Carved Chinese Rhinoceros Horns, A little history
Chinese Rhinoceros horns and their origins. During China's Neolithic period rhinoceroses could be found roaming all over parts of China in particular near the lower regions of the Yellow River as well as other sections of northern and southern China. During this early era the first carved Chinese Rhinoceros horns came into usage due to their abundance and ideal structure for fine carving. Prior to the invention of the first cast bronzes 2000 BC, Rhinoceros horn cups were used as ceremonial drinking vessels. Later when bronze castings came into production, the "Jue" form cups were produced copying the shape of a Sumatran Rhino horn.
Chinese Rhinoceros Horns, Han to Tang Period
During the Warring states (475-221) BC period demand for rhino's was enormous as the tough hides from these beasts were used in making armor. During the Han (206 -220 BCE) and Qin Dynasty (221-207BCE) rhino's were becoming extremely scarce in northern China resulting in their near extinction. By the end of the Han dynasty, Rhinos had been completely eliminated from the Guangzhou area.
The Importance of Rhino Products of The Tang Dynasty
By the Tang dynasty (618-907) the scarcity of rhino made the horns extremely valuable, so much so only the Emperor and Crown Prince could wear rhino hairpins to hold the crowns in place. Court officials were allowed to wear rhinoceros skin waistbands according to rank. During the Tang dynasty cups and other carved Rhinoceros horn objects were presented to students and scholars upon the completion of their examinations.
The popularity of the Rhino horn after the Tang Dynasty never waned even though they themselves had to be imported from other parts of Asia, including Sumatra, Africa, India and Java.
Chinese Rhinoceros Horns, Ming to Qing Dynastys
Today the vast majority of extant carved Rhino horns were produced from the mid Ming dynasty (1368-1911) into the early Qing dynasty. Due to the extreme scarcity of these horns very few if any known carvers worked solely with the material. Most only did so when the material became available. Most were done as a special commission for high ranking government officials or wealthy merchants. Some are signed by the carver. Many were given as tribute to the court upon completion.
The Qing Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795) an avid scholar, was fascinated by carved Rhino horns. In fact he studied them for hours marvelling in all of their shapes, styles and sizes, especially examples of the Ming dynasty. While studying the court collection which numbered in the thousands of examples he also wrote poetry about them. Qianlong carefully compared colors and styles of the artists. He had a particular interest in examples signed by known artists. At one point he undertook organizing the court collection personally. This fascination eventually lead him to order they be produced in the court workshops in his name for his own collection. Many were carved in clerical script Li which read "The Great Qianlong, In Antiquarian Style". A knod to the skill of earlier examples.
Carved Chinese Rhinoceros Horns, style and shapes
Chinese Rhinoceros Horns were carved in a wide range of style and shapes, one in twenty cups were inscribed by the artisan with a poem. Forms and shapes included libation cups, "ear cups", wine cups, figures of Buddha, hair pins, bowls, ewers and vases.
Below are a few examples of some of the finest Chinese Rhinoceros horns sold or in private collections in the world today. Also a video we've posted to You Tube, which can of course be enlarged to full screen.