In the year 111 BCE, the emperor of China sent his emissaries westward to the land of the Wusun. The emperor had grown tired of the Central Asian nomads who routinely swept into his villages, stealing the grain, making off with the women and burning the houses. Wudi realized he needed better, faster horses to drive them out, so he sent his envoys far west to the Wusun. A people of the steppe, the Wusun reportedly possessed a horse of exceptional beauty, speed and endurance. Indeed, this horse was said to have descended from the heavens. When it galloped, it sweat blood.
Wudi traded an imperial princess for several of these horses, only to discover that he had been swindled. The animals belonged to inferior breeds. But the emperor refused to give up. He sent an entire army in 103 BCE to what is now eastern Uzbekistan to find and capture some of the horses. His imperial forces suffered terrible losses and deprivation, but they succeeded in finding nearly two dozen superior horses, which they transported back to the imperial stables. There the Chinese court called them tianma, “heavenly horse.” The breed became the favorite mount of Chinese emperors and nobles.
I was reminded of this imperial obsession last week by news out of Xi’an, one of China’s ancient capitals. While excavating the massive mausoleum of Emperor Wudi, Chinese archaeologists found skeletal remains of 80 horses that had been sacrificed and buried in two cavernlike pits. At the entrance to each cavern lay the skeleton of a stallion as well as a small terracotta warrior.
Were these dead animals tianma, heavenly horses? It’s a strong possibility, and if so, Wudi seems to have thought nothing of sacrificing some of the world’s rarest horses for the glory of his afterlife. “Compared to him, the first Emperor of the Qin [whose tomb contained the famous terracotta army] may be considered to have been frugal and humane,” observed Sinologist Victor Mair in an email.
Chinese researchers have now taken DNA samples from the equine skeletons in hopes of identifying them to the genus level, a clue that might shed some light on their origins. But the thing I’d really like to know is why Wudi’s heavenly horses were drenched in blood after their exertions.
Modern researchers, Mair notes, have come up with two different ideas. The first suggests that small subcutaneous blood vessels burst as the horses sustained a long hard gallop. The second theorizes that a parasitic nematode, Parafilaria multipapillosa, triggered the phenomenon. P. multipapillosa is widely distributed across the Russian steppes and makes its living by burrowing into the subcutaneous tissues of horses. The resulting skin nodules bleed often, sometimes copiously, giving rise to a something veterinarians call “summer bleeding.”
Could a lowly parasite have given this horse its sign of divinity? It is a strange and wonderful idea, one I keep returning to as I think of Wudi’s great, overwhelming obsession.
Photos: Top, pleasures of the Tang Court, courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Bottom, horse skeleton and terracotta warrior in Wudi’s mausoleum, courtesy www.news.cn
Anyone interested in the ancient history of the horse would do well to check out a superb online reference: Timeline of the Development of the Horse by Beverley Davis. Originally published in August 2007 in Sino-Platonic Papers, this 208- page book is a classic.