China had horse protections in place nearly 2800 years ago – study

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The Flying Horse of Gansu; a bronze dating from around the year 300. Photo: 三猎, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
The Flying Horse of Gansu, a bronze dating from around the year 300 CE. Photo: 三猎, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The dynasties of ancient China had extensive legal protections in place to ensure horse welfare, with an emphasis on both their psychological and physical wellbeing.

The legal framework for horse protection in ancient China is described in detail in a paper published recently in the journal Derecho Animal (Forum of Animal Law Studies).

Horse management requirements were documented over the centuries, with the The Tang Code a particular standout, forming the backbone of horse regulations for the Tang emperors, from AD618 to 907, and several later dynasties.

Professor Li-hong Gao, with the Zhongnan University of Economics and Law in China, and doctoral student Da Su, noted that the concept of “animal welfare” originated relatively recently.

“However, in ancient China, ecological awareness similar to current ‘animal welfare’ had already been awoken and codified in the form of a series of legal systems, among which were specific regulations for horses that entailed giving them a good life,” they said.

The rules included a series of regulations more in line with the current sense of welfare, such as not hitting horses in the face, nor using genetically related animals for breeding.

In their paper, the pair traced the legal system of horse protection throughout the history of China.

Horses, part of the Terracotta Army of Xian in China. They date from about 210–209 BCE. Photo: Ian and Wendy Sewell, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Horses, part of the Terracotta Army of Xian in China. They date from about 210–209 BCE. Photo: Ian and Wendy Sewell, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Horses had multiple functions in ancient China. They were military combat tools related to the country’s armament strength, and were also the primary means of transport.

For this reason, the country had established the legal protection of horses since before the Qin dynasty, which began in 221 BCE and established the first empire in China.

Specific legal regimes were formed, including horse registration, horse feeding, horse farms, horse domestication, management institutions, and care and medical regimes.

The rules developed in China governed the whole process of raising and using horses, and imposed strict legal responsibilities, reflecting a certain degree of the modern meaning of animal welfare legal awareness.

As far back as 770 BCE, Chinese lawmakers had formed a systematic legal system for horse protection, the pair wrote. In the 25th year of the reign of Duke Xiang, it was written in the Tradition of Zuo that “the chariots were assigned to the horses and the horses were registered.”

A tri-coloured horses in the Luoyang Museum, dating from the Tang dynasty. Photo: John Hill, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
A tri-colored horse in the Luoyang Museum, dating from the Tang dynasty. Photo: John Hill, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

It also referred to registering their physical condition, including age, body condition, and coat color. Misrepresenting animals could result in a fine.

Through this universal census registration, authorities had a basic grasp of current stock levels in the country and could therefore better manage them.

In the Han Dynasty, horse registration was combined with a tax regime. In May 103 BCE, people recorded the number of horses in the population register for the purposes of taxation. The tax was paid with money or directly with horses as credit.

Ancient China also had strict requirements around horse feed quality and quantity. The Book of Songs noted that “horses for riding are kept in stables, and they are fed daily with mixed grains”. Mixed grains specifically refers to finely chopped fodder forage.

Article 198 of The Tang Code, dealing with “Being in Charge of Government Animals That Become Sick”, stipulated that the local government was required to provide grain, hay, and medicine for sick animals. It directly referenced the type of fodder required, which showed the importance the legislator attached to the feeding regime of horses.

According to the Statutes on Stables and Pastures: “If any government animal becomes sick on the road and is not capable of going on further, it should be left and entrusted to the nearest prefecture on the country, [the authorities of] which should care for it, feed it, and treat the sickness. The grain, hay, and medicine should be provided out of official funds.”

Other welfare requirements were also considered, showing the early Chinese were aware of the need to meet the psychological requirements of horses. Qi Min Yao Shu stipulated that: “Anyone using riding cattle and horses, must take into account their physical ability; at the same time, the environment temperature and feeding, are in line with their natural needs.”

All Chinese dynasties established horse farms to keep horses in a centralized manner, with a large number of personnel to manage and ensure the safety of the horses. Among them, the official horse breeding industry occupied the core.

