Bole (伯樂 bó lè) was a legendary judge of horses, said to be the inventor of equine physiognomy (相馬 xiàng mǎ, evaluating a horse’s qualities from appearance). He was so exceptional that even today in modern Chinese his name is used as a byword for judging hidden talent:
伯樂相馬 (乐马) bó lè xiàng mǎ
Literally: Bole judges a horse
Figuratively: To be an outstanding judge of someone’s (hidden) gifts or talent.
Bole had the courtesy (honourific) name of Sun Yang (孫陽 sūn yáng), and so was sometimes known as Sun Bole. He worked as horse groom for the Duke Mu of Qin (秦穆公qín mù gōng, r. 659-621 BCE) during the Spring and Autumn period *.
Horses were never really a Han Chinese thing, even through to the Qing dynasty the best horses were always thought to be foreign bred and brought in from abroad. And there was no ‘horse culture’ as such, not as compared to China’s nomad neighbours. But that’s why horses (and horse trainers and grooms) were held in such esteem – they are what protected the country from the Mongolians, Jurchen and Xiongnu invaders. Bole was not the only famed judge of horses (ten are mentioned in Lü’s Spring and Autumn Annals 吕氏春秋), and once you get to the Three Kingdoms era horses themselves are named and feature prominently in the story (more on these in another post).
* The Spring and Autumn period (春秋時代) ran from 771 to 476 BC, and is a golden age of Chinese culture. It gave us Confucius, Laozi, Mozi, Sunzi (The Art of War), and Lu Ban (China’s Daedalus). This is the Chinese late bronze age: In Chinese history you have the possibly mythical Xia, the exotic Shang with it oracle bones (the first time the Chinese were trounced by nomads on horseback), then the first recognizably Han Chinese dynasty with the Zhou starting 1046 BC. Halfway through the Zhou dynasty the place fractures into little feudal kingdoms, so instead of calling the latter half of the dynasty the (Eastern) Zhou, it’s split into the Spring and Autumn period and later the Warring States.