An interesting archaeological find was reported earlier this year from western China where the excavation of a noblewoman’s grave has provided evidence for the use of donkeys for games of polo by elite women in the Tang dynasty.
The sport of polo was popular among the Chinese aristocracy in the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE). Literary sources document that women played as well as men, and that, even though donkeys were typically associated with low social status as pack and farm animals, they were also favored by the elite for playing polo. The excavation of the tomb of a Tang noblewoman, Cui Shi, for the first time offers archaeological evidence to support the written accounts.
Although polo has traditionally been played on horseback, the authors of this study, led by archaeologist Songmei Hu, mention that donkeys may sometimes have been preferred because their natural response to stress and danger, something a polo match would frequently present, is different. While horses, as herd animals, have developed a sensitivity to commotion among nearby animals and tend to respond by fleeing, donkeys, with a more solitary history, are less perturbed by the kinds of chaos that a polo field might present.
The authors identified the remains of at least three donkeys in Cui Shi’s tomb. For animals more traditionally connected with the peasantry than the elite, this was an unusual find for the grave of a woman whose family moved in the higher circles of the imperial aristocracy. But the family’s status was also connected to polo: written sources document that Cui Shi’s husband, Bao Gao, was promoted by the emperor to the rank of general on the strength of his skill in the sport. The bones of the donkeys themselves also show signs that they may have been used for playing polo, as they show patterns of growth reflecting strong and sudden stresses, such as animals suddenly starting, stopping, and changing direction on the polo field would experience, rather than those typical of animals used for carrying burdens or pulling carts.
This find is both an example of how archaeological and literary evidence can support one another and a view into the lives of elite women in ancient China who weren’t content to let the men have all the fun of donkey polo!
Image: Tang dynasty polo players via Wikimedia (tomb of Prince Zhang Huai, Qianling Mausoleum, Xi’an; 706 CE; wall painting)
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