Ancient Chinese books sometimes talk about the pursuit of the perfect horse, known as a "world-class horse" (tian1-xia4 zhi1 ma3) or "thousand-li horse" (qian1-li3-ma3), meaning a horse that can run a thousand Chinese miles (li3) without a rest.

The most famous name associated with this quest is Bole (pronounced in two syllables: Bo2-le4). We are told that his real name was Sun Yang, and that he was the greatest judge of horses in his day. We have no concrete stories about his own life, and he may be legendary. But we do have one story, from the Liezi, that indicates something about the point of view that is associated with him .

He was summoned by Duke Mu of Qin, who pointed out that Bole was growing old and should appoint a successor. Bole said that none of his children were competent to judge horses, but he knew a laborer whose abilities were no less than his own. The Duke hired the man, Jiufang Gao, who three months later announced that he had found a "world-class horse" and was sending it. Asked what kind of horse it was, he said it was a yellow mare.

It turned out to be a black stallion, and the Duke was in a rage, exclaiming that Jiufang Gao knew nothing about horses and blaming the whole business on Bole. But Bole coolly said that Gao had now evidently exceeded even his own ability. He explained that a judge of horses sees only the nature of the horse, and does not let himself be distracted by external things. "Forgetting what is coarse, he obtains the essence. ... He sees what he sees and forgets what he does not see."

The horse arrived, and was as Jiufang Gao had said.

Another characteristic story is the parable Master Guo Wei told Prince Zhao of Yan, who was seeking to rebuild his kingdom after it had been sacked. He needed to find brilliant advisors, and asked Master Guo Wei where to start.

Master Guo Wei told him about an ancient emperor who had failed to find a thousand-li horse, even though he had offered for three years to pay a thousand pieces of gold for it. A palace janitor offered to find one for him. Three months later, he found the corpse of one, and paid 500 gold pieces for its head. The emperor was enraged (these dukes and emperors show very little self-control and always have to have things explained to them). The janitor explained that paying half the fee, merely for the head of a dead horse, would show the intensity of the emperor's interest.

"And," said Master Guo Wei, "within the year three live horses arrived."

These tales are not really about horses. They are really about the need for the ruler to attract and cultivate gifted advisors. The Tang writer Han Yu wrote a short essay declaring that the existence of a Bole is more crucial than the existence of a thousand-li horse. He meant that the ability to judge and nurture talent is even more crucial than talent itself.

And it is significant that in both the tales I have recounted, the one who is able to judge horses is of low rank.

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