During Han times, due to the decimation of the native Chinese rhinoceros population during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, rhino horns had become so scarce that they were imported from foreign countries (Sun, 1982, 82). By the Western Han Dynasty at the latest, they had come to be considered as precious as jade, and rhino horn cups (for longevity) were buried with their owners, along with many imitation rhinoceros horns made of wood and clay for those who could not afford the real thing (fig. 53).

Figure 53. Four pottery models of rhinoceros horns. Western Han Dynasty

The complete skeleton of a rare one-horned Javan rhino has also been found ceremoniously interred in a Western Han tomb (fig. 54).

Figure 54. Drawing of a Western Han burial of a one-horned Javan rhinoceros

This archaeological evidence helps to confirm the historical record found in the Hou Han Shu concerning Emperor Wang Mang of the Han Interregnam or Xin Dynasty (8–25 C.E.). Following his usurpation of the Han throne, and in order to validate his rule, Wang Mang sent his people abroad with a great deal of money to bribe the rulers of foreign tribes to send “tribute gifts” to his court.

The matter was referred to [Wang] Mang. [Wang] Mang memorialized in reply, saying,

“You, [Grand] Empress Dowager, have controlled the rule for several years; your grace and bounty have inundated and overflowed, so that a filial attitude of submission [has spread over] the four quarters and not even the most distant regions with different customs have failed to turn towards correct principles. A Yueshang potentate, [whose speech must be] successively interpreted, presented a white pheasant; the Huangzhi [came] from [a distance of] thirty thousand li to offer a live rhinoceros as tribute; kings of the Eastern Barbarians crossed the Great Ocean to offer the treasures of their states; the Hun Shanyu conformed to [Confucian] institutions and did away with his double personal name. Now at the western boundary, Liang Yuan [the leader of the Qiang tribe] and others in turn present their land and [desire to] become your menials. (Dubs, 1955, 214-15)

Berthold Laufer believed that Huangzhi was located somewhere on the Malay Penninsula. (Laufer, 1914, 80-81 n.2). The fact that a rhinoceros was offered as “tribute” by a distant foreign country early in the first century of the Common Era indicates that they were considered to be extremely rare in north and central China by that time. Such tribute rhinos were kept for the entertainment of the Han Dynasty emperors in the southern section of the fenced animal preserve or wildlife enclosure of the great Shanglin Yuan (Supreme Forest Royal Hunting Park) near the capital city Chang’an, which was reserved for strange and exotic beasts from the south (Schafer, 1968, 320).

One of the earliest written references to rhinoceros horn is also found in the Hou Han Shu dating to the Wang Mang period, where it is mentioned in the Jiaosizhi (Treaty on Offerings to the Ancestors and [Forces of] Nature) as an ingredient in a recipe for longevity. The relevant passage reads as follows: “Cook the brain of a crane with the shell of a large tortoise and also the rhinoceros jade [horn]. Then take the juice and soak seeds in them. Then plant the seeds and eat the grain which grows from them and you will become immortal.” Here the use of the term “rhinoceros jade” is due to the Chinese tendency to exaggerate, in the same way that snakes become “dragons” and chickens become “phoenixes.” It is used to emphasize the fact that rhinoceros horn was considered to be as precious as jade.

In the Chuci (Lyrics of Chu) traditionally attributed to Qu Yuan (340?-238 B.C.E.), there is another reference to the preciousness of rhino horn which may predate the Hou Han Shu. It is found in the Jiu tan (Nine Laments) by Liu Xiang who died in 6 B.C.E. It comes from the poem Yuan Si (Embittered Thoughts).

Parsley and pollia are choked with weeds,
Nothosmyrnium soaked in a muddy ditch,
Fragrant angelica drowned in a stinking pool,
Carved rhinoceros horn is left in a bamboo box.
(Translation by David Hawkes, 1985, 288)

These are all metaphors for good honest scholars and statesmen who are neglected in favour of false flatters at court. Thus the poem is a lament for the neglect of valuable things.

During the Han Dynasty rhinoceros horns were imported by sea from Sumatra, probably through the southern Chinese port of Guangzhou (Sun, 1982, 82), in order to fill the growing need for medicine to treat life-threatening tropical fevers. The reason for this increased demand lay in the fact that during the Western Han Dynasty the empire was vastly expanded south of the Chang Jiang (Long River) into the area of Lingnan (South of the Ling Mountains).