Vast areas were set aside for these state-managed pastures.

During particular periods, the pattern of horse breeding changed. During the Han Dynasty, when military horses were in short supply, the government strongly encouraged official and civilian horse breeding.

A section of an Eastern Han fresco of nine chariots, 50 horses, and over 70 men, from a tomb in Luoyang, China. It dates from 25 to 220 CE. Photo: Gary Lee Todd, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
A section of an Eastern Han fresco of nine chariots, 50 horses, and more than 70 men, from a tomb in Luoyang, China. It dates from 25 to 220 CE. Photo: Gary Lee Todd, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

At times, there were strict legal restrictions on horse sales, with neither nobles nor officials allowed to buy or sell horses at their discretion.

Writings on the LongYou state pasture in the 13th year of the Tang Dynasty declared: “Clean spring water must always be available, and the stables should be cool and moist so that the horses can stand freely and cling to each other, following their nature. And they should be tamed, stamped, and harnessed to fulfill their instincts and talents.”

“In general,” the pair wrote, the center of horse breeding in ancient China was the state pastures. Personal horse breeding was either a supplementary form of government horse breeding or strictly prohibited by code or law.

The later widespread opening of personal horse breeding authorities was mainly because of the massive demand for war horses.

The laws also dealt with domestication practices.

“Looking back at the horse domestication regime, we can see that ancient ancestors were highly concerned about horses’ behavior and psychological welfare,” the researchers said. “The regime then embodied a compassionate understanding of the individual animal and reflected the particular legal culture in the legal codes of successive generations.”

In Article 201 of The Tang Code, the degree of wasting of the animal’s body condition was linked back to the relevant manager, with those responsible potentially receiving repeated blows with a stick.

Improper care resulting in the loss of a horse would invariably result in the punishment of the administrative personnel involved.

The domestication of horses was strictly regulated under the Tang Code as a mandatory requirement for official horse riding.

“All cases where government horses are not trained for the purpose for which they are used are punished by twenty blows with the light stick for the first horse, increased one degree for each further five horses, and with a maximum punishment of one hundred blows with the heavy stick.”

It was expressly stipulated that the age of training for horses was two years old.

For the imperial horses, trainers had to follow the following code when taming them: “The official trainer must train imperial horses with respect, and no one must whack them if it is not necessary for training.”

The official code of the Yuan Dynasty, the Genghis Khan Code, states, “It is forbidden to beat the head and face of a horse. Between battles, horses are to be put on the grass to satiate themselves, and riding is forbidden.

“Inhumane acts against horses are strictly prohibited,” it continued.

The classical codes of ancient China provide for many methods of horse training, based on a significant accumulation of experience. They contained many eco-ethical regulations.

Yi Shi points out: “People should train their horses so that they know how to run and gallop. At the same time, horses should also be allowed to rest and maintain a training rhythm that is in keeping with their nature. People and horses should care for each other so that horses can be better used.”

Ancient China formed a unified horse management system and set the corresponding legal responsibilities, Gao and Su wrote. For example, the Tang and Qing dynasties developed a rigorous scientific horse management process.

The management institutions were required to enforce the recovery of compensation from those who caused the loss of horses. The Code of Great Ming Dynasty put it thus: “If a horse is lost, weak or dead, the institution must recover compensation from the person who is in charge of it.”

Breeding and medical care were strictly regulated. Male and female horses were kept in separate groups until the breeding season, and a strict operating procedure was enforced. Breeding records were kept. The Rites of Zhou stated: “Let the horses mate with each other in the second month of spring.”

Legislation on horse protection in the Yuan, Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties followed The Tang Code. Article 203 made it clear that those responsible for intentionally killing government or private horses or cattle were punished by one and one-half years of penal servitude, with compensation also payable. Horse theft was also punished.

Gao and Su said the legal system for the management and protection of horses peaked with the publication of the Tang Code. It delivered what the pair described as a specific and perfect overall regulatory system.

GAO, L., SU, D. The legal system for horse protection in ancient China, dA. Derecho Animal (Forum of Animal Law Studies) 12/3 (2021).-DOI https://doi.org/10.5565/rev/da.565

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

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