A very rare rhinoceros horn cup, 17th/early 18th century. Photo Christie's Image Ltd 2010

Finely carved with the poet Tao Yuanming admiring a chrysanthemum sprig while seated beside a wine jar in a setting of bamboo and rocks, some forming the handle at one end below a pine branch that continues over the rim - 6 3/8 in. (16.2 cm.) long - Estimate $200,000 - $300,000

Provenance: Phillips, London, 18 December 1996, lot 196.

Notes: This extremely fine rhinoceros horn cup is very skillfully carved with a subject that has appealed to the Chinese literati for centuries. The subject is that of the scholar who resigns his post and retreats from official duties to enjoy the simple life, appreciating nature and composing poetry. In this case the identity of the scholar is disclosed by the fact that he holds in his hand a spray of chrysanthemums, while other chrysanthemums grow amongst the rocks on the other side of the cup, and behind him grows a gnarled pine tree. The gentleman can therefore be identified as one of China's most famous poets, Tao Yuanming (AD 365-427), who is known for his love of chrysanthemums, and who has been depicted with them in paintings from at least as early as the Song dynasty.

One such recorded work, painted by Li Gonglin (c. 1041-1106), and inscribed with a poem by Su Shi (1037-1101), was entitled Yuanming at the Eastern Fence. This title was a reference to one of Tao Yuanming's own poems (the fifth of his 'Twenty Poems on Drinking Wine'), which contains the lines:

'Gathering chrysanthemums by the eastern fence
I catch a distant glimpse of South Mountain;
The mountain air is wonderful at sunset
And flocks of birds fly home together.'

Chrysanthemums appear with subtle regularity in Tao Yuanming's poems, sometimes juxtaposed with wine drinking, as in lines from the fourth of his 'Twenty Poems on Drinking Wine':

'Autumn chrysanthemums of beautiful color,
With dew in my clothes I pluck their blossoms.
I float them in wine to forget my sorrows,
Leaving thoughts of the world far behind.'

However, Tao Yuanming is also associated with pine trees, like the one depicted on this rhinoceros horn cup. One of his most famous poems is Returning Home, which describes his feelings on coming back to his home in the country, after retiring from his post as an official at the age of 41, with the intention to spend his days farming and writing poetry. In the poem Tao sees his home and exclaims:

'The three paths have almost disappeared,
But the pines and the chrysanthemums are still here.'

Thus, the poet sometimes links pines and chrysanthemums. On another occasion Tao wrote:

'Fragrant chrysanthemums clothe the woods in splendor,
The green pines stand like sentries on top of the cliff.
I admire their beauty and grandeur,
Elegant and tall beneath the frost.'

The other plant depicted on the current cup is also appropriate for association with Tao Yuanming. This is bamboo, which traditionally represents integrity in China, especially in the case of a scholar-official or a retired official. Not only does bamboo have the capacity to bend in the wind without breaking, in the same way that a scholar-official may bend with the wind of adversity without compromising his moral integrity, but the Chinese word for the joints of the bamboo is jie, the same as the Chinese word for integrity.
Tao Yuanming is also evoked on another rhinoceros horn cup in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, which shares some aspects of its carving with the current cup. The Chester Beatty cup, carved with chrysanthemums growing out of rocks, bears an inscription dedicating it to Tao Yuanming ( see Jan Chapman, The Art of Rhinoceros Horn Carving in China, London, 1999, p. 135, pl. 147 and pp. 163-4, pl. 201). The carved inscription on this latter cup may be translated as reading: 'Raise the flowing goblet. Dedicated to Tao Pengze in the fourth month of dinghai', followed by the seal of Rui Zhi. Tao Pengze is Tao Yuanming, referring to his time as an official in Pengze, and the cyclical date dinghai is believed to refer to the year AD 1647.

On the current cup Tao Yuanming is shown wearing not a scholar's cap, but the type of hat worn by fishermen and farmers, which would be in keeping both with Tao's rural occupation as a farmer, and also with the ideal of many Chinese scholars of the late Ming and early Qing periods. These scholars liked to imagine that they could live away from the cities, spending their days on the river like simple fisherman. This was an ideal that even reached the court, and there is an album leaf in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, showing the Yongzheng emperor on a boat, dressed as a fisherman and wearing a very similar hat to that worn by Tao Yuanming as depicted on the rhinoceros horn cup (see The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 14 - Paintings by the Court Artists of the Qing Court, Hong Kong, 1996, p. 111, no. 16.16).

While rhinoceros horn cups of this form are often described in the West as 'libation' cups, Craig Clunas has argued that the majority of these were not libation cups, since the complexity of their carving and the secularity of their decoration precludes their use in ritual. He argues, convincingly, that these cups were instead valuable vessels from which to drink either medicine or wine (Craig Clunas, Chinese Carving, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1996, p. 35). In that case the choice of Tao Yuanming as a subject for the decoration of this cup would be particularly apt, since he, like many Chinese poets, was known for his love of wine. Indeed, on the current cup a large wine jar with a ladle sticking out of it is depicted by the poet's right hand.

There are a number of references to wine being drunk from rhinoceros horn cups in Chinese literature, particularly that of the late Ming period. Rhinoceros horn was regarded as having the properties of detecting poison, extending life and also enhancing sexual encounters, and it could be said that this pursuit of health and pleasure was mirrored by the use of rhinoceros horn cups for medicine and for wine. Perhaps when the Poet Yuan Zongdao (AD 1560-1600) wrote the lines:

'Fine wine! I pour it into a cup of rhinoceros horn
and it gives off the faint fragrance of evergreen.'

he had in mind that the cup had recently been used for the consumption of medicinal herbs.

The current cup is a particularly fine example of rhinoceros horn carving, decorated with a literary subject that would have delighted any scholar to whom it was presented.

Christie's. For the Enjoyment of Scholars: Selections from the Robert H. Blumenfield Collection. 25 March 2010. New York, Rockefeller Plaza www.christies.com