The Tang dynasty (618–907) began in 618 when a group of warlords quelled the internal unrest gripping China and allowed its inhabitants to concentrate on expanding the borders and controlling the valuable trade routes to the West. During the ensuing period of economic prosperity, the growing ceramics industry found a strong market for mingqi (spirit goods), tomb furnishings in the form of models and figurines to be used by the departed in the afterlife. Foremost among the legions of popular lokapalas (guardian deities), mythical spirits, servants, officials, and animals, was the horse, the lifeblood of the Tang military, administrative, and commercial machine.
This caparisoned horse is modeled after a prized central Asian stallion. Horses in central Asia were significantly larger and stronger than the native Chinese breeds, and large numbers were imported into China during the Tang dynasty from the steppes of present-day Kazakhstan. Although this piece was sculpted out of a mold, the bold and crisp execution of the musculature no less effectively conveys the animal’s serene, regal posture. Its powerful form is adorned with an elaborate caparison consisting of an ornamental covering, decorative trappings, and a bejeweled harness. In lieu of cold-painted decoration, a favorite technique of the preceding dynasties, the artist has chosen to employ the innovative sancai glaze technique, in which different glazes—usually amber, green, and brown—were splashed, dripped, or solidly painted onto the surface prior to firing. Here, the artist has used the standard iron oxide mixtures for the amber and brown and a copper oxide mixture for the green. Once the figure emerged from its mold, it was covered with a low-fired, lead-fluxed glaze and fired in an oxidizing kiln to cause the glazes to flow. The end result is as vibrant and desirable today as it was when it was crafted some twelve centuries ago.