The Chinese would endow horses with divine power and qualities of heaven. Eg: consciousness and feelings.
Through the artistic world this would be represented since the beginning of times until today. There is a theme which comes back throughout history is one of domestication of wild horses.
The ancestors of the Northern nomads enhanced the divinity of the horse by merging it with the magic dragon. Since horses had heavy connotations with the Yang vitality it was believed that it had the power of resurrecting life from the grave thus were used as a funerary animal.
In those primitive times there was a mass immolation of horses but since they would also sacrifice humans as offerings this was not surprising. In 384 BC, King Xian of Qin ordered the practice of living funeral objects (human or animal) to be abolished. Figurines were used instead. This was a milestone in the Chinese civilization. A hundred or so years later, the horse emerged onto the artistic stage. The tomb of Qingshihuang (the first emperor) was filled with terracotta warriors and pottery horses. This was unprecedented in the history of sculpture.
In 1970’s during the excavation of the tomb where Qingshihuang and his legion were buried, there was an estimated 1000 terracotta horses and soldiers unearthed. They were combined to depict a real battlefield. After that no other civilization would represent the deceased in such a life size scale. Part of this tribute war horses was an important aspect of it.
The Celestial horse as the term suggests means horse from heaven. For people from the Han dynasty heaven was omnipotent, omniscient and would even possess human consciousness, emotions and feelings. When Han Wu Di named his horse ‘Celestial horse’, he was endowing him with the personality of heaven. Divine power and spirit of exploration of the Celestial Horse God would be a recurring theme in Chinese Art.
The Emperor Kangxi (r 1661-1722) loved painting skills of the Western Jesuits. Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766) better known as Lang Shining was an Italian Jesuit of Neapolitan origin. He was a painter and architect much appreciated by Emperor Kangxi . He became a court painter serving the Qing Court. The classic piece among the earliest works of Castigione which was completed in China while he was around 40 was titled ‘A hundred horses’ (1728) in which the horse nature would fully emerge. He gave his picture a far reaching sense with an emphasis on an accurate perspective of landscape.
The horses would differ in posture, expression, angle and would be doing different things (eg: frolicking, drinking water). He transferred the sketches he made onto silk scroll using Chinese Gongbi (meticulous realism with bright colors), techniques emphasizing shadows and light. The highlight on the coat of the horses would create a three dimensional perspective and a realism never achieved before by the Chinese.
Xu Beihong the most famous painter in China of the 20th century had studied fine arts in Japan and France. He would paint fine horses his whole life not for political purposes but because he had enjoyed doing it since he was a child. Xu Beihong’s horses would look animated. They carried a sense of elegance and refinement which went beyond real horses. They symbolized freedom and the Chinese nation on the verge of lifting its head.
The spirit of horse painting is the history of Chinese civilization reflecting the paradoxical nature of interrelationships between nature, human beings and horses. It would also reflect human emotions throughout the Chinese nation over the last millennia.