The White Horse General (白馬將軍)

David Leffman Keith Stevens, Three Kingdoms Leave a Comment

The White Horse General – formerly in Keith Stevens’ collection

Here’s a Chinese deity statue I bought recently, mostly because it once belonged to one of my China mentors, Keith Stevens. We met around 2012 while I was researching The Mercenary Mandarin, a biography of the British adventurer William Mesny; Stevens had written a paper on Mesny years before and provided plenty of pointers about his life.

But Stevens’ real passion was for Chinese gods. He spent years assembling a vast collection of deity sculptures bought in Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong and China which he displayed at his home in Kent, and used them as the basis of two popular books on the subject (Chinese Gods: The Unseen Worlds of Spirits and Demons and Mythological Chinese Gods). After he died in 2015, his extensive research notes were edited and put online by fellow-collector Ronni Pinsler at www.bookofxianshen.com.

Stevens’ collection of carvings – over a thousand pieces – was also sold off after his death. I missed the chance to buy one first time around, largely because any interest I have in Chinese folk religion is incidental. My main focus is on Chinese woodblock prints but, as they often feature folk gods, I have to know something about these so that I can understand what I’m looking at.

And when this piece resurfaced at another auction recently there was something about it that pricked me into bidding beyond wanting a memento of Stevens himself. Featuring a horseman wielding a bow in one hand and an arrow in the other, the statue is labelled underneath “白马 jiang jun” – White Horse General.

This is a very ambiguous name. Many, many warriors in Chinese history, folklore and literature were known as the White Horse General, including Gongsun Zan, Pang De and Zhao Yun from the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and Du Que from Romance of the Western Bower. None of these seem to have been noted archers though, and it’s not obvious why any of them would have been deified.

Take Gongsun Zan, who appears early on in Three Kingdoms as a childhood friend and staunch supporter of the emerging warlord Liu Bei (later ruler of the state of Shu, modern Sichuan). Gongsun’s popular title came from using cavalry mounted on white chargers in his campaigns against the Qiang people, who considered white horses sacred and were unwilling to fight them.

Gongsun Zan

But against rival Chinese generals Gongsun consistently underrated his opponents, switched sides, and having been convincingly defeated at the Battle of Yijing killed his entire family before setting his headquarters ablaze and committing suicide. Not really much to admire there.

In Chinese folk religion horses in general represent speed, ridden by messengers between the heavenly realms – in Chinese to say ma shang, “on horseback”, means you’re getting something done as quickly as possible. White horses in particular feature in Buddhist lore (Prince Siddhartha, later the Buddha, rode one as a youth); the White Horse Temple near Luoyang is perhaps the earliest Buddhist place of worship in China, and the Tang-dynasty monk Xuanzhang, who spent seventeen years researching Buddhism at its source in India (and later became abbot of the temple), reputedly rode a white horse on his travels. But because of the syncretic nature of Chinese folk religion, a white horse doesn’t have to imply any Buddhist connection.

Archer Zhang Xian, driving off the Heavenly Hound, devourer of children. In fact he shoots pellets, not arrows – 送子, “firing pellets”, can also translate as “sending sons”

Archers also crop up in Chinese mythology. The best-known are Zhang Xian, protector of children, and Hou Yi, who shot down nine of ten suns which were threatening to incinerate the earth and was married to the moon goddess Chang E. But once again, none of them are particularly associated with white horses.

So, who is this specific White Horse General, and what does he represent? Without the original worshipper around, it’s impossible to say. So take your pick…

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