Horses and Camels

The people [of Ferghana]...have...many good horses.
The horses sweat blood and come from the stock of the "heavenly horse."

--Zhang Qian, 2nd c. BCE (tr. F. Hirth)

The camel...manifests its merit in dangerous places; it has
secret understanding of springs and sources; subtle indeed is its knowledge.

-- Kuo P'u, 3rd c. CE (tr. E.H. Schafer)

Crying camels come out of the Western Regions,
Tail to muzzle linked, one after the other.
The posts of Han sqeep them away throught he clouds,
The men of Hu lead them over the snow.

-- Mei Yao-ch'en, 11th c. CE (tr. Schafer)

Animals are an essential part of the story of the Silk Road. While those such as sheep and goats provided many communities the essentials of daily life, horses and camels both supplied local needs and were keys to the development of international relations and trade. Even today in Mongolia and some areas of Kazakhstan, the rural economy may still be very intimately connected with the raising of horses and camels; their milk products and, even occasionally, their meat, are a part of the local diet. The distinct natural environments of much of Inner Asia encompassing vast steppe lands and major deserts made those animals essential for the movement of armies and trade. The animals' value to the neighboring sedentary societies, moreover, meant that they themselves were objects of trade. Given their importance, the horse and camel occupied a significant place in the literatures and representational art of many peoples along the Silk Road.

With the development of the light, spoked wheel in the second millennium BCE, horses came to be used to draw military chariots, remains of which have been found in tombs all across Eurasia. The use of horses as cavalry mounts probably spread eastward from Western Asia in the early part of the first millennium BCE. Natural conditions suitable for raising horses large and strong enough for military use were to be found in the steppes and mountain pastures of Northern and Central Inner Asia, but generally not in the regions best suited for intensive agriculture such as Central China. Marco Polo would note much later regarding the lush mountain pastures: "Here is the best pasturage in the world; for a lean beast grows fat here in ten days" (Latham tr.). Thus, well before the famous journey to the west of Zhang Qian (138-126 BCE), sent by the Han emperor to negotiate an alliance against the nomadic Xiongnu, China had been importing horses from the northern nomads.

The relations between the Xiongnu and China have traditionally been seen as marking the real start of the Silk Road, since it was in the second century BCE that we can document large quantities of silk being sent on a regular basis to the nomads as a way of keeping them from invading China and also as a means of payment for the horses and camels needed by the Chinese armies. Zhang Qian's report about the Western Regions and the rebuff of initial Chinese overtures for allies prompted energetic measures by the Han to extend their power to the west. Not the least of the goals was to secure a supply of the "blood-sweating" "heavenly" horses of Ferghana.

This relationship between the rulers of China and the nomads who controlled the supply of horses continued down through the centuries to shape important aspects of the trade across Asia. At times the substantial financial resources of the Chinese empire were strained to keep frontiers secure and the essential supply of horses flowing. Silk was a form of currency; tens of thousands of bolts of the precious substance would be sent annually to the nomadic rulers in exchange for horses, along with other commodities (such as grain) which the nomads sought. Clearly not all that silk was being used by the nomads but was being traded to those further west. For a time in the eighth and early ninth centuries, the rulers of the T'ang Dynasty were helpless to resist the exorbitant demands of the nomadic Uighurs, who had saved the dynasty from internal rebellion and exploited their monopoly as the main suppliers of horses. Beginning in the Song Dynasty (11th-12th centuries), tea became increasingly important in Chinese exports, and over time bureaucratic mechanisms were developed to regulate the tea and horse trade. Government efforts to control the horse-tea trade with those who ruled the areas north of the Tarim Basin (in the Xinjiang of today) continued down into the sixteenth century, when it was disrupted by political disorders.

The best known example to illustrate the importance of the horse in the history of Inner Asia is the Mongol Empire. From modest beginnings in some of the best pasturelands of the north, the Mongols came to control much of Eurasia, largely because they perfected the art of cavalry warfare. The indigenous Mongol horses, while not large, were hardy, and, as contemporary observers noted, could survive in winter conditions because of their ability to find food under the ice and snow covering the steppes. It is important to realize though that the reliance on the horse was also a limiting factor for the Mongols, since they could not sustain large armies where there was not sufficient pasturage. Even when they had conquered China and established the Yan Dynasty, they had to continue to rely on the northern pastures to supply their needs within China proper.

