Year of the Horse: Chinese Horse Paintings

Dating from as early as 1000 B.C.E., the traditional Chinese method of counting years is based on the sixty-year rotation of the planet Jupiter (known as the “year star”) around the sun. Every sixty-year period is divided into five cycles of twelve years, and each of the twelve years is associated with a particular animal. In general, each year contains twelve lunar months of twenty-eight or twenty-nine days, with occasional adjustments.

Accordingly, Chinese years vary in length and do not begin or end at the same time as Western years. The current Year of the Horse lasts from February 12, 2002 to January 31, 2003.

According to recent archaeological discoveries, the character for “horse” (ma) appears in the most ancient form of Chinese writing, which dates from the fourteenth to eleventh century B.C.E., while surviving painted images of horses date from around the fourth century B.C.E. The species of horse native to China were not as large or strong as those from Central Asia, especially the highly coveted “heavenly horses” (tianma) from the Central Asian kingdom of Ferghana, which traders began to import during the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.–220 C.E.).

However, it was not until the Tang dynasty (618–907) that the horse emerged as a prominent independent category in the Chinese painting tradition. Subsequently, the horse became a recurring theme, especially in depictions of travel, trade, hunting, and military exercises and in genre paintings showing the nomadic tribes that lived to the north and west of China.

In the exhibition Year of the Horse: Chinese Horse Paintings, nineteen works of horse paintings and calligraphy, dating from the eleventh to twentieth century, depict several major themes, such as hunting, grooms and horses, and Central Asian nomads and horses.