Curator’s Notes: The ‘Golden Horse of Maoling’

October 16, 2018 Updated: October 16, 2018

Marion Servat-Fredericq, assistant curator of ethnology at the World Museum in Liverpool, England, shares about the “Golden Horse of Maoling”:

The “Golden Horse of Maoling” has not been displayed outside of China for some 10 years. With its golden looks, this gilded bronze horse nearly stole the show when it joined our exhibition “China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors.” Standing two feet tall and weighing 55 pounds, the famous “Golden Horse of Maoling” is the largest gilded horse ever found in China. It was discovered by farmers on May 1, 1981, in a field near the mausoleum of Emperor Wu (reigned 141 B.C.–87 B.C.).

Han dynasty "Golden Horse of Maoling"
The famous “Golden Horse of Maoling” stands 2 feet tall, the largest gilded horse found in China to date, at the World Museum in Liverpool, England. (Gareth Jones)

Emperor Wu was the fifth and most influential ruler of the Western Han Dynasty. His mausoleum lies about 25 miles west of modern Xi’an, near the village of Maoling in Xingping, Shaanxi Province. It is the largest mausoleum built in the Han Dynasty.

According to historical texts, one-third of government tax was spent on the construction of the mausoleum, a process that lasted 53 years. It was filled with large quantities of treasures and precious funerary objects and was the target of robbers for centuries. The “Golden Horse” was among 236 objects unearthed from a burial pit near the tomb of Princess Pingyang, who was the elder sister of Emperor Wu.

As the World Museum website puts it: “The slender body and strong muscles of the ‘Golden Horse’ suggest it represents one of the finer breeds of horses Emperor Wu imported from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. These tall and beautiful horses were probably the ancestors of the modern Akhal-Teke and Turanian breeds, well known for their speed, endurance, and intelligence; they are also famous for their shimmering coats, often golden in color, which has led them to be known as ‘golden horses.’

“Emperor Wu was obsessed with these strong and swift ‘heavenly horses,’ as he believed they could help him defeat the nomadic tribes of the North, and also bring him immortality.”

Han dynasty "Golden Horse of Maoling"
The sleek contours of the “Golden Horse of Maoling,” thought to be based on the horses that Emperor Wu imported from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. (Gareth Jones)

The Making of the ‘Golden Horse’

The “Golden Horse of Maoling” was cast in bronze, and gilded using a process called mercury gilding, which involves combining gold with mercury. At room temperature, mercury is liquid and gold is solid, but when the two are combined, the gold dissolves.

By following this process, the ancient craftsmen obtained a thick paste that they then spread onto the bronze horse, before firing it to a temperature of 675 degrees Fahrenheit. At this point, the mercury evaporated, leaving behind a thin layer of gold.

The final step involved burnishing the rough gold layer with stone tools to make the horse look smooth and shiny.

Visit the “Golden Horse of Maoling” at the World Museum in Liverpool, England, as part of the exhibition “China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors,” until Oct. 28.