The use of lacquer can be traced to some of China's earliest civilizations. Lacquer is the resin of the lac tree (Rhus verniciflua), which is native to central and southern China and may be indigenous to Japan. Objects coated with lacquer are fairly strong and largely impervious to water and pests. Two basic techniques are used to produce lacquerware; each uses a substructure of wood, bamboo, cloth, or metal beneath the lacquer coating. In one method, several thin coats of lacquer are applied to the substructure as decoration or protection, revealing the form beneath. In the other technique, multiple coats of lacquer are built up on the substructure, creating an object that consists primarily of these lacquer coatings. The lacquer is then carved to various depths in order to create a decorative motif or pictorial image. Lacquers made in the second fashion are generally termed "carved lacquers."
This wooden sculpture of a horse turning its head toward its tail was made using the first technique: the shape of the horse was carved in wood, and the lacquer provides color and some protection. The liveliness of the horse, its quivering nostrils, and its twitching tail are comparable to those of jade sculptures of horses dating to the late Yuan (1278-1367) and Qing (1644-1912) periods; a comparable date is generally given to this horse, but it could date as late as the 18th century.
Both the function and meaning of this sculpture are unclear. In earlier Chinese art, sculptures of horses were often placed in tombs to serve the deceased as transportation and as objects of status. However, there is very little symbolism associated with this animal. One exception is the story of the eight horses of King Mu of the Zhou dynasty (c. 1050-221 BCE) that carried the ruler throughout the empire. These eight horses are sometimes represented in Chinese art, and it is possible that this single sculpture was once part of a larger set. Groups of horses in a variety of positions were carved on stone slabs dating to the Yuan dynasty and found in Shaanxi Province; it is conceivable that this animal became more important as an art motif during the Yuan dynasty because of its value to the Mongols, who were of nomadic descent and used horses in warfare.