Ein Pferd für ein Königreich: Überlegungen zu diplomatischen und kommerziellen Geschenken in Zentralasien

This paper explores the overlap between different uses of horses as gifts in the Central Asian borderlands, particularly between the Russian empire, Central Asian states, and the Qing empire in the late 17th and early 18th century. Here one particular commodity in one particular situation, the horse when used as a diplomatic gift, is used as a prism to reflect layers of cultural practices, asymmetric power relations.

During this time, inner Asia was in a state of political flux. The Russian and Qing empires expanded, the Dzunghar empire was at the height of its power. Diplomatic contacts between them reflect both new types of negotiations, such as that between Russia and China, and creative use of established framework, such as systems of tribute. When exploring the relationships between them, gift-giving makes for an ideal practice on which to focus to see how diplomatic practices were renegotiated, spread, and imposed.

As the Manchu of the Qing empire, just as the Cossacks playing a key role in the Eastern expansion of the Russian empire, as well as many of the nomad polities in between them, all had a particular cultural relationship with riding and with horses, and there were both practice and discursive ties between riding as practice and certain ethnic groups through inner Asia. Thus, horses offer a multi-layered example of gifts as diplomatic practices: they constituted an important trade commodity between inner Asia and China, equestrian commodities were exchanged even in the first contacts between Russia and China, and played a key role as a military resource.

Horses circulating between these empires, can help highlight not only the circulation of symbolism and practices related to riding, but also the material culture of diplomatic history through goods connected to them, and the ties and tensions between trade and military concerns. These gifts were simultaneously a tribute, a bribe and a key trade and military resource. Knowledge about these commodities and practices, both diplomatic and equestrian, was circulated, imposed – and kept secret.