Since ancient times in China, the most important use of rhinoceros horn (colour plate 18) has been as an antipyretic medicine to reduce fever.

Plate 18. Rhinoceros horn. ROM (Specimen #19598)

Modern experiments ”have shown that injection of aqueous extract of rhinoceros horn (species not stated) in laboratory rats does, in fact, produce a short-lived antipyretic effect; but horns of cattle and buffalo produce a similar, if less marked, action, and horns of Saiga tatarica (Bovidae) give a reaction equal to that of rhinoceros” (Hillman-Smith and Groves, 1994, 5). As was discussed earlier, rhino horn is not true horn, but is composed of bundles of keratin which grow in an asymmetrical fashion. Chemically, it contains keratin, amino acids, guanidine derivatives, sterols, amine (ethanolamine), acidic peptide and sugar- and phosphorus-containing substances (But, et al., 1990, 165).

In books on traditional Chinese medicine, beginning with the herbal classic Shennong Bencaojing (The Divine Husbandman’s Cannon of Materia Medica) parts of which may date to the late Warring States and Western Han periods, powdered rhinoceros horn is classified as a cold drug, indicated for hot diseases and thus suitable for cooling the blood and counteracting toxins (Xie and Huang, 1984, 161–62). It is believed to be effective in reducing persistent high fevers, aiding in blood clotting, and as a tranquillizer.

Rhinoceros horns are conical in shape, with a hollow in the base which originally fitted over the fleshy pad on the rhino’s head (colour plate 19).

Plate 19. Detail of the hollow in the base. ROM (Specimen #19598)

Thus, when cleaned and turned upside down, they form natural vessels (colour plate 20).

Plate 20. Rhinoceros horn cup. Ming Dynasty, 15th-16th century. ROM (931.76)

Because of this, they were used in ancient China as cups for fermented rice wine. In the poem “Juan’er” from the Shijing (Poetry Classic) it says “I will now take a cup (of wine) from that rhinoceros’ horn, hoping I may not have long to sorrow” (Legge, 1960, Bk.1 Ode 3). This literary evidence confirms the fact that by the Eastern Zhou Dynasty at the latest, the Chinese were using wine cups made out of rhinoceros horn. Later they came to believe that when drinking from a rhino horn cup, its curative elements would be dissolved into the wine, thereby easing their pain and lengthening their lives. This belief may have arisen as a result of the growing interest in finding “The Elixir of Life” which became the focus of “The Search for Immortality” during the third century B.C.E. Thus two of the most ancient uses of rhino horn, as a medicine, and as a wine cup, became linked together in people’s minds.

By nature, the Chinese cannot tolerate large quantities of alcohol in their systems, and they become inebriated rather easily. In games of chance, such as liu bo (colour plate 21), the loser was compelled to drink a rhino horn cup full of wine so that he would become drunk and lose his composure, which added greatly to the enjoyment of the winner.

Plate 21. Tomb figures of liubo players. Eastern Han Dynasty. ROM (992.78.1)

In “The Summons of the Soul,” a poem dated to around the second century B.C.E., there is a lively description of the game of liu bo.

Then with bamboo game sticks and ivory-inlaid board the liu bo game begins:
Both sides advance at once: they press and contend.
Reaching the target and recording a double score, they shout: ‘Five White!’
Dice of rhino horn, fashioned in Jin, flash in the sun.

This evidence of the early use of rhino horn cups for wine and the use of dice made of rhino horn is intriguing, because it clearly links rhinoceros horn with games of chance in ancient China. Fate and good luck, which were also closely associated with the mythic unicorn zhi because of its uncanny ability to determine one’s guilt or innocence in a court of law, also played an important role in such games. In addition, the mention of bamboo game sticks in the poem provides a connection to early divination in China. Mark Edward Lewis has described this connection as follows:

Liu bo, literally ‘six rods,’ was a board game which is mentioned in the Spring and Autumn Annals. Examples of the game have been found in tombs from the Warring States period state of Zhongshan, the Qin dynasty and the Han. The standard board design echoes many features of the so-called TLV design on bronze mirrors, as well as the diviner’s boards (shi pan) from the same period…. The movement of the pieces in liu bo was originally determined by the casting of the eponymous six rods, which were made from split bamboo canes, often strengthened on the concave side with metal or lacquer. In the early history of the game these rods were thrown in the manner of divinatory casting. However, with the passage of time players began to use dice as well as rods in order to determine moves…. Thus by the Han the casting of rods and of dice seems to have become interchangeable. (Lewis, 2002, 5, 9-10)

Divination in many parts of the world appears to have begun with the random tossing of sticks or bones whose configuration was interpreted as a message from the spirit world. Even today, the tossing of sticks still survives in the game “Pick-up-Sticks.” According to Herbert Chatley,

There can be little doubt, when one studies the different forms of divination, that it was the ancient belief that any group of different units whose arrangement after a shuffling process was impossible to predict, would serve for purposes of prophecy. Unseen powers would be able to affect the slight variations of circumstance which determine the final configuration, while those initiated into the code explaining all the possible configurations were thereby able to interpret the will and knowledge of the unseen powers. (Chatley, 1911, 559-60)

By the third century B.C.E., the Chinese code of explanation was written down in the Yijing (The Book of Changes). No doubt the earliest versions of this book would have been written on the same kind of bamboo strips as were used in the divination process itself (fig. 47).

Figure 47. Bamboo strips. ROM

Because bamboo is such a perishable material, we do not know exactly when writing began in China, and of course the spoken language would have long predated the advent of writing. However, we do know that by the time the oracle bones were inscribed in the late Shang Dynasty, 3,500 years ago, the written language was already considerably advanced. In fact, the way in which Chinese characters are written on a page, starting from the top right and moving in vertical columns down to the bottom left, is a lasting reminder that the Chinese first wrote on thin strips of bamboo or other type of wood. The great advantage of this system was that only the exact number of strips required for each particular document was used, with no wastage. When finished, the strips were bound together with string and rolled up into a bamboo “book” for ease of transportation and storage (fig. 48). Even after the invention of paper and printing in China, the ancient tradition of writing characters in vertical columns from right to left persisted.

Figure 48. A scholar holding a bamboo book. Ink rubbing from a Han Dynasty tomb tile. ROM (931.13.137)

It is impossible to know when the articles employed in divination, such as bamboo sticks and bones, began to be used for more secular purposes in games of chance. But there is no denying that there is an underlying connection between the two, for both appealed to the unseen world of the spirits to grant knowledge, and therefore power, over one’s future fate. Thus, Western Han Dynasty dice made of horn (fig.49),

Figure 49. 18-sided Chinese die from Tomb no.3 at Mawangdui. Western Han Dynasty

gaming pieces of ivory, and counters or “tiles” made of bone (fig. 50), wood or bamboo, all incorporate aspects of ancient prognostication rituals.

Plate 50. Bone counters for a game of chance. Han Dynasty. ROM

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