The Chinese Cult of the Horse King, Divine Protector of Equines

  • Meir ShaharEmail author
Part of the The Palgrave Macmillan Animal Ethics Series book series (PMAES)


Now largely forgotten, the Horse King (Mawang), also known as the Horse God (Mashen), was among the most popular deities of late imperial northern China. His flourishing cult mirrored the ubiquity of his protégés—horses, donkeys, and mules—in Chinese quotidian lives. Equines were relied upon for agriculture, transportation, and industrial production, and hence the widespread veneration or their tutelary deity. With this in mind, the chapter examines the ecological background of the Horse King’s late imperial cult. More specifically, it surveys the various social and professional groups that worshiped the draft-animals’ guardian deity: Peasants, merchants, cavalrymen, muleteers, donkey drivers, coachmen, and veterinarians. Particular attention is given to the lavish state patronage of the cult. Horses were relied upon in diverse government organs, ranging from the military and the courier system to the imperial palace. Therefore, the Horse King was worshipped in official shrines that were located in both government offices and military bases. Moreover, the ecological analysis of the cult is joined by considerations of the attitude it might evince toward animals: Did equine owners venerate the god because of their dependence on his beneficiaries, or might they have been genuinely fond of their hard-working beasts? Was the cult motivated solely by economic considerations, or did genuine feelings for animals figure in it? Particularly intriguing in this regard are temples in which the Horse King was worshiped alongside other gods such as the Medicine King (Yaowang). The joint cult of animal and human tutelary deities might thus indicate that they share a similar theological standing, i.e., that draft-animals and their human masters are equally vulnerable and in similar need of divine protection.


China Horse King Horse God Mawang Mashen Donkeys Mules Horses 


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© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of East Asian StudiesTel Aviv UniversityTel AvivIsrael

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