Tomb Figure: Horse

  • China
  • China, Eastern Han period
  • 25 - 220
  • Bronze with traces of polychrome
  • H-124 D-113 W-28.5
Catalogue Entry

This elegant bronze horse is an outstanding example of Eastern Han tomb sculpture, and must originally have been part of a remarkable bronze funeral entourage that enriched the tomb of some provincial elite buried in southwest China during the middle of the Eastern Han period. The Shumei horse is very similar to a bronze horse recently excavated from the Eastern Han Tomb M8 at Xingyi in Guizhou province,1 and to another example from Tomb HM2 at Hejiashan, Mianyang Xian, Sichuan province.2 The Xingyi horse was found harnessed to a handsome covered carriage that that would have provided elegant transport for some provincial aristocrat.3

The Shumei horse may have also pulled such a vehicle. Its gait is that of a pacer, which has an extremely smooth way of moving produced by the simultaneous raising of both legs on one side. Several Eastern Han reliefs illustrate scenes in which similar horses are shown pulling upper-class carriages, and, in each case, the horses are shown pacing.4

The casting and construction of this horse is an ingenious example of Eastern Han workmanship. The horse was cast in eleven sections that are riveted together. The sections--two ears, head, neck, chest, rump, tail, and four legs--were hollow cast using the piece-mold casting process, and then assembled. The same construction system was used to create the excavated Xingyi example, as demonstrated by a detailed diagram published in the excavation report.5 The sections were designed with precision to fit together easily. Many such horses were discovered with their sections in disarray owing to the collapse of tomb walls and subsequent plundering, but the Shumei horse is in remarkable condition. A superb bronze horse in the Ludwig Foundation on view at the Museum fur Ostasiatische Kunst in Cologne was created the same way. An examination of the eleven sections and the assembly system of the Ludwig horse confirms the ingenuity and precision of the construction.6 Both the Shumei and Ludwig horses were also once painted, as revealed by the traces of colored pigment visible here and there, particularly in the ears on the Ludwig horse.

Large bronze tomb figures would have been extremely difficult to produce in one casting, whereas those formed of joined pieces could be easily produced to satisfy the growing demands of the elite. The cost of both the material and the labor to produce bronze horses of this size must have been immense, hinting at the wealth accumulated by and available to provincial officials and landowners.

1. Wenwu 1979.5, pl. 5.2.
2. Wenwu 1991.3, p. 16, fig. 26.
3. Wenwu 1979.5, p. 24, pl. 5.1.
4. Wenwu 1975.8, p. 64, fig. 3; Wenwu 1991.12, p. 70, figs. 11-12. I am grateful to Mary A Littauer for identifying this gait.
5. Wenwu 1979.5, p. 27, fig. 12.
6. Personal examination in the offices of Robert Ellsworth, New York.