Human beings have a tendency to make images relevant to their own understanding. Therefore it is perfectly natural that changes in representation occur over time. As we have seen, the most salient feature of the mythic goat-unicorn zhi is its long, straight horn. So the rhinoceros, with its short curved horn, could not have been the original animal represented by the zhi ob pictograph. In addition, it was precisely because the zhi was an uncanny beast that it was believed to have the power to distinguish between good and evil. Rhinos, on the other hand, were relatively common in Bronze Age China, and therefore no strange or supernatural powers were attributed to them at that time. But after the drastic reduction of the rhino population during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, this situation changed dramatically. By Han times the rhinoceros had disappeared from the heartland of China, although even in the late Han period they were still numerous in the south and west.

A bronze daigou (belt hook) cast in the shape of a rhinoceros was found close to the waist of the deceased in a late Eastern Zhou Dynasty tomb in the south-western province of Sichuan (colour plate 28).

Plate 28. Inlaid bronze rhinoceros belt hook. Eastern Zhou Dynasty

Such belt hooks, which had been worn by the nomads to the north and west of China since ancient times, became popular in China from the middle Spring and Autumn to the end of the Han Dynasty for securing belts or for suspending ornaments or small implements (Wang 1985(3), 311-12; Mair, 2006, 1-3). The body of this little two-horned rhinoceros is quite lifelike except for the fact that it is covered all over with an inlaid ornament of spirals and teardrops.

By the fourth century B.C.E., images of rhinos were already beginning to show signs of mythic transformation. As a result, their horns, although clearly meant to be rhino horns, sprout from their foreheads or their crowns as well as their noses. Thus, in a bronze support from this period, the artist has placed one horn on the nose, another between the eyes, and has added a third on top of the head (colour plate 29).

Plate 29. Inlaid bronze 3-horned rhinoceros-unicorn support. Eastern Zhou Dynasty

In addition, this mythic beast has hooves like a goat-ox and a long tail. Apparently people still knew what a rhinoceros horn looked like, but few had an opportunity to see the whole animal, so they had no idea where the horn(s) should be located. As a result, they created some of the earliest images of mythic rhinoceros-unicorns by melding aspects of the rhinoceros with the mythic goat-unicorn zhi

In another example, a bronze zun from Xingping, Shaanxi Province dated to the early Western Han Dynasty (colour plate 30), the vessel is cast in the form of a two-horned rhinoceros which is accurate in every detail, including the characteristic series of heavy folds of skin around the neck and the three-toed feet.

Plate 30. Rhinoceros bronze vessel (zun). Early Western Han.
Museum of Chinese History, Beijing

Yet in spite of this realism, its entire body is covered with beautiful qi cloud designs inlaid with gold and silver, a design system introduced from China’s borderlands to the north and west.

By the early Western Han Dynasty, even in southern China, images of rhinos were undergoing a similar metamorphosis. On a lacquer flask excavated from a tomb in Guangzhou, there appears an image of a charging rhinoceros-unicorn with a single horn on its forehead (fig. 59).

Figure 59. Drawing of a lacquer flask from Tomb No.1 at Mapenggang, Guangzhou

Another mythic rhinoceros-unicorn occupies the central position in the elaborate jade pendant of the King of Nanyue at Guangzhou (colour plate 31).11

Plate 31. The Nanyue King’s jade rhinoceros-unicorn pendant. Western Han Dynasty

In this instance the animal has one horn on its nose and another between its eyes which is relatively realistic. But how do we account for the third horn which sweeps backward from its crown along its neck, and the fourth which curves over its shoulder? The answer to this lies in the fact that as the rhinoceros gradually disappeared from China and became mythic, the ancient Chinese concept of cumulative power once again came into play. As a result, the power of the unicorn’s horn became merged in people’s minds with the power of the rhino’s horn and the rhinoceros was transformed into a mythic rhinoceros-unicorn.

In 1990, a fine example of an Eastern Han Dynasty rhinoceros-unicorn appeared on the international art market (colour plate 32).

Plate 32. Rhinoceros-unicorn made of clay. Eastern Han Dynasty

However, because it was not excavated scientifically, there is no way to know its original position in the tomb or to confirm its dating. Sculpted in grey clay, as if made of wood, its horn, tail and legs are detachable, just like the classic wooden goat-unicorn zhi from Wuwei (plate 1). Its head is rhino-like and its compact stocky body rests upon thick sturdy legs with three toes on each foot. However, it also sports wings to indicate its status as a supernatural beast. Its horn, attached to the top of its head, is long and straight, and its tail stands upright like the Wuwei zhi. Its body is painted white, with facial features and wings highlighted in red and black.

During the Eastern Han Dynasty, three-dimensional images of rhinoceros-unicorns made of clay also appeared as door guardians in tombs in the province of Hubei. One of these is depicted standing quietly with its head lowered (fig. 60),

Figure 60. Drawing of an earthenware rhinoceros-unicorn.
Mid to late Eastern Han Dynasty

while another shows the classic zhi stance, pacing forward with head down, horn lowered, and tail up (fig. 61)

Figure 61. Drawing of a green-glazed clay rhinoceros unicorn. Eastern Han Dynasty

Both of these mythic beasts have single horns on top of their heads, and wings, to emphasize the fact that they now belong among the numinous auspicious animals of Han Dynasty China. Similar examples of mythic rhinoceros-unicorns made of clay and dating to the Eastern Han Dynasty have been found in Laodaosi Tomb #4 at Mianxian, Shaanxi Province (Kaogu yu Wenwu, 1982(2)). Two of these were found just inside the tomb facing the doorway, so it is clear that they served exactly the same function as the mythic tomb guardian goat-unicorn zhi.

