A Comparative Study of the Origins of Cavalry in the Ancient Near East and China

Posted in: AIAR
Tags: China, Comparative Study of the Origins of Cavalry in the Ancient Near East and China, Noble Group Fellow, Shaanxi Provincial Office of Cultural Heritage, Yinglan Zhang
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By: Yinglan Zhang, Shaanxi Provincial Office of Cultural Heritage, China, Noble Group Fellow

Cavalry was one of the dominant military forces in ancient times. Since its creation, it has played an important role in warfare, and has also had a profound influence on the formation and evolution of civilizations in Europe and Asia. In this context, a comparative study of the origins of cavalry in the Near East and China will help us to understand the interactions between the agricultural and nomadic civilizations of the Eurasian continents.

Archaeological evidence has revealed that people in northern China learned about horse-riding at the beginning of the First Millennium BCE. According to historical documents, in 307 BCE, King Wuling of the Zhao state ordered his army to dress in nomadic fashion and learn how to fight on horseback. This event has been regarded as the origin of cavalry troops in China.

The earliest archaeological evidence of cavalry in China is represented by two clay figurines unearthed in a tomb (M28057) from the late Warring States Period (ca. 350-300 BCE). Another significant discovery was that of the 116 life-sized terra-cotta cavalry figures of Terracotta Warriors and Horses unearthed in Burial Pit 2 in the mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shihuangdi. These archaeological findings indicate that cavalry had become an indispensable military unit by the end of the Warring State Period in China, and played an important role in the wars resulting in a united China (236-221 BCE). During the Western Han Period (202 BCE-8 CE), frequent confrontations with the nomadic Xiongnus in the northern and northwestern frontiers forced the Emperors of the Han Dynasty to establish massive cavalry units. Furthermore, in the 3rd to 4th Centuries CE, the stirrup was invented and subsequently used in ancient China.

It seems that horse-riding started in the ancient Near East quite early, although some scholars have asserted that cavalry was not in existence before the 9th Century BCE. Studies of Assyrian reliefs and texts by scholars suggest that cavalry emerged in Assyria during the early 9thCentury BCE, probably as the result of the need to counterattack nomadic invasions. By the end of the 8th Century BCE, the Assyrians themselves had more cavalry than chariots. The Assyrians introduced the “martingale” collar, an important innovation which helped riders keep control of their horses while shooting.

A few preliminary observations can be drawn here from a comparative study of the origins of cavalry in the ancient Near East and China:

1. Cavalry in ancient China probably originated as a result of influences from the Mongolian steppes; another direction of influences came from the Altai Mountains in the northwestern part of China. Among the reasons for the creation of cavalry were also probably the large-scale climate changes during this period.

2. Although, as stated above, cavalry appeared in the Near East as early as the 9th century BCE, much earlier than in ancient China, there is actually no connection between the two and cavalry from the Near East did not influence the cavalry of ancient China.

3. Based on my comparative study, I conclude that nomadic tribes on their northern frontiers influenced the creation of cavalry in both the ancient Near East and China. The riding tactics of the Scythians and the Cimmerians probably forced the Assyrians to adopt cavalry, and the same thing happened in ancient China. Repeated invasions by nomadic Mongolian tribes forced the kings in China to change their warfare tactics and they adopted the cavalry. Having to defend against nomadic invasions was one of the most important motivations contributing to the origins of cavalry in the ancient Near East and China.

4. After the creation of a special cavalry unit, the peoples of the ancient Near East and China made some innovations to the equine equipment in order to control their horses during fighting. The “martingale” collar was probably an innovation of the Near East, and stirrups were invented in ancient China.

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