The early Chinese experience of reliance on the nomads for horses was not unique: we can see analogous patterns in other parts of Eurasia. In the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, for example, Muscovite Russia traded extensively with the Nogais and other nomads in the southern steppes who provided on a regular basis tens of thousands of horses for the Muscovite armies. Horses were important commodities on the trade routes connecting Central Asia to northern India via Afghanistan, because, like central China, India was unsuited to raising quality horses for military purposes. The great Mughal rulers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries appreciated this as did the British in the nineteenth century. William Moorcroft, who became famous as one of the rare Europeans to reach Bukhara in the early nineteenth century, justified his dangerous trip north from India by his effort to establish a reliable supply of cavalry mounts for the British Indian army.

Important as horses were, the camel was arguably of far greater significance in the history of the Silk Road. Domesticated as long ago as the fourth millennium BCE, by the first millennium BCE camels were prominently depicted on Assyrian and Achaemenid Persian carved reliefs and figured in Biblical texts as indicators of wealth. Among the most famous depictions are those in the ruins of Persepolis, where both of the main camel species--the one-humped dromedary of Western Asia and the two-humped Bactrian of Eastern Asia--are represented in the processions of those bearing tribute to the Persian king. In China awareness of the value of the camel was heightened by the interactions between the Han and the Xiongnu toward the end of the first millennium BCE when camels were listed among the animals taken captive on military campaigns or sent as diplomatic gifts or objects of trade in exchange for Chinese silk. Campaigns of the Chinese army to the north and west against the nomads invariably required support by large trains of camels to carry supplies. With the rise of Islam in the seventh century CE, the success of Arab armies in rapidly carving out an empire in the Middle East was due to a considerable degree to their use of camels as cavalry mounts.

The camel's great virtues include the ability to carry substantial loads--400-500 pounds--and their well-known capacity for surviving in arid conditions. The secret to the camel's ability to go for days without drinking is in its efficient conservation and processing of fluids (it does not store water in its hump[s], which in fact are largely fat). Camels can maintain their carrying capacity over long distances in dry conditions, eating scrub and thorn bushes. When they drink though, they may consume 25 gallons at a time; so caravan routes do have to include rivers or wells at regular intervals. The use of the camel as the dominant means of transporting goods over much of Inner Asia is in part a matter of economic efficiency--as Richard Bulliet has argued, camels are cost efficient compared to the use of carts requiring the maintenance of roads and the kind of support network that would be required for other transport animals. In some areas though down into modern times, camels continue to be used as draft animals, pulling plows and hitched to carts.

Given their importance in the lives of peoples across inner Asia, not surprisingly camels and horses figure in literature and the visual arts. A Japanese TV crew filming a series on the Silk Road in the 1980s was entertained by camel herders in the Syrian desert singing a love ballad about camels. Camels frequently appear in early Chinese poetry, often in a metaphorical sense. Arab poetry and the oral epics of Turkic peoples in Central Asia often celebrate the horse. Visual representations of the horse and camel may celebrate them as essential to the functions and status of royalty. Textiles woven by and for the nomads using the wool from their flocks often include images of these animals. One of the most famous examples is from a royal tomb in southern Siberia and dates back more than 2000 years. It is possible that the mounted riders on it were influenced by images such as those in the reliefs at Persepolis where the animals depicted were involved in royal processions and the presentation of tribute. The royal art of the Sasanians (3rd-7th century) in Persia includes elegant metal plates, among them ones showing the ruler hunting from camelback. A famous ewer fashioned in the Sogdian regions of Central Asia at the end of the Sasanian period shows a flying camel, the image of which may have inspired a later Chinese report of flying camels being found in the mountains of the Western Regions.

