From the horse's mouth, literally
Updated: 2014-02-04 07:44
By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)
The era when people depended on steeds for transportation or warfare has long gone, but the zodiac animal has left numerous genetic footprints on spoken Chinese, writes Raymond Zhou.
Yao Shaoshuang has been the most photographed horse rider in China in the past month. Donning a cowboy hat and boots for three days, he rode a black horse from his workplace in Pixian to the city of Dujiangyan, where his mother-in-law lives, after failing to secure a bus ticket for Spring Festival travel. (The county and city lie to the northwest of Chengdu, the provincial capital.) His image appeared all over the Internet, and Yao said he received hundreds of calls, including interview requests, from the media. Apart from his inability to obtain a ticket, Yao said he made his trip on horseback as he was eager to reach his destination and to impress his in-laws on his first visit to his wife's family.
In Chinese, there is a common word, mashang, literally "on horseback" and means "right away" or "fast". It was clearly not coined after modern modes of transportation were invented. But the irony in 24-year-old Yao's case is that he covered the 70 km in three days, slower than most hikers.
The truth, when it emerged, proved to be an anti-climax. Yao works for an equestrian club and the horse he was riding was a Dutch Warmblood (a horse of medium build designed for sports) from the Netherlands worth half a million yuan ($82,000).
Normally, such an expensive import would not appear on a hard, asphalt road, but this may also explain the ultra-slow speed, complete with numerous photo opportunities.
Moreover, the journey was a publicity stunt, not for himself but for a business.
Yao, a local equestrian sports champion, kept quiet. However, other clubs said they had received requests from advertisers who wanted to get in on the horseback bandwagon, but owners could not bear to see their costly investments stray far from soft grass and well-maintained stables. Some even viewed Yao's actions as animal abuse.
The fad for placing objects on horseback in the hope of fulfilling financial dreams started rather innocuously and in good humor, but quickly transformed into materialistic vulgarity.
Blessings and good wishes were quickly replaced by hard cash, such as placing a wad of banknotes on horseback. Since real horses proved hard to come by, enlarged toy horses were used. People even piled miniature houses on the horses in a desperate bid for the financial wherewithal to purchase apartments.
One man, with a touch of ingenuity, reportedly placed a pair of toy elephants on top of a toy horse, because the Chinese word for "date" has "xiang" in it, which can be stretched to encompass the elephant.
If you let a smaller horse piggyback on a larger one, it could mean that the object of your desire is a BMW, as the German car has a vague Chinese transliteration as "precious horse".
Word games involving the horse appear frivolous, but often have cultural and historical connotations. Chinese like to describe being victimized by foreign invasion as being trodden under iron hooves.
In Chinese history, the economically developed and culturally sophisticated Han majority on the central plains were repeatedly attacked and pillaged by northern tribes.
Part of the reason, many scholars believe, was the mode of travel used by the nomads. While they swooped down in an iron-hoofed stampede, the Han could only flee on foot. Hence, the vivid depiction of being trampled.
The Han were not as expert at horse riding as the northern tribes, but horses were not uncommon. It was rare, though, for them to be venerated like the Six Steeds of the Zhaoling Mausoleum in Shaanxi province.
These warhorses belonged to Emperor Taizong (AD 598-649), also known as Li Shimin, of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). He commissioned artisan Yan Lide and painter Yan Liben, who were brothers, to carve six warhorses he rode before he built his empire. The reliefs, each standing 1.7 meters high and 2 meters wide, used to flank the sacrificial altar to the north of the mausoleum.
The steeds have poetic names that mostly denote their markings. Four of them were hit by arrows and the emperor left memorial tributes to each of them along with records of the military campaigns in which they carried him or in which they fell.
The carvings were broken apart early in the 20th century and two of them were smuggled out of China. They are now housed in a museum at the University of Pennsylvania, while those remaining in China are in a museum in Xi'an, the Shaanxi provincial capital.
By aesthetic standards of the day, they were quite realistic. Horses made frequent appearances in ancient scroll paintings, but most were static and inconspicuous, acting as loyal companions to reclusive scholars or officials seeking sanctuary in nature.
Unlike ancient artists obsessed with saddled horses, Xu Beihong (1895-1953) preferred feral and wild ones. Trained in France, the Chinese master studied equine anatomy, spending hours observing horses' movements and expressions. Especially fond of Mongolian breeds, he left a treasure trove of up to 1,000 sketches.
Xu's portrayals of horses galloping or trotting past, in a rich variety of poses, are some of the most captivating of their kind. Using mostly black ink, they combine the best methods from East and West. The lines and brush strokes are simple, yet invariably evoke the essence of the animals.
