Taizong Horses [Object of the Day #100]

November 5, 2012

The six stone horse reliefs, known in Chinese as “Zhaoling Liujun” 昭陵六骏 (the six stone horses of Zhao Mausoleum), were commissioned by Emperor Taizong of the Tang dynasty 唐太宗 (r. 627-649) in 636 CE and presumably completed in 649 CE, the time of his death. The realistic depiction and exquisite carving techniques of these stone reliefs earn them a unique place in Chinese art and sculptural history. They bear exceptional historical significance as personal relics of one of the greatest Chinese sovereigns.

After assisting his father in founding the Tang dynasty in 618 CE, Li Shimin, then the Prince of Qin, continued battling against tough contenders to secure the borders of China. Several years later, he wiped out all the major rivals and returned triumphantly, but was locked in an intense rivalry with his elder brother, the Crown Prince. The power struggle became life and death and Taizong launched a coup, killing the Crown Prince and forcing his father to yield the throne. In 626 CE, Li Shimin became the second Tang ruler, Emperor Taizong, and ruled for 23 years, inaugurating one of the most glorious reigns in Chinese history and laying a foundation for a prosperous Tang empire that would endure almost three hundred years.

Bas Relief of "Saluzi" or "Autumn Dew"
Bas Relief of “Saluzi” or “Autumn Dew”

In 636 CE, Emperor Taizong selected Mount Jiuzong 九嵕山, 56 miles northwest of the capital Chang’an (now Xi’an), to bury his Empress and to serve as his own necropolis. He ordered images of his six favorite horses, chosen from military victories that secured him the throne, to be carved in stone. He named and composed a laudatory poem for each one. Upon his death, the six stone horse reliefs and other stone monuments were placed along the east and west sides of the “spirit path” at the North Gate, the back exit of the tomb complex named Zhaoling or Zhao Mausoleum.

Bas Relief of “Quanmaogua” ("Curly")
Bas Relief of “Quanmaogua” (“Curly”)

The horses stood at the Mausoleum for over twelve hundred years, venerated by imperial and common people alike. They continue to hold a special place in the hearts of the Chinese people to this day. The six stone horse reliefs were removed from the Mausoleum in two groups between 1913 and 1917. Four remain in China at the Beilin Museum in Xi’an. The other two were sold and came to the Penn Museum as a loan in 1918. They were later purchased by Eldridge R. Johnson who donated them to the Museum in 1921.



636-649 CE, Tang dynasty (618-907 CE)

Zhao Mausoleum, Liquan County, Shaanxi Province, China

C 395

Saluzi, meaning ‘Autumn Dew’ or ‘Whirlwind Victory,’ was ridden by Tang Taizong before he became emperor, during the siege of the eastern capital Luoyang in 621CE. At a critical moment, when Taizong alone was pursued by the enemy, Saluzi was pierced by an arrow in the chest. General Qiu Xinggong came to rescue Taizong out of peril and gave him his own horse.  Recalling this event when it came time to build his mausoleum, Emperor Taizong, ordered the scene of the General pulling the arrow out of Saluzi to be rendered in stone.  The horse is shown stoically bearing the pain before expiring.  The only one of the six reliefs with a human, Saluzi was originally placed first on the west side of the “spirit path,” leader of the other five horse reliefs.



636-649 CE, Tang dynasty (618-907 CE)

Zhao Mausoleum, Liquan County, Shaanxi Province, China

C 396

Quanmaoqua, or “saffron-yellow horse with a wavy coat of hair,” sometimes translated “Curly,” was ridden by Tang Taizong before he became emperor in the battle against a contender in Hebei Province in 622 CE. The horse is shown walking briskly with good spirit, despite grievous wounds sustained from nine arrows, six in front and three in back. Just imagine the fierce battle and risks Taizong endured while on horseback. Most of the arrows are still in the relief. This relief was originally placed second on the west side of the spirit path at the mausoleum.

Penn Museum Objects #C396 and #C395.

See these and other objects like them on Penn Museum’s Online Collection Database