This large wood figure of a horse, along with the large figures of horses made of bronze and pottery which were produced for burial purposes during the Han dynasty attest to the high esteem in which horses were held during the Han. It was during this period (206 BC - AD 220) that the local breed of horse was improved with the importation of a type of horse referred to as tainma ('celestial horses') from the Wushan kingdom and Ferghana. It was this new breed that was portrayed by the bronze and ceramic sculptors who managed to capture their strength and grace. This type of horse in bronze is exemplified by the large (120 cm. high) example illustrated by R.D. Jacobsen, Appreciating China: Gifts from Ruth and Bruce Dayton, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2002, pp. 38-9, no. 16.
Large wood figures of horses of Han dynasty date appear to be far more rare than those in pottery or bronze, which makes sense as the material is vulnerable to decay. One other similar, complete wood horse, of slightly smaller size (70.5 cm. high), has been published. This is the horse in the Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon illustrated by D. Jenkins, Masterworks in Wood: China and Japan, Portland Art Museum, 1976, pp. 20-1, no. 1, where it is dated 3rd century BC. In the catalogue entry the author notes that the figure is reputed to have come from Changsha, the site of the Kingdom of Chu. The present horse was also reputed to have come from Changsha, but a recent carbon 14 test dates the horse to 1st century BC - 1st century AD. The same entry mentions a quite similar horse, also purported to come from Changsha, in a private collection in Chicago, referring to the Junkunc figure. A related head and torso of a wood horse of smaller size (70 cm. long), bearing traces of pigment and dated to the Han dynasty is illustrated in the exhibition catalogue, Chine connue & inconnue, Musée Cernuschi, Paris, October 1992 - February 1993, pp. 114-17.
Although quite stylized, both the Junkunc horse and the Portland horse have an air of alert vitality conveyed by their erect stance, long upright neck and mouth open showing the teeth. In the case of the Junkunc horse the elegant tapering shape and positioning of the forelegs with the hoofs quite close together adds to this sense of altertness. Both horses are also well detailed in the carving of the hoofs, pasterns and hocks, and in the present horse the position of the pricked ears is also naturalistic. Both horses are made from separate pieces of wood that have been joined and then carved. In the case of the Portland horse they mention eight pieces (head, neck, body, four legs and tail). It is also noted that the figure bears extensive remains of a brownish-black surface, which is thought to be original, as well as traces of a red bridle on the head and red pigment inside the mouth. All of this is similar to the present figure, except that the Junkunc horse appears to retain all of its original coating.
It is this coating on the Junkunc horse that is of particular interest, as it has been suggested that it might be paper matrix attached to the wood figure with a pastelike substance. According to Tsuen-Hsuin Tsien in Written on Bamboo & Silk: The Beginnings of Chinese Books and Inscriptions, 2nd ed., Chicago/London, 2004, p. 147-8, various archaeological discoveries now make it clear that paper made from plant fibers can be traced back to the 2nd century BC of the Western Han period or even earlier. The author discusses the Junkunc horse and the unusual coating. When he first viewed the horse in the 1960s it was dated to the Warring States period and he was told that it was coated with a paper matrix. He found this difficult to believe as at that time there was no archeological evidence of paper having been made that early in China. Now that a carbon 14 test dates the piece to 1st century BC - 1st century AD, it makes it more likely that the coating could indeed be paper or a paper matrix.
The results of University of Toronto, Isotrace Laboratory, T0-12706 carbon 14 test are consistent with the dating of this lot.