Today rhinoceroses no longer roam around on the landscape of China Proper along the lower region of the Yellow River. During the prehistoric times, however, they were very active and abundant in both northern and southern parts of China. Over the recent years archaeologists have found relics of rhinoceros bones in various Neolithic sites. The aptly named Warring States period (475–221 BC) had a pretty huge demand for armors made of rhinoceros hide. By the time of the Qin (221–207 BC) and Han (206 BC–AD 220) dynasties, this large, thick-skinned, herbivorous mammal had already become a rare sighting in the north. At the latest in the late West Han period, the beast was totally gone from the area of Guanzhong (關中), where the imperial seat of power was.
The ever scarcity of the animal rhinoceros in the Tang dynasty (618–907) made its horn ever precious. The Tang dress code required that the emperor and the crown prince alone could use hairpins made of rhino horn to fix in place their imperial crowns, and the officials wear rhinoceros waistbands according to their ranks. The horn remained an exotic rarity after the Tang Dynasty, and all the while people gradually became totally ignorant of the physical animal itself, except the faint knowledge that it had horns either on the head or at the snout. So the horn became the focal point in any paintings about rhinoceroses. Even as late as in 1674 when the Jesuit missionary Ferdinand Verbiest (南懷仁) compiled an Illustrated World Geography (坤輿圖說) for Qing Emperor Kangxi (reigned 1662–1722), he portrayed India’s single-horn rhinoceros in Volume II but did not identify it as such with its usual Chinese appellation xi (犀, rhinoceros), calling it a “Nose-horn Beast (鼻角獸)” instead.
Sumatran and African rhinoceroses come with double horns, one on the snout and the other at the forehead, whereas Indian and Javan rhinoceroses have just single horns. The horn is actually a keratinized layer of the rhino’s nose skin, and considered a precious ingredient in Chinese medicine. The typical carved horn vessels are cups made from the tapering part of the conical horn, with a somewhat triangle opening. The patterns are usually a mix of low and high relieves, yet seldom carved through. Other forms and functions include raft-shape cups, small flower baskets or stands, little round boxes, and thumb rings for archers.
Most of rhinoceros horn cups available today come from the Ming (1368–1644) or Qing (1644–1911) dynasties. Despite the numerous praises and mentions in Ming literati’s notes of the cups, that the material was hard to come by was perhaps the very reason that there were no artisans devoted to this single art alone.
His Majesty Qing Emperor Qianlong (reigned 1736–1795) did not just write poetry in praise of the existing rhino horn cups made from the times before him, but also ordered his workshop to make new ones in his own name and his time. Having collated, studied, and appreciated antique cups he already owned, Qianlong were now ready and he wanted his new cups to look like the old. The engraved inscription in Li (clerical) script that reads “Great Qing, Qianlong, In Antiquarian Style (大清乾隆仿古)”, shows very much the playful “antiquarian” side of his.