Sky High Horse Fat

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Years ago Bob Ramsey was highly amused by a tee shirt (of course!) in Korea with the slogan "SKY HIGH HORSE FAT".   Some time later he learned that that enigmatic slogan was nothing more than a direct translation of the much-loved (and to Koreans romantic) idiom referring to the bountiful harvest season, tiān gāo mǎ féi 天高馬肥.  Google Translate lamely renders that as "The days of horse manure", Baidu Fanyi gives the more terse "The horse manure", and Babel Fish hopelessly offers "Day Gao Mafei".  But what does tiān gāo mǎ féi 天高馬肥 (literally, "sky high horse fat") really mean?

Before tackling this conundrum head on, it is incumbent upon me to explain how féi 肥 can mean both "fat" and "manure", since I dare say that a number of readers must be perplexed by this humorous concatenation of definitions. The relationship is actually fairly simple:  fat –> fertile –> fertilizer –> manure.

Now, what in the world are we to make of tiān gāo mǎ féi 天高馬肥 ("sky high horse fat")?  It turns out that there's a long history to this expression and that there are two completely opposite latter-day interpretations of the original allusion.

The earliest formulation of
tiān gāo mǎ féi 天高馬肥 ("sky high horse fat") may be traced back to qiū mǎ féi 秋馬肥 ("in autumn the horses are sleek") from the "Memoir on the Xiongnu" (Xiōngnú zhuàn 匈奴傳), which is scroll 64 in the History of the Han Dynasty (Hànshū漢書; finished in AD 111, but treating the period from 206 BC to 25 AD).  (N.B.:  Xiongnu is the Modern Standard Mandarin pronunciation of the Sinographic transcription of the name "Hun".) The reference is to the fact that in autumn (when the skies were clear and blue) the horses of the Xiongnu (and other steppe peoples to the north and west of the East Asian Heartland [EAH]) were well fed on the spring and summer grasses.  These nomadic warriors would pour through the border passes and down into the settled areas to seek supplies for the winter.  Hence autumn was a time of foreboding for the those who dwelled in the agricultural lands to the south, since it was the season for incursions by equestrian people from the steppe.

This allusion from the "Memoir on the Xiongnu", qiū mǎ féi 秋馬肥 ("in autumn the horses are sleek"), inspired a Tang poet named Du Shenyan 杜審言 (645?-708), grandfather of the preeminent master Du Fu (aka Tu Fu), to write these lines:

yún jìng yāoxīng luò
qiū shēn sāi mǎ féi
jù ān xióng jiàn dòng
chā bǐ yǔ shū fēi


…In scrubbed clouds see a demon star brought low
As sleek horses clear the pass under vault of fall sky
Saddled and ready for fierce swords to take action
A brush stroke will send the feathered dispatch flying…

(English tr. by Denis Mair)

These lines constitute the 5th and 6th couplets from Du Shenyan's "Presented to Su Weidao"  (648?—705?) (Zèng Sū Wèidào 贈蘇味道).
Parenthetically, I may point out that Su Weidao has a name that seems strange, since in Mandarin wèidào 味道 means "taste; flavor".  In Classical Chinese, however, it would have meant "savors the Way", which is not a bad appellation.  In the light of recent discussions we have been having on Language Log, this is an excellent example of how different the lexicon of Classical Chinese and Mandarin are.

Returning to our main topic, it is curious that, when modern Koreans use this saying, ch’ŏn go ma bi 天高馬肥 ("sky high horse fat" –> "the [autumn] sky is high and the horses are sleek"), it does not retain the sense of danger it had for the settled peoples of the EAH.  Rather, it is intended as a pleasant description for the season.  This would imply either that the Koreans did not experience the same relationship with the steppe peoples as did the agriculturalists of the EAH or that the Koreans acquired the saying from another tradition whose people were not threatened by steppe equestrians.

(A note on romanization:  chŏn go ma bi [McCune-Reishauer Romanization, still widely used in the field of Korean Studies]; cheon go ma bi [Revised Romanization of Korean, official since 2000]).

Sino-Japanese tenkō hiba / てんこうひば / 天高肥馬 ("sky high fat horse") is a poetic trope describing the splendor of autumn.  It is generally realized à la Japonaise as ten takaku uma koyu or more fully as ten takaku uma koyuru aki 天高く馬肥ゆる秋 (with the word for autumn at the end), which is a very popular proverb (kotowaza ) in Japan.  It is also written as aki takaku uma koyu 秋高く馬肥ゆ.

To conclude, while the early inhabitants of the Yellow River Valley and surrounding areas (the EAH) dreaded the sleek, autumn horses of the nomads, the Japanese looked upon them as presenting an invigorating picture.  The Korean attitude toward high autumn skies and plump horses seems to occupy an ambivalent position between these two outlooks.

[Thanks to Haewon Cho, Haewon Kim, Sungshin Kim, Minkyung Ji, Nathan Hopson, Cecilia Segawa Seigle, Hiroko Kimura Sherry, and Miki Morita]


  1. Frank said,

    May 2, 2012 @ 9:36 am

    Then my initial supposition was wrong, and this is not a lamentation on the current price of horse fat.

