The need for speed

Chihiro

Trains are omnipresent in Japanese pop culture. If you have had any contact with it – and who hasn’t? – you will probably have noticed that authors and artists love including trains in their work, even when it’s not strictly necessary. Especially when it’s not strictly necessary. There’s even an entire genre of train-based fanart.

The reason is obvious: for many of Japan’s 19th century inhabitants, the train was their first introduction to Western industrial modernity. Imagine you are a feudal peasant seeing a steam engine for the first time: impressive, isn’t it? (The manga/anime Gintama brings the idea closer to modern audiences by imagining a scenario in which 19th century Japan was forced to open up not by Perry and his black ships, but by an alien civilisation, with technology far in advance even of the 21st century.) Indeed, this idea of the huge culture shock that trains provided is so prevalent that various academic studies have been published on the subject.

Interestingly, China also experienced an encounter with a terrifyingly swift and powerful foreign technology that marked its art and literature for years afterwards: the horse.

If you read through classical Chinese poetry, you can identify almost exactly the same romantic attitude towards the horse as you find towards the train in Japanese literature. During the early centuries of China’s history, the Middle Kingdom’s own equine stock was… well… stocky. These days they would mostly be considered ponies rather than horses per se. They could be ridden (historical texts refer to this) but were generally used for pulling carts and chariots.

At some point around the second century BC, however, the Chinese began importing horses from the nomads of central Asia, and this was the game-changer: the ‘blood-sweating heavenly horses’ of Ferghana. Taller and faster, they could be ridden in combat and provide troops with far greater speed and agility than had previously been the case.

And, just as with the train in Japan, the horses became a symbol not just of speed and power, but also of foreign-ness – a reminder of the barbarians at the gate. In poetry, you will often find them mentioned in conjunction with the wild Northern borderlands, used in flights of romanticism by respectable and decadent court poets.

Which is all very well, but why mention it on a blog devoted to contemporary discourse analysis?

Because CCTV is keeping the legend of the blood-sweating heavenly horses alive via its English-language Facebook page (yes, Facebook is banned in China; that doesn’t mean that the authorities are willing to ignore its existence, however). Isn’t that nice?

(If you’re wondering why the horse didn’t have the same impact in Japan, it’s because most of Japan’s working horses were bred from a small stock of (shortish, fattish) Mongolian horses imported via Korea in the largely pre-literate Yayoi period, rather than being imported on a large scale, so while changes in size, quality and riding techniques did occur, they happened slowly over time and were thus less impressive.)

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