This paper examines the spread of equestrian culture and knowledge in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and its effects on daily life in the Qa’an ulus―namely, China’s Yuan dynasty―within the Mongol empire.
Previous works have greatly contributed to our understanding of horse production and management in Mongolia, China, and Goryeo (especially Tamla 耽羅, or present-day Jejudo) in both military and economic affairs and the operation of horse ranches in East and West Asia. The Mongols were excellent at raising and riding horses and able to nurture and supply high-quality horses within the context of the efficient labor of pastoral nomadism. However, researchers have paid little attention to the effect of horses on the society, culture, and daily life in both urban and rural areas, including the Mongol steppe. As a consequence, we overlook the varieties in equestrian culture across the empire and the culture’s multifaceted ties with its people.
Historical sources provide great potential for deeper understanding of equestrian culture’s relationship with society under the Mongol Empire. This is especially true for China, which published horse know-how in a number of agricultural books. For example, the Nongsang jiyao 農桑輯要 (Essentials of agriculture and sericulture) provided instruction for feeding horses, as well as diagnosing diseases and prescribing treatments. The Jujia biyong shilei quanji 居家必用事類全集 (Complete collection of classified affairs essential for those living at home), one of many encyclopedias produced during the rule of the Mongol Yuan dynasty, elaborates on general methods of breeding and raising livestock, including horses. The existence of such manuals encouraged the spread of horsemanship and the elevation of equestrian knowledge throughout China as a result. Interestingly, these manuals do not necessarily reflect a standardization of methods. In the 1230s, for example, Chinese practices differed greatly from Mongol practices, and their horses often got sick. Ignorance and lack of equestrian knowledge among many in China continued through the sixteenth century.
The Mongols established administrative offices for the stable supply and management of horses in China, including the Quanmu suo 群牧所 (Office of imperial horse-raising and harnesses and Taipu si 太僕寺 (Office of imperial horses). The intense demand for horses as a consequence of the Mongols’ continuous military campaigns stimulated a widespread need for broader knowledge about horse raising, which prompted its spread. The imperial encouragement of horse ownership and cultivation across their giant domain created widespread consequences for multiple facets of aspects of daily life among the subject population in many regions of the empire, like China. In contrast with other livestock, for example, people could not easily eat horses and cattle. People considered horse-riding a privilege, and they projected this attitude upon horse-rearing as well. Unlike crops, rearing horse could often create a greater burden on the people who undertook it, which invited greater state intervention. Livestock was often lost, which increased their cost. The Mongol government established bularghuchis, namely officials that oversaw lost livestock and slaves, and their offices. The economy of horse raising often encouraged illegal behavior among farmers or nomads.
The increased consumption of land for horse-rearing lands in China often adversely affected the availability of farmland and agricultural yields. Horses sometimes treaded upon crops or ate them. Horse fields protected the eggs and larvae of locusts in the autumn and winter, which could cause locust plagues in the next year. In cities and towns, increased horse riding could cause accidents on streets and in alleyways. The Mongol government adopted a variety of administrative measures to try to solve these problems. Thus, the horse became not only an important actor in the Mongol enterprise of empire-building, but it also acted as a long-term igniter to stimulate locust plagues and people’s evasion from the empire.
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