Synopsis

Summary and most significant conclusions

 

Research

The book Dragon & Horse . Saddle Rugs and Other Horse Tack from china and Beyond is book is about the origin and development of the tack for horses and other riding and pack animals from the 5th century BC up to the 20th century AD.  It is based on a thorough research into representations of saddle rugs in Chinese painting, sculpture and applied arts. By comparison of these images with preserved saddle rugs, a useful typology could be developed, which is backed up by the structural analysis of the saddle rugs in the author’s collection. This way preserved specimens, which are many, can be properly dated and ascribed to their place of origin.

 

Horse tack

Since the 7th century BC the saddle gradually comes into use in North and West China by means of military and commercial contacts with the Xiongnu nomads living in the vast Eurasian steppe. These first saddles consist of no more than a small plied rectangular fleece, felt or piece of woven textile, that is secured by leather breast, belly and tail straps. The cavalry enters the regular Chinese army in the 5th century BC. This military use explains the need of a consolidated saddle: a wooden frame covered with leather, felt or textile and stuffed with reindeer hair, horse hair or hay provides for a consolidated and more comfortable seat. By heightening the pommel and cantle the saddle becomes even better fit for fighting or hunting. For the protection of the flanks of the horse, but also against the splashing of mud, the saddle is supplied with leather flaps. A major improvement around 322 AD is the Chinese invention of the stirrup, first just one-sided, but soon on both sides. Later on the saddle flaps get much bigger. This fits in the tendency to cover up most of the vulnerable limbs of the horse by leather, iron or bronze, although at the cost of the manoeuvrability. Since 600 AD the horse tack becomes more practical because of smaller flaps, and at the same time more opulent as is shown by several ornaments, like gilt bronze pendants and jewelled straps to tie up booty or game. Further improvements of the saddle are the much higher pommel and the sloping sides of the cantle, which makes mounting and getting off the horse much easier. Hereafter, apart from some small details, the horse-tack does not really change any more.

 

Saddle rugs 

‘Saddle rugs’ is the general term for top- and under-saddle rugs, horse blankets and flaps, made of felt, pelt, woven textile, leather, pile-knotted wool, silk or cotton.

The oldest saddle rugs are made of thick felt to protect both the back of the horse and the bottom of the rider against excessive friction and sweat. From rectangular the shape changes into slightly rounded at the back while it tapers into a point at the front. Later on several shapes occur at the same time: rectangular, square, round and oval. To cover both horse and saddle when the horse was not ridden, a long horse blanket is used, made of flat woven or pile knotted wool, embroidered silk or an even more precious textile imported from Central-Asia. Particularly tiger and leopard skins are popular, because they lent esteem to the horse rider. During the Tang, Song and Yuan dynasties luxurious saddle rugs, made of embroidered silk, are in favour. At the very end of this period rectangular under-saddle rugs appear, of which both corners at the rear are cut out. At the same time a short top-saddle rug is introduced to cover de buckles, by which the stirrups are attached to the saddle. During the Ming dynasty the shape of the saddle rug and also the materials and designs are more or less the same as during the Yuan period.

Under-saddle rugs consist of two halves, which are sewn in such a way, that the pole is sloping to both sides. This is done in order to avoid soaking by rainwater or sweat. To fix the saddle the under-saddle rug is always provided for with two or four strap-holes edged with leather. The design of an under-saddle rug is defined by a crosswise marked seat in the middle, a field with or without a central medallion and spandrels, a main and secondary borders.

Top-saddle rugs are much smaller. They are always made in one piece, have an oval or rectangular shape, or one that closely follows the contours of the saddle. The crosswise marked seat and the strap holes are lacking.

 

Saddle rugs from Ningxia, Gansu, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang en Tibet

Saddle rugs from Ningxia are made of pile-knotted wool with an asymmetrical knot open to the left on a cotton foundation. The formal design consists of geometrical patterns, stylized dragons, lotus flowers, Buddhist lions and auspicious symbols. The colours are limited to different hues of blue, white, yellow and red. Because of the use of sapan wood as a colorant, the colour red is not fast-dyed, and in most cases has been faded into a golden beige colour.

Saddle rugs from Gansu look like those from Ningxia, but they show a fast-dyed bright red, gained from madder. Some designs are copied from Ming brocaded silks.

The oldest Inner Mongolian rugs are comparable to those of Ningxia, while later rugs from Suiyuan-Baotou are knotted more densely and with a higher pile on a machine spun cotton foundation.

The pile-knotted saddle rugs from Xinjiang go back to an old tradition, which is characterized by a continuing exchange between China, Inner Mongolia, Islamic Central-Asia and India. The production of both woollen and silk carpets and rugs takes place in Kashgar, Khotan and Yarkand. Typical for Xinjiang is the use of the symmetrical knot.  

Because of a total lack of secular art and the fact that Tibetan religious art is much less realistic than Chinese art, we still know very little about early Tibetan rugs. They are made of sheep, yak or goat wool, in the so-called  ‘cut-loop Senneh knot’ technique.

Saddle rugs were used by people, who could afford the luxury of a horse, like lama’s, the nobility, the cavalry and rich merchants. They represent a magic, religious or at least an auspicious world full of dragons, phoenixes, white or light blue snow lions, tiger and human skins and a variety of lotus flowers, cloud-heads and auspicious symbols.

 

Most significant facts

* Since 500 BC the Chinese, besides building the Great Wall, were forced to train and equip a strong cavalry in order to defend themselves against the various nomadic peoples threatening the northern and western borders.

* The many preserved saddle rugs show that these textiles were status symbols pre-eminently, showing the importance and wealth of the owner, or were used for particular religious or political ceremonies.

* At times China, as well as Mongolia and Tibet, were both contributing as well as much more open to foreign cultures than we are used to think. A good example of this phenomenon is young female horse riders, wearing fancy ‘Turkish’ trousers, who, during the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD) had a passion for playing polo.

* China played a much more important role in the development of the pile-knotted rug than thought of up to now. The book shows that this form of textile art was not just slavishly copied from Islamic Central Asia in a relative late stage, but that the Chinese, right from the start, developed their own techniques and style.

 

 

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