Like Buffalo Bill and Chief Rain-in-the-Face, who are their kindred spirits; like Ghengis Khan and the Cossacks, who are their ancestors, many Chinese are superb horsemen on the plains and hills of their homelands. Now they are learning a new application for their ancient avocation. For the third year in row, China has been home to a European-style horseback jumping contest held under the aegis of the International Equestrian Federation and sponsored by a British construction firm. The latest event took place this fall on Yaumatai, or Horse Breeding Island, a paradise set aside over 2,000 years ago by Emperor Chin Shi Huang to let his horses multiply. The emperor, known for completing the Great Wall and leaving behind dozens of buried terra cotta warriors, might have marveled at the efforts of his 20th-century countrymen. Of the six teams entering the event, one was from Inner Mongolia, two from Shandong Province, one from Tibet, and two from Xinjian, near the border with the Soviet state of Kazakhstan. The Xinjian riders and horses had to travel one-seventh of the globe to reach Yaumatai, which is 600 miles southeast of Peking. Their trip took 16 days - 4 by truck and 12 by train.
The Tibetans, new to the game, purchased their horses in Xinjian on the way to Yaumatai. Because of long travel time in China, most competitors and horses were away from home for 2 to 3 months.
The few dozen competitive horses in China are owned by a handful of riding schools. Most are resilient native-bred animals which resemble the American mustangs. It was, after all, on the plains of central Asia that the horse was probably first domesticated. Some of the Mongolian horses are of Russian stock. The Chinese effort to develop this Western sport, one which is often viewed as elitist or, at least, bourgeois, is one of many signs of how communist-led China is opening up to outside ideas and influences.
Two years ago, the Hong Kong Jockey Club gave 40 thoroughbred racehorses to China. But these horses have proved too excitable for most Chinese riders. One Mongolian rider was able to train a Hong Kong horse to jump very high. But he did not bring it to the contest, believing the horse was not tough enough to survive the eight-day trip from Inner Mongolia.
By the second day of competition, the Mongolians were well ahead in jumping (the Chinese have yet to tackle the more precise equestrian art of dressage). Two Mongolians were the only ones to have figured out how to bring their horses properly to an obstacle. Most others relied on raw speed. This helps prevent the horse from stopping before the jump, but it doesn't help him from knocking it down. The others also use a rousing yell - ``hh-aa-ii'' - in hopes it will get the horse over the jump. And possibly the rider. The ``hh-aa-ii'' is similiar to the cry of a karate expert trying to splinter a plank without breaking his hand. The horseman's ``hai'' is designed to blast his steed over a plank, hoping not to break anything.
There were 23 riders, all male, from a blue-eyed, curly-haired Cossack from Xinjian to a tall, green-eyed Mongolian. Many, however, fit the more standard Chinese type.
Being generally of poor income, the competitors nonetheless were correctly attired in riding jackets, breeches, and boots. But a few looked uncomfortable with the unaccustomed necktie, a required item in international competition.
One rider whose name - Bater - sounds appropriately like batter, managed to knock down over 20 jumps during the six rounds. The rider who garnered the best score for the second year in a row was Ge Er Deng Tu, a Mongolian with a Russian horse.
Chinese officials are highly conscious of their ``developing-country status'' in the sport, often stating that ``Chinese riders are not very good because they do not have much opportunity for good coaching.'' But they also consider jumping a macho sport and expressed great surprise when told that women riders have earned higher scores than men in the same competition in other countries.
In between this year's European-style jumping events, small boys on saddles piloted other horses in flat-out races over distances ranging up to an astonishing six miles. The racehorses are leggy things, so scrawny that they hardly look capable of carrying their jockeys. Nevertheless, or perhaps precisely because they are so lean, Xinjian horses fly like the wind, beating their more rounded opponents.
In Xinjian, these races are held across courses as long as 15 miles, the young jockeys riding bareback. Such contests are a part of the region's traditional culture. At wedding celebrations, for instance, single women on horseback gallop toward a finish line while single men on their mounts chase after them. If a man catches the woman he wants to marry, he may kiss her. She must not resist. At the finish line, the woman, if she wants to marry the man who caught her, will smack him lightly with her whip. But if she doesn't want to marry him, she beats him until he falls off his horse.
Then there's mounted wrestling, Xinjian style. Opponents on horseback grapple until one is able to unseat his opponent and bring him onto his own mount. ``This is very difficult,'' says a large Xinjian man, shaking his head. But these games require very different skills from those needed for jumping.
The International Equestrian Federation introduced the competition here as part of its effort to develop riding in countries with little means to support the sport, an effort which has proved worthwhile, as Chinese riders have improved over the years. In most countries where competitive riding has developed, winners take home prize money as well as honors.
In China, each of the top six placers in this year's event also received a prize - a teapot. How many atheletes would undertake a 2-to-3 month journey to risk the chance of winning a teapot?
Jill Gale De Villa, a writer who lives in Manila, was the judge at this year's competition in China.