Vase, late 15th century
Stoneware with cobalt blue underglaze 7 1/2 in. x 4 1/2 in. (19.05 cm x 11.43 cm)
Crocker Art Museum, Collectors' Guild Purchase2003.3
Chinese songs from the 1st millennium attest that rhinoceros horn cups were used to toast long life. This association with longevity made them so valuable that in the 3rd century bce the Emperor Qin Shihuang had sent forth 500,000 men to seek trade routes to the south in order to acquire elephant tusks and rhino horns. A related property attributed to the rhino horn was its supposed ability to recognize poisons, which explains why European rulers were willing to spend vast amounts of money for rhino horn-libation cups.
The earliest known horn cups were carved simply, with complexity increasing over the centuries. Flowers and plants were the most popular subject matter, but landscape scenes are among the most intricate. The latter sometimes illustrate the Eight Daoist Immortals or popular subject matter such as the Ode to the Red Cliffs. The scenes on this horn illustrate everyday life in a multi-tiered landscape. A groom holds the reins of a horse; a young boy carries two bundles on a pole; a man pushes a wheelbarrow; and two monks or scholars take a walk. The complexity of the carving and large scale of the figures places the manufacture of the horn at the end of the Ming Dynasty or the beginning of the Qing.
There are five species of rhinoceros, three of which reside in Asia; the so-called Indian rhino is the species that formerly roamed China. All rhino horns are conically shaped with a natural indentation that fitted over a protuberance in the animal’s skull. The horn, which is made of keratin, is naturally gray; the lush brown of this horn was achieved by staining with a natural dye.