Rhinoceros horn cup in the shape of a lotus-leaf. Late 16th to early 17th century. h. 7.6 cm, diam. of mouth 14.2 x 10.2 cm © National Palace Museum
The lotus-leaf cup is fashioned out of a rhinoceros horn, with the tapering tip section removed and the inside gouged out. The leaf rolls up and inwards, veins in low relief covering both sides. The outer side is further adorned with flowers, lingzhis (Ganoderma lucidum), and mountainous rocks in high relief carving, with one stem of two flowers extending into the inner wall: one in bloom tilting sideways, the other still a bud. The steep, protruding rocks and lingzhis together approximate a handle for the cup. The entire cup is dark brown, with a black bottom.
Chinese has valued rhinoceros horns since antiquity as a rare material. The Han's Classics of Odes written in West Han dynasty told that when way back in the ancient late-Shang dynasty, the wise, old advisor Jiang Taigong to the Zhou state sent General Nan Gongshi east to a remote state Yiqu for the Horn of "Scaring off Chickens", to be presented as a gift to the infamous monarch of Shang. A passage from an ancient collection of fantasy tales states that the remote country (in today's Viet Nam) "Feile's tributes of rhinoceros horns reflected with a mix of glitter and shade (so the name: "shadow rhino"). When woven into seating or bed mats, it looked like beautiful rich-patterned brocade." The literatures indicate that the ancient people treasured the horns and regarded them as rare materials. Into Ming dynasty, the rhinoceros horn was valued even more because of its medicinal properties. It was also believed that vessels made of rhino horn could detect poison. The Ming literati wrote adulatory or poetic little verses about these elegant, sometimes wondrous objects. For example, a late-Ming Confucian student Wang Daokun (1525-1593) once composed an epigram of four phrases, each with three characters, for a rhinoceros horn cup carved into the shape of a lotus leaf, "Scoop of Nectar, Into the Lotus; Best to You, Long Live Forever", i.e. the rhino horn cup was used to drink a toast for wishing a happy birthday of longevity. He had another one composed for another rhino horn cup in the shape of hibiscus, "a Rhino Horn Cup, For Your Elegant Banquet; My Heart as Faithful, Yours as Bright Day".
Text and images are provided by National Palace Museum