The name “Yangzi” which is now in common use to designate this famous Chinese river, is a misnomer. It only appeared for the first time in the latter half of the nineteenth century when a group of Westerners travelling south from Beijing mistook a small river called the Yangzi Tributary for the great Chang Jiang itself. As large numbers of northern Chinese began to venture south of this great river during the Western Han Dynasty, they came into contact for the first time with a wide range of virulent tropical diseases.

The people of the Western Han period were fascinated by these newly conquered cultures of the South, including the great Kingdom of Nanyue (Southern Yue) which was defeated in 111 B.C.E. Their interest is reflected in the following description in the Hou Han Shu.

During the quiet peaceful times of the Emperors Wen [179–157 B.C.E.] and Jing [156–141 B.C.E.] of [Western] Han, for five generations people were allowed to prosper and put their energies into production rather than war. Therefore the kingdom was very rich and had sufficient good fortune and the soldiers and horses were strong. Therefore they had the opportunity to see rhinoceros hide clothes and tortoise shell from Jin, and they established seven districts in the Pearl Cliff region in the south. As a result of opening the road to Zangke and Yuejun they obtained exotic fruit [species unknown] and sticks of bamboo.

At the same time that the Western Han Chinese were conquering and colonizing the south, a significant change occurred in the pattern of seafaring in the Arabian Sea, when merchants of Mediterranean origin began to make use of the southwest monsoon winds to sail right through to southern India (map 7).

Map 7. The directions of the monsoon trade winds in the Arabian

Philip D. Curtin makes the following remarks about the use of the Indian Ocean monsoons for cross-cultural trade.

It was once widely believed that a certain Hippalus ‘discovered’ the monsoons, making possible the sudden development of Indian Ocean trade about the middle of the first century A.D. The story is obvious Roman ethnocentric nonsense; people who lived on the shores of the northern Indian Ocean knew about monsoons all along, for the same reason Romans knew about winter and summer. (Curtin, 1984, 97)

The result of this “discovery” was a huge increase in communications and trade, most notably in spices and silk, between the East and West along the Asian sea routes.8 Michael Loewe, writing in 1971, expressed a rather pessimistic view of the possibilities of researching the ancient history of world trade:

Probably the full story of these exchanges can never be told; for the evidence is sadly deficient; balanced inferences that rely on information gathered from both East and West are rarely possible; and, maddeningly enough, the political restrictions of the 20th century now prevent the application of modern techniques of archaeology, geography, and anthropology in areas where they are most likely to be successful. (Loewe, 1971, 166)

Nevertheless, many changes have occurred on the world political stage since the 1970s which are enabling scholars to not only widen their fields of interest but also delve more deeply into various aspects of cross-cultural influences in ancient times.

During the Han Dynasty the Malay Archipelago was a common source of spices both for India and China, and for the West. In addition, although Chinese silk had been exported to India via overland routes as early as the fourth century B.C.E., by the first century of the Common Era, Chinese merchants as well as Chinese goods had reached the Indian sub-continent via the sea routes (Curtin, 1984, 101) (map 8).

Map 8. Han Dynasty maritime trade routes

There were three main carriers of this early maritime trade in spices and silk between China and India: the Yue people of southern China, the Kunlun people of the Malay Archipelago and northern Borneo, and the Indonesians (Miller, 1969, 180-87).

The ancestors of the Yue people of southern China (Nanyue) and Vietnam (Nam Viet), had lived along the coast and on nearby islands from the late Neolithic period, 4,000–5,000 years ago, to the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States period. A rock carving found recently at Baojingwan on Gaolan Island off Zhuhai, which depicts human figures, animals and boats, indicates that the Yue people were in the forefront of early navigation in the South China Sea (Maritime, 1996, 41), and it was in their territory that the best timber for ships was to be found (Miller, 1969, 182). By the third century B.C.E. a major Qin Dynasty shipyard existed in Guangzhou which was capable of building ships 3 to 6 metres wide that could carry a cargo of 25–30 tons (Maritime, 1996, 41).

