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Frontlet for a horse’s bridle (danglu)
Western Han dynasty (206 BCE–9 CE)
Gilt Bronze
L. 16.5 cm, W. 7.5 cm
Excavated 1999, Luozhuang, Zhangqiu County
Collection of Jinan Municipal Museum
(cat. #1)


This gilt bronze masterwork, which hung down between the horse’s eyes, was the frontlet (danglu) of an elaborate bridle. It is decorated in openwork with the image of a celestial horse. This magical equine has delicately striated wings on his back. His body, in profile, forms a reverse S-curve within the confines of the danglu. The horse’s ears are perked, his front legs are curled forward within the frame while his hind legs buck out on the bottom right. His tail curls under and through his bottom leg. Bird heads punctuate the scrolls of cloud breath (yunqi), a reference to the ability of this horse to help the tomb’s occupant fly to heaven, much like the famous “flying horse of Gansu”; that prancing steed, excavated from the Eastern Han tomb at Leitai, rests his hoof on the back of a swallow. The luxuriant scrolling plumes and openwork technique of this frontlet originate in certain jade carvings where feline dragons do combat with birds.[1] A jade carving with similar openwork patterns within a double circular frame has been excavated from the tomb of the king of Nanyue in Guangdong province.[2] The flowing linear design of the frontlet also recall the scrolls painted in lacquer as on the outer coffin of Lady Dai, the wife of the marquis of Dai, from the early Western Han Tomb 1 at Mawangdui in Henan province.[3] Flying deer or horses appear among scrolls on the inner coffin at Mawangdui; a horse-like figure on the side panel strikes a twisting pose that is known from both Mongolia and Southern Siberia.[4] This same scrolling is also found in textile patterns from Mawangdui Tomb 1, as shown in a “long life” embroidery.[5]

A poem from the Hanshu (Historical Chronicles of the Han Dynasty) describes the allusions associated with this divine steed. The song is written in the voice of the emperor Wudi, whose search for immortality dominated both the philosophy and material culture of the Western Han. The emperor writes: “I raise myself up, off we go to Kunlun. A celestial horse has come, mediator of the dragon. We wander the heavenly gates, view the jade terrace.” This asserts the emperor’s desire to ride this heavenly horse to the peaks of Mount Kunlun, where the immortals were thought to reside.[6]

This frontlet, the gold bridle pieces in the shape of raptor heads (cat. no. 45), and the bronze chunyu bell (cat. no.11) are significant objects from the famous excavation at the Luozhuang site, which ranked among China’s most important archaeological discoveries for the year 1999.[7]

all text & images © China Institute Gallery


1. Jessica Rawson argues that feline forms, particularly in an S-shape, are derived from forms imported from the West into China during the Eastern Zhou dynasty. The Chinese felines often appear combined with birds in Western poses. They also appear on Jin state bronzes as bell handles or belt-hooks, as well as on copper inlays in bronze. She believes them to be the basis for the feline dragons on Han dynasty sword fittings. Jessica Rawson, Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to Qing (London: British Museum, 1995), p. 69.

2. See Yang Xiaoneng, ed., The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), pp. 418–19, no. 141, for a jade pei ornament with dragon and bird openwork from the tomb of the king of Nanyue, second century BCE. Other foreign influences in this tomb can also be seen in the western shape of a remarkable jade rhyton. Rawson, Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing,” p. 70, fig. 61.

3. Hunan sheng bowuguan and Zhongguo kexueyuan kaogu yanjiusuo, eds., Changsha Mawangdui yihao Hanmu [Han Tomb No. 1 at Mawangdui in Changsha] (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1973), vol. 2, plates 28–31.

4. This is pointed out by Jessica Rawson in Yang, The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology, p. 419. For the Mawangdui coffin panels, see Hunan sheng bowuguan et al., Changsha Mawangdui yihao Hanmu, vol. 2, plates 33 and 35.

5. Shanghai shi fangzhi kexue yanjiu yuan wenwu yanjiu zu and Shanghai shi sichou gongye gongsi, ed., Changsha Mawangdui yihao Hanmu: chutu fangzhipin de yanjiu [Han Tomb Number One at Mawangdui in Changsha: Research on excavated woven silk textiles] (Beijing: Wenwu chubanshe, 1980), plate 22.

6. David R. Knechtges, “The Emperor and Literature: Emperor Wu of the Han,” in Court Culture and Literature in Early China, Variorum Collected Studies Series (Hampshire, England and Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate Publishing, 2002), p. 65. There is a similar counterpart to this poem in the Shiji, but it is shorter than the Hanshu version. In the Hanshu version each stanza begins with the refrain “A celestial horse has come” (tianma lai).

7. See the recently published report in Jinan shi kaogu yaniu suo Shandong daxue kaogu xi, Shangdong sheng wenwu kaogu yanjiusuo, and Zhangqiu shi bowuguan, “Shandong Zhangqiu Luozhuang Hanmu peizang keng de qingli” [Summary report of the Han tomb and accompanying burial pits at Luozhuang, Zhangqiu, Shandong], pp. 3–16 and color plates following p. 96.

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