Rhinoceros horn octagonal cup in a shape of ancient bronze vessel, 17th century, Late Ming dynasty-early Qing dynasty

Rhinoceros horn octagonal cup in a shape of ancient bronze vessel, 17th century, Late Ming dynasty-early Qing dynasty. H. 8.5 cm x W. 11.8 cm x D. 8.8 cm. Transfer from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Sanford Lowergart, B68M17. © 2016 Asian Art Museum Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture

This cup is in the shape of an ancient ritual vessel. The shallow-relief designs that ornament the exterior of the cup were also adopted from motifs found on ancient bronze vessels and jades. The main design on each side is a large beast mask known as a taotie.

The main design of the cup consists of stylized phoenix patterns against a squared spiral ground. The cup features eight small dragons (chi long), seven on the outside, and one on the inside Rhinoceros horn (which is actually a dense accretion of hair) is well-suited for carving. The decoration on horn cups often shares themes with other functional arts, such as lacquer carving and ceramics.

Very few rhinoceros horn cups were created during most of the 1400s and the first decades of the 1500s; this can be attributed to the rarity of the animal in China, along with restrictions on imports from other countries. These import restrictions were lifted in 1565, which corresponded with a period of economic prosperity throughout much of China. Demand for luxury items like cups made from rhino horn was high at this time. As a result, the period from 1565 through the early 1700s is considered the classical period for carved rhino horn cups. But demand for horn exceeded the supply, and the rhinoceros was driven to the point of extinction throughout much of East and Southeast Asia.

The Rhinoceros in Chinese Culture
Rhinoceros horn was thought by the Chinese to help cure certain diseases, neutralize poisons, and increase male virility. The horn was both ground for medicine and carved into elaborate vessels for wealthy patrons. Such vessels might be artworks in themselves, and finest were - and are - eagerly sought by collectors. Archaeological evidence indicates that in ancient times rhinoceros were also harvested for their thick skins, which were used as armor.

Overhunting and destruction of habitat caused the rhinoceros to become nearly extinct in China by the beginning of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Unfortunately, demand for animal products with purported medicinal qualities remains strong today, and this demand - exacerbated by the country's recent economic boom - is still a major factor in the extinction or near extinction of a number of animal species. It has also led to a strong market for antique rhino horn cups. In the past decade the high price paid at auction for rhino horn has increased by a factor of more than twenty. This is reflected in the high monetary values recently given to rhino horn cups on the television program Antiques Roadshow.

The famous ritual vessel in the shape of a rhinoceros on display in gallery 14 on the museum's third floor is one of the earliest and most realistic depictions of the rhinoceros to be found anywhere in the world. In ancient times two species of rhino frequented the woods and grasslands of China; one was small and had a single horn. The second was much larger, and had two horns. The bronze rhino vessel depicts the second type. It shows that the cultural importance of the rhinoceros for the Chinese began in ancient times. Today many people in China and throughout the world are working to protect this magnificent endangered animal.