The second main carriers of spices and silk were the sea-faring people of the Malay Archipelago and northern Borneo whom Chinese writers referred to as the “Kunlun people.” The term kunlun requires a brief explanation here because it is used in China to designate many different things. For instance, Kunlun is also the name of the mythic World Mountain and is mentioned in several poems in the Chuci. The highest mountain in the world, it was thought to be shaped like a ziggurat, rising up in terraces of diminishing size, like the great tumulus of Qin Shi Huangdi. Kunlun is described in ancient cosmological writings as “God’s footstool on earth and the gateway to heaven” (Hawkes, 1985, 88 n.). To further add to the confusion, Kunlun is also the name of a great mountain range in Chinese Central Asia which runs from east to west along the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert in the western province of Xinjiang.

The origins of the word kunlun are unclear, and like many terms, its meanings have shifted over time. As early as the Han dynasty, Chinese sources describe the Kunlun Mountains in northwest China as the home of the mythical Xi Wang Mu [Queen Mother of the West]. The meanings of the word kunlun gradually broadened over time, and various sources simultaneously used the term in different ways. These uses of kunlun are unrelated to the name of the Kunlun Mountains. Instead, they reveal Chinese perceptions of those with dark skin, since the term retained this connotation. (Wilensky, 2002, 4)

In the Dai kanwa jiten edited by Morohashi Tetsuji, and commonly known as Morohashi’s Dictionary, various historical facts about the kunlun people are summarized.

The Kunlun people were small and black (dark) and were imported from the South Seas as servant (slaves) for the southern Chinese, but by the Tang period there were many in the capital Chang’an. The earliest martial arts short story in China, which was written in Tang times, was called Kunlun Nu. During the Yuan dynasty the servants (slaves) were Kunlun people and Korean people. The costume of the Kunlun people was that of the South Seas, i.e., India and Southeast Asia. (Morohashi, 1968, 3673)

The Kunlun people were famous for their great ships called kunlunpo. “The men from foreign lands [wrote Wan Chen, speaking of the South] call their boats po. The large ones are over 200 feet long, are 20 to 30 feet above the water-line, and can hold 600 to 700 men and a cargo of 10,000 ho (900 tons)” (Miller, 1969, 186). These enormous vessels are also mentioned in The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a treatise which describes a series of trading voyages from Egypt to South India, and is believed to have been written by a Greek sea-captain from Alexandria sometime between 70 and 84 C.E. (Miller, 1969, 18). In discussing shipping on the eastern coast of India the author says:

Not only is local shipping to be found there which has coasted along the shores of India as far as Damirica [the Greek term for southern India], but also ships from overseas: very large vessels made of single logs attached together called sanggara [Sanskrit for “outriggers”] and also those that cross the high sea to Chryse [Malaysia] and the Ganges called kolandiophonta [ships of the Kunlun?] the greatest of them all. (Periplus, quoted in Miller, 1969, 183)

If we examine a map of India we can see that ships coming through from the South China Sea into the Bay of Bengal made port on the eastern or Chola Coast of India, including the island of Sri Lanka (map 9).

Map 9. India: The Coimbatore Gap

From there the goods were carried across the peninsula by way of the Coimbatore Gap to the western, or Malabar Coast, to be loaded onto Greek ocean freighters for shipment to the West (Miller, 1969, 143).

The district of Coimbatore is approached up two major river valleys, that of the Cauvery from the east coast and that of Ponnani from the west. It lies at the point where the Eastern Ghats, swinging westwards, merge into the Western Ghats and conspire with them to leave a transverse gap, about 20 miles wide and only 1,000 ft. high, between east and west. (Wheeler, 1954, 143)

According to Mortimer Wheeler, the district of Coimbatore and its borders have produced more Roman coins than the whole rest of the sub-continent put together, indicating a vast amount of trade through the Coimbatore Gap in the first century of the Common Era.

