How horse hitching posts in China became cultural treasures

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Horse hitching stone posts found before 1992. The image at right shows the structure of horse hitching stone posts. Photos: Wugong Hu https://doi.org/10.2218/jls.3077

The long history of horse hitching posts in China, going back almost 2000 years, has been chronicled by a researcher, who described their transition from a practical farm item to a symbol of wealth and culture.

Today, they survive in their thousands as a popular cultural phenomenon, being used as garden ornaments, and even organised into major public artworks.

Earliest known records of horse hitching posts depicted them as simple wooden posts, most of them undecorated.

The style did not change for a thousand years, until the Yuan Dynasty, from 1271 to 1368 CE.

By then, the wooden posts were painted red, with a carved monkey on the top.

Stone horse hitching posts developed in the last 300 years, with none found dating to before the 1700s. The artwork and symbolism became more varied and elaborate over time, conveying a more complex meaning.

Stone posts were originally used by single families in rural areas for practical and symbolic purposes. They were used for tying animals, exorcising evil spirits, flaunting and obtaining blessings.

Paintings from the Tang Dynasty. The top of is entitled Map of Zhao Yebai, by Gan Han, 706-783 CE. The lower image is called Map of Hundred Horses, by Yan Wei (about  800 CE). Images: https://doi.org/10.2218/jls.3077

Because of the beautiful patterns and implied meaning, the stone hitching posts were eventually sold and transported to city markets, and the original function was forgotten.

Today, the posts are used by organisations in cities, such as museums, campuses, institutes and parks. The posts are organised into displays of landscape art or as decorations in classical gardens.

Ke Bai, in his paper in the Journal of Lithic Studies, said the posts were initially a practical tool used for simply tying horses, with no added symbolism. Later, the stone posts were carved with many decorative patterns.

Tens of thousands of stone posts have been discovered next to gates of rural residential houses, always in pairs, primarily in northern China. They are seldom found in cities.

The owners of the posts were most likely rich farmers with horses or cows, but not belonging to the nobility. The rich farmers needed to hitch animals in front of the house, and they preferred to use the stone posts to show their wealth and status to neighbours, as well as gain the associated blessing.

Examples of the ornate tops of stone horse hitching posts. Images: https://doi.org/10.2218/jls.3077

Both archaeologists and artists have been working to interpret the symbolism on the posts.

“Patterns used on the posts, originating from fairy tales, religion and life, have different meanings,” writes Bai, who is with the Shaanxi Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage.

“The function and symbolism of the Chinese carved stone hitching post changed with the development of agriculture and transportation.

“Some of its original functions vanished, and the value changed from a practical implement to a standard of wealth, good taste and culture.”

Stone posts comprised four parts: The head, neck, body and foot.

The head, the most delicate part, was carved in the shape of animals, figures and symbols of fortune. The neck was formed in bas-relief, decorated with flowers and leaves or triangles. The body is cuboid or octagonal, and it was sometimes decorated in bas-relief or with characters.

A landscape artwork on the campus of Xi’an Fine Art Academy, using stone horse hitching posts. Image:  Ke Bai, https://doi.org/10.2218/jls.3077

The foot is usually rough, and buried underground.

Most of the head is openwork carving so that animals could be tied through the holes. Sometimes, an extra hole was drilled in the middle of the body.

The posts are classified based on the patterns used to adorn the head of the posts. These include lions, monkeys, symbols of good fortune, anthropomorphic figures and rare animals, such as falcons or elephants. The character Huren was also used.

Monkeys in Chinese culture were directly linked to horse breeding. In ancient times, people believed that monkeys could keep horses healthy and prevent disease.

Lions were guarding spirits. They were used to protect living people, and stone lions were placed in front of temples, and used on the handrails of bridges for guarding and decoration.

An exhibition of horse hitching posts in a matrix at Chengcheng County Museum Image: Ke Bai, https://doi.org/10.2218/jls.3077

Today, stone posts are traded and exchanged on a large-scale. Even local governments have made stone posts part of their municipal facilities.

“Stone posts,” Bai says, “have become a representation of ancient culture and art.”

Evolution and function of the Chinese carved horse hitching stone post
Ke Bai
Journal of Lithic Studies, Vol. 7, no. 3 pp. 1 – 14, https://doi.org/10.2218/jls.3077

The study, published under a Creative Commons License,  can be read here

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