In the mid-2nd century BC, Emperor Wu (r. 140 - 87 BC) of the Han Dynasty revealed great interest in the West, ordering missions of exploration with the aim of establishing military alliances that would guarantee the territorial hegemony of the empire, especially near the frontiers of northern China, under threat by the Xiongnu nomads. In the first years of Emperor Wu's reign, General Zhang Qian was charged with the objective of acquiring horses, since these were bigger, stronger, and faster than those native to China, whose characteristics were fundamental for the demands of the battlefield.
Since the Shang Dynasty (1600 - 1045 BC), the horse had stood for a symbol of prestige, of military strength, but it also played a key role in the sacred rites. The royal tombs of the last capital of the Shang included collective sacrifices of horses, buried with all their ornaments, saddles and harnesses, or alongside the chariots, they drew and the charioteers who drove on them.
During the Han Dynasty, the horse was decisive for the success of military campaigns and the expansion of the territory, and also for the pomp ceremonies in which horsemen exhibited their skills while riding a horse, shooting arrows and overcoming obstacles.
Emperor Wu regarded horses not only as an advantage in terms of military strategy and as a key element from the point of view of the demonstration of power, but he also valued them for their mystic qualities, believing that the Heavenly Horse (Tian ma 天马) could render him immortal, taking him to the Kunlun Mountains, where Xi Wangmu, the Queen Mother of the West, lived. In the funerary context, the horse is portrayed as a symbol of freedom, as the ride of the spirits and as an axiological element between Humanity and the Heavens.