Due to the nature of the monsoon trade winds in the Indian Ocean, Western merchants and traders had to remain ashore in the Tamil Kingdoms of southern India for three months or so every year, pending the turn of the winds. As a result, resident communities of foreigners began to settle in the principal port towns (Curtin, 1984, 99). It is clear, therefore, that these Indian entrepots served as the nexus of the early maritime trade between the Han and Roman empires. The importance of this fact cannot be overestimated, because of its enormous repercussions on later unicorn myths. As is perfectly natural, this trade route through southern India served not only as a conduit for spices, silks, and other valuable goods such as rhinoceros horn and elephant ivory, but also for stories and information. As a result, as knowledge of the mythic Chinese unicorn moved westward along the Maritime Silk Route, it was filtered through Indian culture and acquired new erotic and ascetic aspects from the old Indian story of the gentle one-horned hermit Rśyaśrnga.

Although the story of Rśyaśrnga is probably of considerable antiquity, since it appears in the Mahābhārata, the text of the whole Mahābhārata was not finalized until sometime between 400 B.C.E. and 400 C.E. The reasoning for this dating is based on three considerations: the appearance of Greeks [Yavanas] in the text, the non-reference to Pandavas in early Buddhist literature Before the Common Era, and reference to the text by the Gupta period (Elizabeth Knox, pers. comm. 2000). It is therefore highly unlikely that the Indian story of Rśyaśrnga pre-dates the Chinese myth of the unicorn zhi. J. A. B. van Buitenen has provided an excellent English translation of this ancient Indian tale, and in his opinion, certain aspects of the European unicorn myths, such as its gentleness and its capture by a maiden, were of Indian inspiration (van Buitenen, 1975, 431-41). However, van Buitenen’s ideas about the origin of the water-conning trait need to be re-examined in the light of the Chinese sources.

So profoundly was the myth of the Chinese unicorn transformed by its passage through southern Indian culture that knowledge of its origin in China was gradually superseded. Today we have computerized geographical information systems and personal location devices to instantly give us our bearings anywhere on earth. But at that time in human history, both for the people of the Han Empire in the East and the Roman Empire in the West, “India” lay at the outer limits of their known worlds. Thus it was quite natural for people in the West to come to the conclusion that the myth of the unicorn originated in “India” [a term which also included Tibet.] In one sense this is true, because many mediaeval European unicorn myths are based on altered Indian versions. Yet in spite of this, in most later manifestations of the mythic unicorn, the underlying symbolism of justice, which is the hallmark of the Chinese unicorn zhi, survived.

There is another idea, however, which must have originated somewhere within the greater Indian sphere of influence, and that is the peculiar belief in the power of rhino horn as an aphrodisiac. From ancient times in China, as we have seen, powdered rhinoceros horn served the practical medical functions of lowering fevers and counteracting toxins. Yet for some reason people in the West came to believe that rhino horn was used in China as an aphrodisiac. This idea is completely unfounded, for nowhere in Chinese herbals or medical treatises is there any mention of using it to promote virility or aphrodisia (But et al., 1990, 158). In reality, the Chinese use the dried penises of deer, oxen or tigers as medicine for that purpose. Nevertheless, this rumour about the sexual potency of rhino horn remains amazingly tenacious even today and continues to be perpetuated even in major Western medical journals (ibid.). It may be that this fanciful idea was created by the rhino horn traders of southern Asia, in order to enhance the qualities of their goods, and thus increase their sales to Western markets.

The early Asian maritime trade across the Indian Ocean and into the Red Sea may also have led to the use of rhino horn in southern Arabia for the hilts of ceremonial daggers called jambiyya (colour plate 23), although archaeological evidence for this assertion is still lacking.

Plate 23. Yemeni jambiyya with rhino horn handle encased in silver. ROM (908.11.6)

However, the fact that the Arabs, and especially the Yemenis of Muza, were involved from ancient times in the trade in rhino horns and cinnamon suggests that such daggers were items of prestige in the region long before the Islamic period, and this adds greatly to their value (Varisco, 1988, 1). Today, the crafting of these weapons, which are an indispensable part of the traditional costume of the men of North Yemen (colour plate 24) and are much prized in Oman and Saudi Arabia as well, constitutes one of the greatest threats to the survival of the rhinoceros (Martin, 1985, 198).

Plate 24. Man wearing a jambiyya. San’aa souk, Yemen, 1989.

In addition, powdered rhino horn continues to be in great demand for Chinese traditional medicine, and Taiwan has recently emerged as the major commercial centre for this devastating trade (Vigne and Martin, 1989).

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