Throughout China's long history, no animal has impacted it as greatly as the horse. From its domestication in north-eastern China around 5000 years ago, the horse has been an integral figure in the creation and survival of the Middle Kingdom.
Its significance was such, that as early as the Shang dynasty (c.1600-1100 BC), horses and chariots were entombed with their owners for use in the afterlife. During the Western Zhou dynasty (c. 1100-771 BC), military power was measured by the number of war chariots in a particular kingdom. As the empire grew, horses became essential for maintaining contact and control of the extended empire, as well as for transporting goods and supplies throughout the vast and diverse country.
China's equine population went through three major periods of significant change throughout its history. The first was during the Han dynasty (206 BC-220AD) when, under Emperor Wudi, the Chinese made great efforts to import better horses from the Arab countries in the West. The next was during the Tang dynasty (618-907), when the quantity and quality of the horses in CHina was increased by both by advances in domestic breeding practices and the importation of Arab-type and Turkish horses through silk road trade. Finally, during the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), there was an overall decline in horse quality with the deterioration of the remnants of the Tang breeding programs. Ironically, this decline occurred during the first imperial dynasty controlled by nomadic horsemen.
China's very survival relied on its equestrian prowess. From the 4th-century BC onwards, the empire's greatest threat came from its nomadic neighbours to the north and west. By the Han dynasty, the Chinese had reluctantly been forced to abandon the war chariot in favour of mounted cavalry in order to effectively face this threat. From the Xiongnu to the Mongols and Manchu, these northern tribes fielded some of the finest cavalry the world would ever see, while providing a constant thorn in the side of the Chinese.
The Chinese quest to maintain adequate equestrian forces to combat the nomadic raiders, became a common thread throughout the imperial period. Massive military campaigns were waged in search of superior "blood-sweating horses" from the Ferghana (Dayuan) far to the west. These sojourns, while tremendously expensive in terms of resources and manpower, not only helped to improve the quality of Chinese horses, but also led to the establishment of major contacts between East and West and the increased activity along the famous Silk Roads.
The horse also played an important role in the mythology of early China. Closely associated with the dragon, both were thought capable of flight and of carrying their riders to the "home
of the immortals." The ability to fly has been associated with survival throughout all of Chinese history.