The women who lived in present-day north China and Mongolia during the 10th to 14th centuries were avid equestrians, a researcher has found.
Equestrian activities were a part of their daily life and women of all social levels were expected to know how to ride from an early age, Eiren Shea wrote in the journal Arts.
Shea, with the Department of Art History at Grinnell College in Iowa, assessed materials that indicate the important role horse riding played in the lives of these women based on materials and objects recovered from tombs from the era.
She pulled together evidence for women equestrians in the middle-period in North China, focusing on the Kitan-ruled Liao dynasty (around 907–1125) and the Mongol-ruled Yuan dynasty (around 1271–1368).
“This study connects funerary objects with women’s participation in polo, hunting, warfare, and the Mongol postal system, among other activities,” Shea writes.
“Horse riding was a central facet of the lives of elite and non-elite women alike among groups living in present-day north China and Mongolia during the 10th to 14th centuries, and the funerary evidence for different types of equestrian activities illuminates the role horse riding had in both life and in death, especially for elite women.”
Horse riding was an essential part of women’s labor in the nomadic Mongol and Kitan camps, she says, but elite women in northern China also rode horses as a source of entertainment and to participate in important political and ceremonial events.
“Through an examination of clothing, adornment, horse tack, and artistic representations, all from tombs, a visual understanding of the diverse functions of horse riding in the lives and afterlives of women who lived in the 10th to 14th centuries in northern China and Mongolia emerges.
“The evidence is far from complete,” she says, “but based on the visual and textual materials currently available, we can safely say that women during the Liao and Yuan dynasties were avid equestrians and sometimes participated in activities we might associate with men.
“Horseback riding was such an important activity for Kitan and Mongol women that it was sometimes specifically memorialized in the funerary context through the preservation of tack and horse-riding clothing worn in life alongside pictorial representations of equestrian activities.”
Shea notes that Bruno De Nicola, who has written extensively about the role of Mongol women in socio-political contexts, points out that the evidence for Mongol women participating in warfare pertains only to the ruling classes, and the evidence for Kitan women participating in warfare is also restricted to royalty.
Similarly, only members of the ruling elite would have had anything to do with the ceremonial hunts that were so culturally and politically important.
“However, women from varying levels of society would have ridden horses and probably hunted as part of their lives as pastoralists,” Shea says.
“Add to this the fact that women substituted for male family members when necessary in government-assigned jobs, and the notion of gendered labor and tasks seems to break down even further.
“Based on the available evidence, we can observe that, in general, horse riding for women in the Liao and Yuan periods was not undertaken for entertainment or leisure purposes, as was the case in the Tang dynasty.”
Shea notes that in the preceding Tang dynasty (around 618–907), riding was restricted to members of the military and upper classes, yet it was also a period in which women participated actively in equestrian activities.
Indeed, tombs dating to the Tang dynasty preserve representations of women equestrians. There are surviving ceramic figures of fashionably dressed women equestrians and women polo players dressed in Central Asian style men’s clothing. Visual evidence points to equestrian activities for women as something principally for entertainment. Horses were ridden during leisurely outings by upper-class women or while playing the popular elite sport of polo.
Polo, as a favored sport to keep soldiers fit for warfare, decreased in popularity after the fall of the Tang dynasty.
“Among the northern groups who assumed power in northern China after the fall of the Tang and for whom horse riding was essential, hunting, rather than polo, was the most significant equestrian activity.”
Shea traversed the evidence around women’s hunting and their involvement in warfare. As well as funerary objects, there are also written records.
The papal envoy, John of Plano Carpini (1182–1252) wrote: “Young girls and women ride and gallop on horseback with agility like the men. We even saw them carrying bows and arrows. Both the men and the women are able to endure long stretches of riding. They have very short stirrups; they look after their horses very well, indeed they take the very greatest care of all their possessions … All the women wear breeches and some of them shoot like men.”
The ruling class of Kitan and Mongol women participated in political decisions, military campaigns, and important ceremonial events, so it follows that they had some role to play in the hunt.
In the Kitan context, evidence for horse riding survives from burials of elite women, such as the Princess of Chen (1018) or the Yemaotai (around 959–986) tombs, where saddles, quivers, arrows, bows, and other equestrian or hunting equipment were preserved in the tomb.
Some of the equipment and clothing interred with the deceased appeared to have been worn in life, while some, such as burial suits, which included metal boots, were made specially for the funerary context.
Turning to the Yuan period, women at all levels of society would herd animals and be in charge of packing up wagons to move camp. Additionally, Yuan governmental policy assigned specific jobs required for the smooth running of the empire to households, which meant that if a man was not available to do a job (due to absence or death), women would be obliged to step into the role assigned to her family.
This occurred alongside elite women sometimes participating in hunting and warfare during this period.
Shea says a wide range of evidence supports the importance of equestrian activities for women in Liao and Yuan societies.
She expects that, as more tombs are excavated, more evidence for the range of women’s equestrian activities will be uncovered.
Shea, E.L. Riders in the Tomb: Women Equestrians in North Chinese Funerary Art (10th–14th Centuries). Arts 2023, 12, 201. https://doi.org/10.3390/arts12050201
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