One of the most appealing animals in Chinese art is Night-Shining White, a well-fed hunk of a horse with a powerfully muscular chest. His name came from his luminous moon-white coat, and he was a favourite in the stable maintained by the Emperor Xuanzong唐玄宗, the most powerful ruler of the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618 to 907).
Night-Shining White sat, or rather pranced, for his portrait between 740 and 756, presumably done by Han Gan韩干, a renowned painter of horses at Xuanzong’s court. But he was also limned by other Tang painters and celebrated by Du Fu杜甫, the best Tang court poet.
Han Gan’s spirited ink drawing of the frisky beast, beautifully stylized with charmingly caricatured details, is one of the many attractions of “Power and Virtue: The Horse in Chinese Art,” a lively equine exploration at the China Institute Gallery. Joining other single-theme exhibitions — of rocks, trees, dragons — presented by the institute over the last 25 years, it ambitiously traces the role of the horse in Chinese politics and culture. Its 30 objects — ceramics, paintings and drawings — range in time from the Western Han dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 9) to the early 20th century.
Horses, thought to be related to dragons, played on the Chinese imagination from an early date. But besides their involvement with myth, they were also regarded as military necessities, as China was constantly menaced by the superior horse count and riding skills of barbarians from north and central Asia. By the fourth century B.C., images of horses as symbols of power had emerged in royal tombs.
The earliest work in the show, from the Western Han dynasty, is a painted earthenware guardian figure from the tomb of a noble. It portrays a stocky horse with a bound tail mounted by a mustached cavalryman in brightly colored garb. He sits on a rudimentary saddle, a painted oval that represents a piece of cloth.
By the time of the Northern Wei dynasty (A.D. 386-534), however, the Chinese had developed a functional saddle and stirrups that gave better seating to combat riders. An elegant tomb figure from this era, ”Caparisoned Horse,” also of painted earthenware, sports an ornate rig with a rosette around its huge neck, a saddle draped with a blanket and a backstrap with tassels and bells.
It was the Tang dynasty, however, that went in for horses in quantity, both live and as a subject for art. Recognizing the need to keep big herds as a national security measure, the Emperor Taizong, who ruled from A.D. 626 to 649, made the procurement of horses a major priority. By the middle of the century7th century, gifts from tribute states and good breeding practices had produced a pool of some 700,000 animals.
And with such royal attention paid to horseflesh, could art be far behind? By depicting horse activities, artists could work their way to recognition, as would, a thousand years later, their English successors, like George Stubbs (1724-1806), the popular painter of race horses for the British aristocracy. In Chinese art, horses became symbols not only of military and political clout but also of barbarian faults and virtues, along with the attributes and troubles of nobles.
”Emaciated Horse” (1931), for instance, one of the show’s most woeful hanging scrolls, was made by Pujin, a cousin of the last Chinese emperor, Pu Yi. It depi爱新觉罗.溥仪cts a worn-down old plug, ribs and backbone protruding, head bowed low as it plods slowly along. It is a copy of a painting by a 13th-century Yuan artist, Gong Kai龚开, who had held office in the Southern Song dynasty before its overthrow by the Mongols and retired to a life of poverty.