  2. Dave said,

    May 2, 2012 @ 10:21 am

    Both Koreans and Japanese have horseback archery traditions that have been kept alive as classical arts; I'd imagine it's likely that poets (or at least their patrons) in those cultures imagine themselves as having horses in good flesh with which to sweep down, rather than worrying that they might be swept down upon.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    May 2, 2012 @ 10:45 am


    In terms of the famous Horserider Theory (kiba minzoku setsu) of the founding of the Japanese state, propounded by the Japanese historian Egami Namio in 1949, that is a profound insight.

  4. Peter said,

    May 2, 2012 @ 11:31 am


    In terms of the famous 秦始皇-is-a-gullible-bastard-and-徐福-colonizes-japan theory, it makes a little less sense.

  5. Stuart said,

    May 2, 2012 @ 11:42 am

    The proverb I heard in Japan was, 空高く馬も肥ゆる秋, (sora takaku uma mo koyuru aki). The difference between this and what's above is the も (mo, "also") after uma. The implication of "the horses also fatten" is that in autumn everyone's apatite increases, including horses. In summer, it's too hot to eat much, and autumn brings cooler weather, lots of delicious seasonal food, people (and horses) eat more and put on weight.

  6. Roger de Coverley said,

    May 2, 2012 @ 12:44 pm

    For better or for worse, the use of Chinese characters has all but disappeared in Korea and according to in March of 2007, The Chosun Daily: "Korean students do not learn Chinese characters while in school. They have almost completely disappeared from literature textbooks. Only a few schools still teach Chinese characters and usually due to the passion of the school principals. High school students can take Chinese characters as an elective course in their junior or senior year, but hardly any of them sign up for it in scholastic aptitude tests. "

  7. Matt said,

    May 2, 2012 @ 5:25 pm

    In the Japanese Manyoshu, the 3rd and 4th poems are about the Emperor Jomei (593-641) going hunting, and the 4th poem includes the first of a dozen or so uses of the phrase "uma namete" ("horses lined up") in the collection. Looking at archaeological evidence, predating the MYS, we see haniwa horses appearing in the 5th century, apparently corresponding to a wave of (peaceful) migration from advanced horsey cultures on the Korean peninsula: Paekche, Koguryo. (There were horse paraphernalia in earlier tombs, but they were not as impressive.)

    So, while Egami's specific theory that horseback conquerors founded the Japanese state has been discredited, a less radical version of the idea (contact with/migration from continental cultures as a key element in the gradual emergence of the centralized state) is now the mainstream. The golden age of horses in Japan roughly corresponds to the Yamato ascendancy, and (recorded) Japanese culture begins high in the saddle rather than under the hooves of marauding invaders. (It had never even occurred to me that 肥馬 could have an ominous meaning!)

  8. The Ridger said,

    May 2, 2012 @ 5:31 pm

    Oh, there's a COMMA in it: sky high, horse fat. That's very different.

  9. John said,

    May 2, 2012 @ 5:54 pm

    Whoops… I thought this was going to be about those delicious Belgian fries. Never mind.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    May 2, 2012 @ 6:47 pm

    from Anna Shields:

    I have one small question about the translation of the Du Shenyan poem.


    First of all, I think the strong parallelism in the couplet requires reading sai as modifying horse, and fei as a stative verb, so that the couplet would be:

    Clouds washed away, the star of ill portent sinks;
    autumn deepens [in deep autumn], the border horses grow fat.

    I note on my QTS database (my books are in another office) that there are alternate lines for that couplet that also have strong verbs in the final position of the line:


    And the fei then appears as the rhyme word (clearly a stative verb) in a previous couplet: 胡兵戰欲盡,虜騎獵猶肥

    Anyway, none of this has any immediate bearing on the explanation of 天高馬肥, just a thought about the poem that occurred to me as I read the piece.

  11. Alexander said,

    May 2, 2012 @ 8:26 pm

    Why the change in translation from "fat" to "sleek"? Is the idea that fat horses are more smooth and shiny?

  12. Dave said,

    May 3, 2012 @ 2:16 am

    Well-fed, well-groomed horses are certainly smoother and shinier than their less fortunate colleagues. (in our times it's possible to attempt to substitute silicone spray for good feed and care; it seems unlikely they did this on the steppe. another potential factor here, especially in the days before diesel-truck-delivered hay, is that good horse husbandry implies that one's stock should be carrying a bit more weight going into the winter so they'll still be in good shape by spring; this is true categorically, regardless of whether one plans to be raiding or merely stay sedentary…)

  13. Chandra said,

    May 3, 2012 @ 1:46 pm

    To me, "sleek" implies slimness, quite the opposite of fat – and lo and behold, it appears (at least according to that it can have both somewhat contradictory meanings, much along the lines of the word "cleave".

  14. octopod said,

    May 7, 2012 @ 8:14 pm

    I'd be willing to venture that the Koreans are more closely descended from the people on those fat horses than the Chinese gent who wrote the poem — don't they have a fairly high proportion of Manchurian and Siberian haplogroups?

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