During the Western Han Dynasty, a veritable jungle book of images of auspicious animals, including the unicorn zhi, were depicted on objects of daily or ceremonial use. Particularly fine among the examples of this new iconography are two Western Han bronze vessels unearthed in 1962 in Youyu County, Shanxi Province. The first is a bronze jian supported by three seated felines (fig. 17).

Figure 17. Drawing of a Western Han bronze vessel (jian)

It is decorated with images of animals including a deer, a camel, an elephant, a dancing bear, a leaping tiger, and a charging unicorn with an exaggerated shoulder hump and slightly curved horn (fig. 18).

Figure 18. Drawing of the animals on the jian in fig. 17

The second vessel is a gilt bronze zun for warming wine supported by three bears and dated to 26 B.C.E. (colour plate 9), which was also displayed in the great Chinese Exhibition of 1974.

Plate 9. Western Han gilt bronze vessel (zun)

Two horizontal bands of decoration cast onto the body of this vessel show various auspicious beasts moving clockwise in a sprightly procession through a rudimentary landscape setting. Included among these animals are two elfin “feathered beings,” one of which seems to be “riding the wind” while the other runs along carrying a sprig of flowers in its right hand. The animal designs consist of dragon, phoenix, tiger, deer, bear, camel, monkey, ox, sheep, crane, wild goose, and last, but certainly not least, a charging unicorn (fig. 19).

Figure 19. Drawing of the surface of the bronze zun in plate 9.

The images on these bronze vessels illustrate an important change in the depiction of animals which occurred in Chinese art during the Western Han Dynasty. In the preceding Warring States period, animals were frequently depicted in confrontation with other animals or humans in scenes of hunting or combat (fig. 20).

Figure 20. Drawing of a detail on a Warring States bronze vessel
ROM (992.169.1)

In Han images, on the other hand, animals and humans become much more lively and naturalistic, and the relationships among them are harmonious and playful (Wu, 1984, 50–52). Esther Jacobson has argued convincingly that this new Han style of animal art was directly influenced by the Scytho-Siberian artistic traditions of the Xiongnu nomads to the north of China (Jacobson, 1985).

Similar delightful animal designs appear on Western Han ceramic objects called mingqi which were made expressly for burial in tombs of the period. Included among these are the famous boshanlu (hill jar) incense burners of Han (colour plate 10).

Plate 10. Han Dynasty ceramic boshanlu (ROM 918.17.84)

On these boshanlu the landscape setting, through which the incense rises like mist in the valleys, represents the wild and distant Shen Shan (Mystical Mountains) in the West (Wu, 1984:47). This imaginary Western Paradise was believed to be the abode of the great goddess Xiwangmu (Queen Mother of the West) whose myth, which was based on Western prototypes (Knauer, 2006), became current in the Eastern Han Dynasty: “In its final form the myth bears on the maintenance of the cosmic order, the processes of rebirth within the world of nature and the attainment of immortality” (Loewe, 1979, 87). The Mystical Mountains in the West were believed to be the natural habitat of all auspicious supernatural beasts, including the unicorn.

During the Eastern Han Dynasty (24-220 C.E.), images of auspicious animals also appeared carved in relief on the stone walls of tombs. Some of the most expressive examples of these wonderful beasts are found on the reliefs at Nanyang in the central province of Henan, and in the slightly later ones at Yinan in the eastern province of Shandong (Zeng et al., 1956). In the Nanyang reliefs, which include many different styles from a considerable number of tombs, there is a wide variety of images of unicorn zhi (Wang and Shan, l990). Some are depicted singly (fig. 21),

Figure 21. Ink rubbing of an Eastern Han Dynasty unicorn image at
Nanyang, Henan Province

while others are shown dancing with bears, cavorting with tigers, or frisking about with other strange mythic beings. Since animals such as deer with two antlers and two-horned oxen are also shown romping around with the unicorn, it is clear that the unicorn was considered to be unique among the auspicious animals of Han.

Early images of Chinese unicorns can always be identified by their unique butting posture, charging forward with head lowered and single horn levelled. This classic stance, which may have derived from the posture adopted by the Saola when threatened, and reflected in the ancient oracle bone pictograph for the zhi, was to remain a hallmark of images of unicorns throughout the Han and Three Kingdoms (220-280 C.E.) periods. Sometimes, as in the reliefs at Yinan, the zhi may have a small prong on its single horn (fig. 22) which recalls the single three-pronged horn of the ancient Zhou character for the zhi.

Figure 22. Ink rubbing of a unicorn image at Yinan, Shandong
Province, 3rd century C.E.

Many of the images of unicorns in the Nanyang reliefs sport wings, a convention probably adopted from Scytho-Siberian art, and referring directly to shamanic flight (Jacobson 1985, 140). Others, such as those at Yinan, have wisps of clouds or the smoke of incense issuing from their bodies, which identify them as belonging to the realm of the supernatural. Dense cloud patterns on or around the bodies of animals first appear in Chinese art in the later Warring States period and are also found in the decoration on the famous bronze tubes and painted lacquer coffins of the Western Han Dynasty. These cloud patterns are, in essence, visible signs of the unicorn’s inherent ability as a numinous spirit animal to transform itself at will into any other desired shape. Transient and evanescent as clouds or incense, these auspicious mythic animals became linked to the divine world of the spirit and the cosmos during the late Warring States and Han Dynasty in China.

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