By the late Eastern Han Dynasty, images of guardian rhinoceros-unicorns began to appear in tombs with single horns sprouting from their necks or shoulders. This confusion was heightened by the fact that written descriptions of the rhinoceros and the natural multiplicity of its horns survived. In the Shuo wen it simply says, “The animal si is like a wild ox,” while in the Erh Ya, China’s oldest lexicon which dates to the Han period, it says “The rhinoceros looks like a pig.” A later commentary on this sentence in the Erh Ya adds a little more information.

The shape looks like a buffalo with a pig’s head, a big stomach, short legs, a foot in three parts, black in colour, with three horns, one on the crown, one on the forehead, and one on the nose. The one on the nose can be eaten [as medicine.] It has a small and not elongated cone shape. The rhino likes to eat thorns. There is also a one-horned species.

Such cryptic descriptions, when combined with the ancient Chinese concept of cumulative power, gave rise to endless possibilities for artistic variation. Because the power of the mythic unicorn zhi resided in its horn, people must have come to the logical conclusion that the more horns there were, the greater the power. As a result, multiple horns were added to the necks and backs of images of mythic tomb guardian rhinoceros-unicorns in order to increase their power to root out evil and defend against corruption. This idea, of the cumulative power inherent in the multiplicity of the horns, was to have a profound effect on images of the rhinoceros-unicorn in the late Han and Six Dynasties periods.

Rhinoceros-unicorns made of clay and dating to the Three Kingdoms period (220-317 C.E.) have been found guarding the entrances to tombs of the southern Wu Kingdom (220–280 C.E.) (fig. 62).

Figure 62. Wu Kingdom rhinoceros-unicorn made of clay

In this example its appearance and posture are rhino-like, but at the same time its pacing stance, with head down and tail up, echoes images of the classic goat-unicorn zhi. Originally this mythic rhinoceros-unicorn had two horns (one is missing) projecting from its neck and shoulders. It also has three half-ball-shaped bits of clay arranged in a row down its back. Another similar example from Yanshi, Henan Province has curling qi cloud designs on its shoulder and down alongside its spine (fig. 63).

Figure 63. Drawing of a guardian rhinoceros-unicorn from Yanshi.
Western Jin Dynasty

Three of the four Western Jin rhinoceros-unicorns in the Royal Ontario Museum’s collection are quite similar, being made of grey clay covered with a white slip and painted (colour plate 33).

Plate 33. Guardian rhinoceros-unicorn made of painted clay.
Western Jin Dynasty. ROM (923.1.12)

The fourth is unpainted and has lost its horns. Like the excavated examples, each ROM rhinoceros-unicorn has three horns protruding from its head and neck, and five dorsal bumps. Since the Chinese have been masters in the use of clay since time immemorial, it is highly unlikely that these were accidental. In addition, number-mysticism or numerical symbolism has always been a fundamental aspect of Chinese thought, from “The Five Phases” of the Han period to “The Gang of Four” of the later twentieth century. Thus the choice of three horns and five half-moon shaped dorsal bumps must have had some special significance.

Until now, no satisfactory explanation has been offered for these, perhaps because the early history of Daoism has long been obscured by the Confucian-dominated tradition in China and by a disproportionate emphasis on Buddhist influences among Western scholars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In recent years, however, greater attention has been focussed on a branch of early religious Daoism that first appeared in 184 C.E. in the region of Shu, (which encompassed the area of present-day Sichuan and southern Shaanxi,) during the waning days of the Eastern Han Dynasty.

Although officially called Tianshi Dao (The Way of the Celestial Masters,) it was popularly known as Wudoumi Dao (Five Pecks of Rice Daoism.) This name was derived from the fact that three times a year each household contributed five pecks of rice to the common grain reserves, to be used in times of need (Schipper, 2000, 42). By the third and fourth centuries a Wudoumi Dao healing ritual, involving The Three Rulers (of Heaven, Earth and Water,) had become universally popular. Wudoumi Dao later went on to become one of the great mediaeval religions of China.

The visual culture of early Wudoumi Daoism is just beginning to be explored, but it is unthinkable, in the opinion of Wu Hung, “that with such stability and power Wudoumi Dao did not develop its cultural and artistic production in this region. Indeed, many archaeological remains from this region, including large tombs and ritual objects, may be related to this early Daoist sect” (Wu, 2000, 79). Thus, although there is as yet no firm proof, it is reasonable to suggest that these three-horned door guardian rhinoceros-unicorns with the five circular mounds of clay applied to their spines served as visual statements of the religious beliefs of the occupants of Western Jin Dynasty tombs.

During the third, fourth and fifth centuries C.E., the Chinese connection with the rhinoceros was becoming more and more tenuous. As a result, in the south, while clay images of mythic rhinoceros-unicorns continued to be placed in tombs as guardians, in reality they more closely resemble familiar domesticated animals such as pigs (fig.64 and colour plate 34) and cows (fig. 65 and colour plate 35).

Figure 64. Celadon guardian pig-unicorn, from Jiangnin, Jiangsu Province
Western Jin Dynasty, dated 299 C.E.

Plate 34. Clay pig-unicorn. Three Kingdoms (220-280 C.E.)

Figure 65. Clay cow-unicorn with 5 dorsal horns and one on each shoulder from Sibancun, Nanjing. Southern Dynasties (420-589 C.E.)

Plate 35. Clay cow-unicorn. Southern Dynasties (420-589 C.E.)

In some instances these beasts retain the classic goat-unicorn zhi stance. But more often their heads are raised and their tails lowered. Thus, although these later southern Chinese pig-unicorns and cow-unicorns may appear somewhat amusing to our eyes, they are all simply later transformations of the mythic rhinoceros-unicorn.

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