The Purpose and Meaning of the Chinese Character for Horse

Icelandic horses on the field
The horse is an incredibly important part of Chinese characters. coolbiere photograph / Getty Images

Horses are a big part of Chinese culture. Countless ancient Chinese paintings and sculptures are of horses due to the animal's importance in military excursions as well as being one of the 12 animal zodiac signs. 

The word for horse also plays a large role in the Chinese language. From its use as a radical to sounding out Western names in phonetic translations, the Chinese character for the horse has a wide range of use.

Learn how to write and say horse in Chinese. You will be surprised by how learning this simple word can help you recognize other Chinese characters and phrases with more ease. 

Character Evolution

The Chinese character for the horse used today derives from a pictograph of a rearing horse with its front legs in the air and its mane flowing in the wind. Using your imagination, you can still recognize the shape of a horse when looking at the traditional character for horse, 馬. 

The horizontal strokes that make up the upper half of the character look like the horse's mane. The four shorter strokes at the bottom represent four legs. And the stroke on the lower right that looks like a hook is supposed to be the horse's tail.

However, the simplified form replaced the four legs with a single stroke and removed the horizontal lines on the top. In its simplified version, the character for a horse in Chinese looks like 马.

Radical

Chinese radicals are the part of a character that categorizes words based on definition or pronunciation. The character for horse, 馬/马 ( mǎ), can also be used as a radical. The horse radical is used in more complex characters, many of which are used to describe characteristics of horses.

As an example, here is a short list of characters that contain the horse radical:

騵 - yuán - chestnut horse with white belly

騮 / 骝 - liú - bay horse with black mane

騣 - zōng - bristles; horse's mane

騑 - fēi - horse with yellow back

駿 / 骏 - jùn - spirited horse

駹 - máng - black horse with a white face

駱 / 骆 - luò - camel

駔 / 驵 - zǎng - powerful horse

Mandarin Vocabulary With Mǎ

Besides vocabulary related to horses, 馬/马 (mǎ) is commonly used as a phonetic in foreign names, some of which are included in this table.

Traditional Characters Simplified Characters Pinyin English
阿拉巴馬 阿拉巴马 Ā lā bā mǎ Alabama
奧克拉荷馬 奥克拉荷马 Ào kè lā hé mǎ Oklahoma
巴哈馬 巴哈马 Bā hā mǎ the Bahamas
巴拿馬 巴拿马 Bā ná mǎ Panama
斑馬 斑马 bān mǎ zebra
大馬士革 大马士革 dà mǎ shì gé Damascus
羅馬 罗马 luó mǎ Rome
馬達加斯加 马达加斯加 mǎ dá jiā sī jiā Madagascar
馬來西亞 马来西亚 mǎ lái xī yà Malaysia
馬蹄鐵 马蹄铁 mǎ tí tiě horseshoe
喜馬拉雅山 喜马拉雅山 xǐ mǎ lā yǎ shān the Himalayas
亞馬孫 亚马孙 Yà mǎ sūn Amazon