During the Eastern Han Dynasty, as the rhinoceros entered the realm of myth and legend, its horn began to acquire magical powers. As we have seen, the ancient Chinese had many practical uses for rhino horns. But as the horns became more and more difficult to obtain, they became increasingly precious. And the more precious they became, the more people talked about and created fabulous properties for them. As a result, during the Six Dynasties period, between the end of the Han Dynasty in 220 C.E. and the beginning of the Sui Dynasty in 581 C.E., various supernatural qualities came to be attributed to rhinoceros horns, including the ability to get rid of water and dust, to avoid heat, to shine in the night, to cool down temper, or to counteract cold (Sun, 1982, 83). Various literary extracts on this subject which range from the fifth to the sixteenth century have been summarized by Berthold Laufer.
The work Kaiyuan yishi mentions the ‘cold dispelling’ rhinoceros horn bihanxi. During the winter months it spreads warmth, which imparts a genial feeling to man. The Baikong liutie speaks of the ‘heat-dispelling’ rhinoceros horn bishuxi obtained by the Emperor Wenzong of the Tang dynasty (827-840 C.E). During the summer months it can cool off the hot temperature. The Lingbiao luyi records the ‘dust-dispelling’ rhinoceros horn bichenxi from which hairpins, combs and girdle-plaques are made, with the effect that dust keeps aloof from the body. The Duyang zabian refers to the ‘wrath-removing’ rhinoceros horn juanfenxi from which girdles are made, causing men to abandon their anger; these are scarce and veritable treasures. (Laufer, 1914, 152-53)
The question is, what happened in China after the Han Dynasty to give rise to such preternatural beliefs? Historically, with the fall of the Han Dynasty, China entered a period of disunity which was to last for four hundred years. It was a time of great upheaval and seemingly endless horrific warfare, but it was also a time of considerable cultural creativity. The known world of the Han Chinese collapsed, and with it, the ideas and institutions which had given them such an illusion of stability and permanence. As a consequence, people began to question who they were as individuals, and where they belonged in the universal scheme of things. This in turn led to a practical exploration of the world around them, and a renewed interest in alchemical experimentation. The aims of Chinese alchemists, as Nathan Sivin explains,
turned out to be, not learning about the properties, composition and reactions of substances (in other words, not proto-chemistry) … but using known chemical processes to create small models of cosmic cycles and using them for spiritual self-cultivation, or else manufacturing elixirs of immortality to ingest themselves or to provide to others. (Siven, 2000, 2)
In Sivin’s view, the early history of the natural sciences in China and the role played by Daoism in Chinese alchemy are still to be determined. Yet what is clear, is that “the notion that Daoists, by definition, study Nature, and Confucians do not, venerable cliché though it is, has not survived into modern studies of Daoism” (ibid., 12). Today, when searching for answers to the unknown, we employ a scientific method of enquiry which is based in logic. But now we must cast our minds back to a place and time where anything marvellous was credible, and no proof was required, and it is here that we enter the realm of magic. And although today, “‘magic’ in anthropology and history, has come to be a dubious term, decreasingly used, and increasingly contentious” (ibid., 9), when discussing the attributes of mythic beasts, the use of the term is perfectly legitimate.
The possibility that the concept of magic was introduced into China by Indo-European magi during the Shang Dynasty has been mentioned earlier. If this is true, then it means that Chinese culture was imbued with magic from the very beginning of its history, and the myth of the magical goat-unicorn zhi reflects this ancient state of affairs. By the Six Dynasties period however, i.e., from the second to the sixth century C.E., the practical and the magical had become completely intertwined, with the result that the horn of the rhinoceros came to be considered a potent talisman with magical powers.
The most influential early author to record the fantastic properties of the horn was the Daoist adept Ge Hong (283-343 C.E) whose most famous text is called Baopuzi (The Master who Embraces Simplicity). The first part of this work, which is called Nei pian (Inner Chapters), “deals with studies for interior or personal application, principally that body of learning connected with becoming a Daoist immortal, although herbal medicines and semi-magical practises were also a part” (Sailey 1978, ix). The chapter entitled Dengshe (Into Mountains: Over Streams) is of enormous importance for the universal myth of the unicorn, because it is the source of many beliefs which later became attached to the unicorn’s horn. A single sentence from this section, regarding the detection of poison, has been discussed earlier. But here, because of its profound and long-lasting influence, a new and comprehensive translation of the “Method to be pursued in order to walk on water or stay long under water” is presented.
Mr. Cheng once obtained a genuine rhinoceros horn of the kind called tongtianxi (communicating with the sky rhinoceros horn), more than three inches long, carved into the form of a fish. When a person carries such a piece in his mouth and descends into water, the water will give way for him and leave a vacant space three feet square, so that he has a chance to breathe in the water.
The tongtianxi has a single red vein like a silk string running from the base to the tip. When a horn filled with rice is placed among a flock of chickens, the chickens want to peck the grain. Scarcely have they approached the horn to within several inches when they are startled and withdraw. Hence the people of the south designate the tongtianxi (communicating with the sky rhinoceros horn) by the name haijixi (fowl-frightening rhinoceros horn). When such a horn is placed on a heap of grain, the birds do not dare to gather there.
During the evening, when a thick fog or heavy dew forms, if placed in a courtyard, the horn does not contract humidity.
The rhinoceros is a wild animal living in the deep mountain forests. During dark nights its horn emits a brilliant light like torch-fire.
The horn is made into a hairpin. When poisonous medicines of liquid form are stirred with the horn hairpin, a white foam will bubble up. After the foam has bubbled up, the harmful effect of the poison is gone. When non-poisonous substances are stirred with the hairpin, no foam will rise. In this manner the presence of poison can be ascertained.
When on a journey in foreign countries, or in places where contagion from gu (poison) threatens, if a man takes his meals in other people’s houses, he first ought to stir his food with a rhinoceros horn hairpin.
When a person hit by a poisonous arrow is on the verge of dying, and his wound is slightly touched with a rhinoceros horn hairpin, foam will come forth from his wound, and he will feel relief. This property of the tongtianxi of neutralizing poison is accounted for by the fact that the animal, while alive, feeds particularly on poisonous plants and trees of the kinds having thorns and brambles, while it shuns all soft and smooth vegetal matter.
Each year one shedding of its horn takes place in the mountains, and people find horns scattered about among the rocks; in this case, however, they must deposit there, in place of the real one, another horn carved from wood, identical with that one in colour, veins and shape. Then the rhinoceros remains unaware of the theft. In the following year it will return to this same place to shed its horn.
Other kinds of rhinoceros horn are also capable of neutralizing poison, but without such wonderful power as that of the tongtian variety.
This chapter from Baopuzi was so well-known and so influential that these ideas survived and were carried westward by merchants and seamen engaged in the trade of Indian and African rhinoceros horns to the Chinese. It constitutes indisputable textual evidence, dating to the fourth century C.E., that confirms the Chinese origin of many of the marvellous beliefs surrounding the horn of the mythic rhinoceros-unicorn.