Also relevant are the designs which appear on the interior surface of rhinoceros horn when it is polished. The Chinese were no doubt aware of these patterns from ancient times, since cups made of rhinoceros horn were used for drinking wine at least as early as the Eastern Zhou Dynasty. In the collections of the Royal Ontario Museum there are nine polished rhino horn cups dating from the Ming (1368-1644 C.E.) and Qing Dynasties (1644-1912 C.E.) that were treasured for their ancient associations with curative effects, long life and vitality.

Each cup has a different surface patterning, and if you hold one in your hands, and examine it closely, you can see subtle differences in hue resulting from the play of light on the ends of the keratin fibres. The colours of the cups themselves range from a rich chestnut to a deep warm brown, which are the result of staining and polishing. Some are quite plain, while others have simple patterns like seeds or tiny flowers. In addition, faint striations can sometimes be seen in the deepest interior hollows of these wonderful cups.

Thanks to the research of M. L. Ryder, we now know that rhinoceros horn is composed of a solid mass of closely packed longitudinal fibres of keratin (Ryder, 1962). So densely packed are these fibres that a great number of them become triangular in section, some having as many as six sides (fig.70)

Figure 70. Drawing of a cross-section of rhinoceros horn showing the mosaic-like patterns of the keratin fibres

When polished, the concave interior surface of the horn reflects light in various directions, rather like an irregular mosaic, creating beautiful visual patterns of dark and light. According to Jan Chapman, when the rhinoceros horn is fresh the patterns are quite vivid, showing white on black or black on white designs. However, she speculates that this two-toned appearance diminishes as the horn ages and dries out (Chapman, 2000, 39).12 Arab sea traders must have been very familiar with the natural designs visible on polished rhinoceros horns, for they were the major suppliers of rhino horn to the Chinese during the Han Dynasty and later, and they used these patterns as a guide for grading the horns. The Arabs were also keenly aware of the Chinese fondness for this material and the relative values that they attached to various types of rhino horns such as the tongtianxi.

The earliest known Chinese textual evidence for these patterns dates to the Tang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.). This is entirely plausible, because the connoisseurship of these designs, in other words, the popular categorizing of types of rhinoceros horn based on the natural markings which become apparent when the surface is polished, only became widespread during that period. The following examination of relevant Tang dynasty texts makes it quite clear that the study of the patterns found on rhino horn was already fully developed by the Tang Dynasty.

Ling biao lu yi ji (Record of Strange Things in the Southeast) by Liu Sun: The designs and spots in the interior horn are small; many have extraordinary patterns. The male rhinoceros likewise has two horns, both of which are designated mao xi (hairy rhinoceros) and are provided with grain patterns…. There is, further, the toloxi (tuluxi?) the largest among the rhinoceros horns, which may reach seven catties in weight. This is the horn on the forehead of the male rhinoceros, which has numerous designs in the interior conveying the impression of scattered beans. If the stripes are deep in colour, the horn is capable of being made into girdle plaques and implements; if the stripes are dispersed and light in colour, the horn may be employed to advantage for the making of cups, dishes, utensils, platters and the like.

Tang xin ben cao (Revised Edition of the Materia Medica of the Tang Dynasty) edited by Su Gong: “The xi is the female rhinoceros. The patterns on its horn are smooth, spotted, white and clearly differentiated. It is ordinarily called pan xi (spotted rhinoceros.) It is highly esteemed in [medical] prescriptions, but it is not such an efficient remedy as the horn of the male rhinoceros.”

You Yang za zu (Varied Menu of Topics of the Yu Yang Area) by Duan Chengshi: “The natural structure of the horn is such that it is filled with figures resembling objects of nature. It is asserted by others that the designs penetrating the rhinoceros horn are pathological [signs of disease].”

It has been mentioned earlier that the Chinese of the Han Dynasty used belt hooks to secure their robes, a practise adopted from the nomadic peoples to the north and west of China. However, by the Six Dynasties period (220-589 C.E.), and again in imitation of nomadic fashion, the Chinese began to wear belts with buckles and plaques made of rhino horn, gold, jade, silver or malachite (Sun, 1982, 83). By Tang times rhinoceros horns had become extremely scarce, and, naturally, the fewer available, the greater the demand. Thus, only those with great wealth could afford them, and only those with high status were permitted to wear personal adornments made of rhinoceros horn (ibid.). Most important among these were the belts made of moleskin, adorned with rhino horn buckles and plaques made of slices of the horn, that were worn by officials at the Tang court (fig. 71).

Figure 71. Reconstruction of a Tang Dynasty moleskin belt with plaques in the Shoso-in, Nara

According to the Tang Dynasty “Regulations for Official Regalia,” the first and second rank officials wore belts decorated with jade and rhino horn. The third rank wore patterned rhino horn, including the “perforated,” “flower” and “spotted” varieties. However, the type known as the tongtianxi was so rare and expensive that even a government minister did not wear such a treasure (ibid.). Such belt plaques were worn by Chinese officials until the tenth century, thus offering proof positive that, in China, the connoisseurship of rhino horn was not only the pastime of scholars, but also a matter of great importance to the state during the Tang Dynasty.

The Tang Dynasty descriptions of the designs on rhinoceros horn are quite simple and realistic. But as time went by, people began to imagine that they could see anything they fancied in the polished surface of rhinoceros horn. Thus, by the end of the eleventh century, we find these fantastic ideas summarized in Sheng shui yan tan lu (Gossip from the Banquet at Sheng shui) by Wang Piji as follows:

The designs in the horns from Yongguan [place unknown] and Jiahi [Vietnam] are like hemp-seeds, the horns being dry, a bit warm and glossy: the horns imported on ships coming from the Arabs have patterns like chu yu [evodia] flowers, are glossy and brilliant with colours, much resembling dog-noses, as if they were glossed with fat, with floral designs. The strangest patterns among them are found on horns of tongtianxi; some like sun and stars, others like clouds and moon; some like the corolla of a flower, some like scenery, some have birds and mammals, others dragons and fishes, some have deities, others palaces; and even equipped with costume and cap, eyes and eyebrows, staff and footgear [conveying the illusion of the picture of a wanderer], or complete hair, feather, scale and horn of a beast, bird or fish, as if it were a veritable picture, it is highly esteemed by the people. The prices are fluctuating, and it is unknown how they are conditioned.

It is quite natural that rumours of this Tang Chinese passion for the designs on rhinoceros horn, and the extravagant ideas which later became associated with them, would soon reach the Muslim world, and textual evidence which has survived from the ninth to the twelfth century C.E. serves to substantiate this cross-cultural diffusion. “The authors who speak of figures in the split (rhinoceros) horn include Ibn Fadlan, al-Garnati, Ibn Bukhtishu, and al-Damiri. Passages in al-Mas’udi and in the Arabian Nights seem to reflect the same belief” (Ettinghausen, 1950, 53 n.6).

Previous | Next