own and he married a Xiongnu woman. But he felt that he still had a mission to accomplish.

Zhang escaped after 10 years, and using the Xiongnu body language that he learned to seek guidance, he eventually made it to Bactria, where he encountered the Yuezhi. But by that time, Wudi's reputation had become known and the Yuezhi wanted no part in any alliance. Zhang then travelled north to the Ferghana Valley (大宛) in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, where he heard accounts of strong muscular horses that sweated blood and could gallop hundreds of miles effortlessly. It is said that Alexander the Great's horse, Bucephalus, bore similar resemblance to these horses.

During his return journey back to China, Zhang was captured again by the Xiongnu. He escaped a second time and finally made it back to Changan. He mentioned his discovery of these "heavenly horses" to Wudi, who was fascinated by Zhang's accounts of them. Many historians consider Wudi an improved version of Qin Shi Huang. The emperor, like Qin Shi Huang before him, was obsessed with the concept of immortality. He believed that these heavenly horses are the horses he long believed could take him to heaven. But that was the not the main reason why he was interested in these 天馬. He believed that they could serve as excellent cavalry for use against the Xiongnu.

Wudi sent a group of envoys to Ershi (貳師) in Ferghana in the mission of gaining a number of these celestial horses. The envoys offered a thousand pieces of gold and a golden horse in exchange for some of these horses. However the King of Ferghana smashed the gold pieces, murdered the Han envoys, and ordered them stripped. When news of this reached Wudi, he was furious and decided to take the horses by force. He appointed Li Guangli (李廣利), a famous general at that time, to seize the horses by force. A military expedition to Ferghana was routed by the kingdom, but Wudi was determined. He ordered a second attack against Ferghana consisting of over a hundred thousand men. This time Ferghana was defeated and under the surrender terms of a treaty, an annual tribute of 3,000 天馬 was presented to the Han empire.

These 天馬 were instrumental in transforming the Han cavalry and were very effective in weakening the Xiongnu. However how did 天馬get to Ferghana in the first place? Were they natives of the region or did they originate possibly from Africa?

Du Fu once wrote about the horses from Ferghana in one of his poems.

Zhang Qian's Journeys:


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