During the late Warring States and the early Han Dynasty an extraordinary transmutation occurred whereby images of the mythic goat-unicorn zhi began to merge with images of the only other one-horned animal known to the ancient Chinese, and that, of course, was the rhinoceros. This melding of images was only made possible by the fact that by that time rhinos were rarely seen in central China anymore. And just as familiarity may breed contempt, extinction often gives birth to myth. So it was that by the Western Han Dynasty at the latest, the rhinoceros had acquired the status of a mythic beast in China. But how did this happen, when, as we have seen, the Rhinocerotidae had such a tremendously long ancestry in China stretching back into the Tertiary period?

Today the five surviving species of rhinoceros are found mainly in the tropical regions of Africa, India, Sumatra and Java. Yet rhinoceros bones found in Chinese Neolithic sites of six thousand years ago clearly indicate that rhinos flourished in both north and south China at that time (Sun, 1982, 80). During the Bronze Age, when the climate of northern China was warmer than it is at present, various species of Asian rhinoceros were known, including the two-horned Sumatran (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) and the one-horned Javan (Rhinoceros sondaicus). In addition, a three-horned variety with one horn on the nose and two small horns on the forehead is mentioned in early Chinese texts. This three-horned tendency appears to be genetic, as it is now localized in different parts of Africa (Hillman-Smith and Groves, 1994, 5).

There is an ancient character si which appears in many oracle bone inscriptions and shows an animal with one large variegated horn on its head

Shang Zhou Qin Han Modern

Figure 38. Development of the characters si and xi (rhinoceros)

Jean A. Lefeuvre, who has done extensive research on this particular character, has come to the conclusion that it represents some kind of wild bovine (Lefeuvre, 1982). Sun Ji, on the other hand, feels that it probably represents the Sumatran rhinoceros (Sun, 1982(8), 80). The si pictograph also appears as part of the ob pictograph jing for ‘pitfall’ ‘a hole’ which shows an animal trapped in a pit, thus illustrating one of the hunting methods used in ancient China. (fig. 39)

Figure 39. Oracle bone pictograph jing (pitfall, a hole)

Proof of the fact that they were also hunted by men using wheeled vehicles is found in a bronze bow-shaped jingle of the Shang Dynasty, a device which was fastened to the waist of the charioteer and used as a rein guide. Cast on the surface of this particular jingle are two one-horned beasts which clearly resemble the oracle bone character si (fig. 40).

Figure 40. Ink rubbing of two animals cast on a Shang Dynasty bronze jingle compared with the ob pictograph si

In later times both si and xi were used to designate the rhinoceros.7 The earlier pictograph si continued in use, but it was now joined by a new pictophonetic character xi. These were clearly two different characters, but phonetically similar (Lefeuvre, 1982, 25). Much later the si was thought to be the “female,” and the xi the “male” rhinoceros, but this distinction is not found in the oracle bone script (Sun, 1982(8), 81).

Material evidence of this ancient Chinese familiarity with the rhinoceros is found in the form of two Shang Dynasty bronze vessels now in Beijing. One is a late Shang bronze you in the Palace Museum, with a bail handle terminating at either end in a realistic two-horned rhino head (fig. 41).

Figure 41. A late Shang bronze vessel (you). Palace Museum, Beijing

The second vessel, a bronze zun, from Shandong Province, in the Museum of Chinese History, is cast in the shape of a two-horned rhinoceros and shows a fine attention to anatomical detail, including the three toes on each foot (colour plate 17).

Plate 17. Shang Dynasty bronze vessel (zun). Museum of Chinese History, Beijing

During Shang and Zhou times the rhinoceros was captured and killed mainly for its tough, thick skin. When dried, this became extremely hard and provided excellent protection against bronze weapons. Rhinoceros hide was considered to be the ideal material for making the helmets, body armour and shields commonly worn by soldiers throughout the Bronze Age period (Laufer, 1914, 174-200). At first, Shang armour was made from large single pieces of leather (fig. 42).

Figure 42. Drawing of leather armour worn by Bronze Age charioteers

But later, a more complex method of joining smaller sections together was introduced (Yang, 1977, 85) (fig. 43).

Figure 43. Development of early Chinese ‘fish-scale’ body armour

The way in which such armour was constructed can be seen in the oracle bone character zu meaning ‘a soldier,’ ‘to die’ (fig. 44).

Figure 44. Oracle bone pictograph zu (a soldier, to die)

It is a pictograph of body armour made up of many small pieces of leather sewn together with leather thongs or assembled with metal studs (Hsü, 1996, 862). In addition, the oracle bone character jie meaning “armour” shows a suit of armour similarly constructed from small pieces of leather (fig. 45). Because this type of armour resembled fish-scales, this pictograph also meant ‘scale,’ ‘minute,’ and ‘tiny’ (Hsü, 1996, 863).

Figure 45. Oracle bone pictograph jie (armour, scale, tiny)

In the Yueyu chapter of the Guoyu (Discourses of the States) which is dated to the late fourth century B.C.E., it is recorded that the State of Wu equipped 103,000 of its troops with rhinoceros hide and fish-scale armour. Although this claim may be somewhat exaggerated, it indicates that there were still a great many rhinos extant in Southern China during the Warring States period. At the same time, the introduction of a more powerful type of crossbow meant that leather armour began to be replaced with armour made of iron and steel. Nevertheless, this new metal armour continued to be made in imitation of the older fish-scale leather armour (fig. 46).

Figure 46. Drawing of a Warring States iron helmet made in imitation of the older ‘fish-scale’ leather armour

It is interesting to note that varieties of real fish skin, often called by the generic term “sharkskin” were used right up to the end of the nineteenth century for making hilts and scabbards for Chinese swords.

From ancient times, in addition to their use in the manufacture of protective body armour and shields, rhinoceros hides and horns were melted down to make glue for the construction of Chinese compound bows. In the Zhouli (Rites of Zhou) it is recorded that this glue was made by boiling the skins and horns of various animals (Werner, 1932, 17), and in another ancient text, Guo pu Mao shi shi yi (Fragments of the Mao Commentary to the Shu jing) it says “the people of the west country use deer antlers and rhinoceros horn to make bows” (ibid., 20). Even as late as 1830, native Siberians were still using fossil rhino horns as raw material to increase the elasticity of their bows, since rhino horn was apparently excellent for this purpose (Fortelius, 1983, 126).

As a result of the increasing demand for rhinoceros hide armour during the turbulent Spring and Autumn period and the horrific conflicts of the Warring States period, the indigenous rhinoceros population in China was decimated. The gradual cooling of the climate throughout the Bronze Age probably also affected the rhino’s habitat, and caused a southward migration towards Vietnam and Laos, similar to that undertaken by the Saola. But the unprecedented slaughter of the rhinoceros over the many centuries of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty dealt the death blow to the survival of this species in China. As a result, the rhinoceros entered the realm of legend, and came to be considered a mythic beast.

The transmutation of images of mythic goat-unicorn zhi into mythic rhinoceros-unicorns was not based so much on their physical resemblance, although one cannot deny that the stance they both assume when charging is similar. Rather it was founded on ancient beliefs in the apotropaic powers of their respective horns to ward off evil influences: the horn of the unicorn to guard against injustice and evildoers, the horn of the rhinoceros to ward off disease and poison. Since these ideas were later transmitted en bloc westward from China, together with the myth of the unicorn zhi, it is important to understand their sources. The origin of the mythic Chinese unicorn zhi has been discussed in detail earlier. Now it is time to examine the reasons why the Chinese believed so strongly in the protective powers of rhinoceros horn.

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