Rosemary Scott, International Academic Director Asian Art
In addition to being a rare and expertly wrought work of art, the saddle in the current sale provides a tangible reminder of the importance of horses in Yuan dynasty China. Horses along with Mongol riding skills were crucial to the latter's conquest of China, and once they had taken Beijing in 1251 they lost no time in taking over the Chinese imperial herds of horses, which still included some remnants of the powerful Ferghana horses first brought to China in the Han dynasty. The quality of their horses was critical to the Mongol cavalry. Mongol mounted archers learned to use their powerful bows to shoot in all directions, and they preferred to shoot at the gallop because the ride was smoother and the horse had its neck stretched forward, leaving a clear shot. The need to stay well-balanced in the saddle at the gallop, while the rider's hands were engaged with bow and arrow, was almost certainly the reason for the high pommel and cantle on most Yuan dynasty saddles, including the current example. However, it has been suggested, on the basis of mid-11th century tomb paintings that the saddle form having the pommel higher and narrower than the cantle may have come from north China under the Liao (L. Komaroff and Stefano Carboni, The Legacy of Genghis Khan, New York and New Haven, 2002, p. 273.
In order to ensure a reliable supply of horses, which were needed for military action, for the dissemination of information along the newly built road and post-station network, and for the imperial guards, Khubilai Khan instituted a government department or Court of the Imperial Stud to oversee the welfare of his herds, and also established strict regulations for the acquisition of horses from the population. His grandfather, Genghis Khan had already established regulations for the care of horses during military campaigns, some details of which suggested that horses were deemed of greater value than soldiers.
However, horses were of value for more than just the military use, transport and hunting. The Yuan dynasty poet Ma ZhiyuanP (c, 1250-1321), who is regarded as one of the four great Yuan dynasty playwrights, was a resident of Dadu, the Yuan capital. Ma wrote a poem entitled Jie Ma (Lending My Horse), in which he tells of the care he takes of his horse and expresses his worries about how the friend who is borrowing the horse will use it. He also gives the friend strict instructions on how to treat the animal, even to the extent of urging him to use a soft saddle blanket to protect its coat (see J. I. Crump, Songs from Xanadu, Ann Arbor, 1983, pp. 27-9). This keen interest in horses was not simply an eccentricity of this particular poet, but reflects the significance of horses during this period. Their importance can also be seen in the painting of the period, such as those by the great Zhao Mengfu. On the one hand Zhao painted what some scholars suggest may have been a self-portrait in Man and Horse dated 1296 in the Metropolitan Museum, New York (illustrated in The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty, New York and New Haven, 2010, p. 193, fig. 211). This painting was probably intended to convey a reference to Bole, a legendary judge of horses. Zhao Mengfu's Man Riding a Horse, also painted in 1296, and preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing (illustrated ibid., p.195, fig. 213) was painted for his brother and shows a young man dressed as an official, probably setting out for a new post. In both of these paintings, and a number of others of the period, such as Ren Renfa and Gong Kai, the horses are highly symbolic and rendered with as great care as any human figures. Indeed in Yuan China, a gentleman's horses were not only his most usual and efficient means of transport, but reflected both the taste and status of their owner, as did their trappings.
Lacquer had played an important part in weapons and in armour for both men and horses from early times. Indeed the 4th century BC Zuo zhuan relates the story of a general from the Song state, who in 606 BC lost a battle against the State of Zheng, and in so doing also lost many men and much equipment. When he was rebuked for the loss of the latter, he replied that there would be sufficient leather so long as there were cows and that there was plenty of rhinoceros horn, but when the armourers asked him about the lacquer for strengthening the leather, he was unable to answer. Some of the earliest excavated lacquer armour comes from the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng at Suixian in Hubei province. From this tomb armour made up of plaques of leather, lacquered and then painted in lacquer of contrasting colours has been discovered. Not only has lacquered armour for men been unearthed, but also a chamfron - part of horse frontlet - (see Suixian Zeng hou Yi mu, Beijing, 1980). While the Warring States and Han dynasty armour appears to be plain or have painted decoration, the Tang dynasty saw lacquered leather armour plaques with designs cut through differently coloured layers of lacquer. A small number of such Tang plaques were found by Aurel Stein in 1906 at Fort Miran in East Turkestan (illustrated by Sir Harry Garner in Chinese Lacquer, London, 1979, pl. 25).
Although lacquered saddles appear to have been made as early as the Yuan dynasty, surviving examples are extremely rare. A Ming dynasty saddle, dating to the 16th or 17th century, and embellished with cinnabar lacquer bearing designs of horses and figures was included in the exhibition Carved Lacquer, Tokugawa Art Museum, 1984, no. 166. A Qing dynasty saddle ornamented with carved black lacquer depicting bats and the Chinese character xi (happiness) is in the E. Hermes Collection, Paris (illustrated in Heavenly Horses, Hong Kong, 1997, pp. 200-1, no. 78).
It is interesting to note one of the illustrations from the fourteenth century Jami al-Tawarikh by Rashid al-Din (1247-1318), a Persian official employed by the Mongol Ilkhans in Iran, now in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, which appears to show Mongol cavalry on a training exercise (illustrated by John Man in Genghis Khan: Life, Death and Resurrection, London, 2005 edition, colour plate opposite page 97). A young man, dressed slightly differently than the others, leads the field and is shown in the process of executing the famous backwards 'Parthian shot'. Looking at the detail of this saddle, it seems possible that the artist was attempting to convey the appearance of carved tixi lacquer on both the pommel and cantle, as on the current saddle. It is likely that the young man in the painting is a young prince, demonstrating his skills as a warrior in order to establish his position in the Mongol hierarchy.
Saddles of the elite in this period were also sometimes ornamented with precious metals. Saddle arches and fitting from the Mongol empire in the first half of the 13th century, now in the Khalili Collection, are decorated with gold repousse (illustrated by L. Komaroff and Stefano Carboni, The Legacy of Genghis Khan, op. cit., p. 16, fig. 9). Mongol saddle arches in silver gilt repousse now in the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, were found in 1845 in a burial site on the Molochnaya River in southern Ukraine (illustrated ibid, p. 66, fig. 63). Extravagant saddles were not, however, only the preserve of the privileged male, and a saddle with embellished with sheets of gold with repousse decoration was excavated from the tomb of a young noblewoman at Xianghuang Banner, Xilin Gol League, Inner Mongolia (fig. 1) (also illustrated in Heavenly Horses, Hong Kong, 1997, pp. 186-7, no. 71). This latter decoration follows a tradition already seen in the Liao for metal decoration. Silver gilt and gilt bronze fittings for the pommel and cantle of a saddle, along with bridle and hind strap fittings, were unearthed from a Khitan tomb at Daiqintala, Horqin Right Wing Middle Banner, Hinggan League, Inner Mongolia (illustrated ibid., pp. 182-3, no. 70).
The carved lacquer on the current saddle is of superb quality with a deeply carved pattern of c-form ruyi heads edged with a squared spiral band. The saddle would have been very expensive and the person who ordered it would have had to wait some considerable time for its delivery - far longer than they would have had to wait if the saddle was to be embellished with precious metal. This suggests a patron who enjoyed sophisticated tastes as well as high rank.
fig. 1 Collection of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region Museum, illustrated in the The World of Khubilai Khan. Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010, fig. 9