Examples in the visual arts of China are numerous. Beginning in the Han Dynasty, grave goods often include these animals among the mingqi, the sculptural representations of those who were seen as providing for the deceased in the afterlife. The best known of the mingqi are those from the T'ang period, ceramics often decorated in multicolored glaze (sancai). While the figures themselves may be relatively small (the largest ones normally not exceeding between two and three feet in height) the images suggest animals with "attitude"--the horses have heroic proportions, and they and the camels often seem to be vocally challenging the world around them (perhaps here the "crying camels" of the poet quoted above). A recent study of the camel mingqi indicates that in the T'ang period the often detailed representation of their loads may represent not so much the reality of transport along the Silk Road but rather the transport of goods (including food) specific to beliefs of what the deceased would need in the afterlife. Some of these camels transport orchestras of musicians from the Western Regions; other mingqi frequently portray the non-Chinese musicians and dancers who were popular among the T'ang elite. Among the most interesting of the mingqi are sculptures of women playing polo, a game which was imported into China from the Middle East. The 8th-9th century graves at Astana on the Northern Silk Road contained a wide range of mounted figures--women riding astride, soldiers in their armor, and horsemen identifiable by their headgear and facial features as being from the local population. It is significant that the human attendants (grooms, caravaneers) of the animal figures among the mingqi usually are foreigners, not Chinese. Along with the animals, the Chinese imported the expert animal trainers; the caravans invariably were led by bearded westerners wearing conical hats. The use of foreign animal trainers in China during the Yan (Mongol) period of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries is well documented in the written sources.

Apart from the well-known scuptures, the images of horse and camel in China also include paintings. Narrative scenes in the Buddhist murals of the caves in Western China often represent merchants and travelers in the first instance by virtue of their being accompanied by camel caravans. Among the paintings on paper found in the famous sealed library at Dunhuang are evocatively stylized images of camels (drawn with, to the modern eye, a sense of humor). The Chinese tradition of silk scroll painting includes many images of foreign ambassadors or rulers of China with their horses.

-- Daniel C. Waugh

Reading/Viewing:

  • Barfield, Thomas J. The Nomadic Alternative (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1993), esp. 58-64 (camels), 132-145 (horses), 148-168 (horse nomads and their relations with sedentary neighbors).
  • Beckwith, Christopher I. "The Impact of the Horse and Silk Trade on the Economies of T'ang China and the Uighur Empire: On the Importance of International Commerce in the Early Middle Ages," Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, XXXIV/2 (1991): 183-198.
  • Bulliet, Richard W. The Camel and the Wheel (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1975).
  • Creel, H.G. "The Role of the Horse in Chinese History," The American Historical Review, LXX/3 (1965): 647-672.
  • Knauer, Elfriede Regina. The Camel's Load in Life and Death: Iconography and Ideology of Chinese Pottery Figurines from Han to Tang and Their Relevance to Trade along the Silk Routes (Zrich: Akanthus, 1998).
  • Kmkulz, Elmira, and Daniel C. Waugh. "Animals" (Traditional Cultures of Central Asia).
  • Opie, James. Tribal Rugs: Nomadic and Village Weavings from the Near East and Central Asia (London: Laurence King Publishing, 1992, esp. Ch. 2 ("The Roots of Nomadic Art") and Ch. 3, "The Pazyryk Rug," pp. 24-33.
  • Potts, Daniel. "Bactrian Camels and Bactrian-Dromedary Hybrids," The Silk Road 3/1(2005).
  • Rossabi, Morris. "The Tea and Horse Trade with Inner Asia during the Ming," Journal of Asian History, 4/2 (1970): 136-168.
  • Roux, Jean-Paul. "Le Chameu en Asie Centrale: Son nom - son elevage - sa place dans la mythologie," Central Asiatic Journal, V (1959/60), 35-76.
  • Schafer, Edward H. "The Camel in China down to the Mongol Dynasty," Sinologica, II (1970): 165-194; 263-290.
  • The Silk Road (Video series produced by NHK and CCTV): Film 20, "The Road Vanishes into a Lake," contains sequence shot on a camel farm in Kazakhstan; Film 27, "The Caravans Move West," contains a caravan sequence in the Syrian desert.
  • Sinor, Denis. "Horse and pasture in Inner Asian history," Oriens Extremis, 19/1-2 (1972): 171-183.