They are a contrast to the horses painted by Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), an Italian missionary who created many eight-horse images for the Qing emperors. In full color and resembling traditional European oil paintings, they were, however, closer in spirit to the Chinese style of depicting horses. There was nothing of the energy and exhilaration found in Xu's drawings.
While the tale of Pegasus is not widely known in China, "flying horse" is by no means a strange term. Several brands are named after it, most notably a cigarette with a long history.
It is true that China may pale in comparison with the West in creating talking horses or weeping horses in art and literature, with most of our horse-related prominence being in our vocabulary.
But before we get to that, I'll point to the different emphasis, or rather East-West focus, on different aspects of the horse. For example, most English words for "horse" define the animal by age and gender, such as colt for a male horse under the age of 4, filly for a female horse less than 4 years old, mare for a female aged 4 or older, yearling for one between 1 and 2 years old, and foal for one younger than a year old. Gelding and stallion denote castration or non-castration.
In contrast, most Chinese descriptions for the horse concern colors. Biao (骠) is yellow; liu (骝) is red with black mane and tail; yan (骃) is grayish; li (骊) is black; guo (騧) is yellow with black mouth; qi (骐) is purplish black; hua (骅) is red like the fruit date; xing (骍) is another kind of red; cong (骢) is blue; zhui (骓) is black with white feet; and mang (駹) is black with white face. Ju (驹) and ji (骥) refer to young and old horses, but not how young or how old, while jun (骏) and nu (驽) are names for fast and slow ones.
We have more names for different horses than there are zodiac animals, but most of them appear to have been inspired by the color spectrum.
We Chinese also have an equivalent for the term "prince charming" that has a whiff of the fairytale about it. It is "prince on a white horse" or "white-horse prince".
But a study of the colors of horses' coats made me realize the inherent irony in this Disney-like phrase: With rare exceptions, a horse turns gray or white as it ages, and is usually born with a darker shade. If you are not sure, check the skin underneath a white horse's coat.
So, associating a prince with mortality is not really the best way to present his youthful charm. However, since most of us are not equine veterinarians, we can be excused for envisioning this most desirable companion for females in the color of purity and forget about old age.
The Chinese attitude toward the zodiac animal of 2014 is embedded in a profusion of expressions handed down and enriched through centuries of man-horse dynamics.
Apart from serving as a symbol of loyalty and bravery for military heroes, the horse is often praised for its endurance, as illustrated in the proverbial thousand-mile horse.
Perhaps the best analogy for man's relationship with the horse concerns Bole, a wise man with an eye for the next thousand-mile horse. Here, the human being is the talent scout, manipulator and trainer, while the horse is to be observed for potential, and groomed. A mentor-protege parallel is quite obvious.
As such, the horse may also become the recipient of tiger-mom-style Chinese tough love, as in the phrase "A horse has to be whipped to run."
But ancient Chinese tended to identify with the animal so closely that when they talked about their horses they could be talking about themselves. "To err is human" has a Chinese equivalent: "Man may make mistakes and a horse may miss a step".
Chinese in general have a weakness for patting a horse on the butt, a friendly gesture that has since evolved to mean sycophancy. When you miss a beat and end up patting it on the leg, you have failed in the unctuous act of flattering someone.
In these sayings, the horse is no longer man's servant or apprentice, but an object of appreciation and power. This kind of duality is also present in the traditional Chinese perspective on entertainers.
While the man-horse power dependence may change with different situations, the horse reigns supreme in the equine hierarchy.
The donkey and the mule usually appear as sidekicks or foils in Chinese folktales to make the horse appear as magnificent as the superhero in a Hollywood fantasy film. About the only time the horse is overshadowed is by the appearance of the camel, which is so much bigger that, according to Chinese lore, even the thinnest one is still larger than the horse. But then, the camel has never been credited as a conqueror of the world.
There is no doubt that Chinese, ancient or modern, love the horse. But those who take "ma" (horse) as their surname cannot prove they are any different from the rest of us.
As it happens, Chinese Muslims took the sound for Muhammad and sinicized it to ma, hence the largest family name in this ethnic group. Also, Chinese rarely use the word in any last name for its literal meaning, otherwise wang (or wong in Cantonese, meaning king) would be the most coveted of all.
But even a king or emperor could enhance his regal stature while posing on a horse.
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A signature ink painting by Xu Beihong, who trained in France and spent hours studying horses' movements and expressions.
This painting, one of Giuseppe Castiglione's Afghan Four Steeds, features a horse named Chaoni'er. Castiglione was an Italian missionary.
(China Daily 02/04/2014 page1)