Flying Down the Central Asian Steppe

“Female Polo Player,” ca. 500 AD, terracotta with slip and pigments (photo courtesy International Dunhuang Project)

Among the nearly 100,000 items in the Magao Caves (“The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas”) that  Aurel Stein packed off to London and New Delhi were small animal figurines and humans on horseback.  

For additional Venetian Red posts on the “Caves of a Thousand Buddhas” — On the Trail of Alexander;Talisman of the Pole Star, Little Paper Offerings.

The figurines are unusual; among the thousands of Buddhist-related items, they really don’t have religious significance. However, like the Buddhist items, they too have little stories to tell about the intermingling of cultures along the Silk Route more than a millennium ago.  “Female Polo Player” is unique for its depiction of leisure time on the Asian Steppe.

Polo was first played in the Persian empire certainly from the first century CE, perhaps earlier.  It was first developed as war training for the cavalry; each game emulated a miniature battle.   Polo was largely confined to the nobility. But here’s the interesting part: women, as well as men, played the sport enthusiastically.  Through Persian conquest, polo was exported to Central Asia. From there, thanks to the Silk Route, it was introduced into China sometime in the 6th c. CE. 

The exquisitely-rendered figures of this sculpture are deceptively sophisticated.  In many respects this pony is classic Tang —its elongated face, thick neck, and chunky haunches are reminiscent of those highly glazed cousins rendered in China proper.  Nevertheless, its unglazed finish and terracotta coloring, together with its endearing Appaloosa-like spots, clearly identify it as a Central Asian breed, perhaps the Heavenly Mountain pony so prized by the Chinese for its endurance. The rider is a brilliant counterpoint to her mount. Her long tunic hangs over loose pants, which are tucked snugly into her boots.  (The style was originally adopted from the “foreigner’s costume,” and later became the rage among women in China.) The turquoise color of her outfit subtlely complements the terracotta of her mount. Her pose is artistically refined for she pivots and leans, breaking the straight forward plane of the horse. Though it’s no longer there, we imagine she has lifted her polo stick to gallop downfield after the ball.    

The piéce de resistance of course is the “flying gallop” gait. Balletic and powerful. Though photographer Eadweard Muybridge would prove this gait to be anatomically incorrect in the late 19th c. (Galloping into History), I am quite sure this is the only pose this polo pony could have assumed. It seemlessly combines the essence of nobility—the speed and grace that is polo—with a naive folk quality that makes this ride look like a heck of a good time.

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