The rhinoceros once thrived in large numbers throughout southern China, and as early as the eleventh century b.c., its image began appearing there. The massive size, brute strength, and aggressive nature of the animal made it a popular and recognizable symbol of power and virility. During the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), the long-standing belief that rhinoceros horn contained magical medicinal qualities produced such a high demand that the animal was almost rendered extinct. The horns collected during this period were typically either ground into a powder and administered as a virility potion or crafted into libation cups for taking medicines and antidotes to poison.
This libation cup is an example of a standard medicine cup. Its hollowed form tapers sharply toward the foot to preserve the natural configuration of the horn. The smooth exterior surface has been carved to simulate a gnarled, knotty tree trunk decorated with curving branches of blooming and budding prunus, a floral motif admired since the tenth century. Colloquially referred to as the Asian apricot, the prunus is a harbinger of spring and symbol of perseverance and purity. The five petals of this flower are especially auspicious—five being a magic number for the Chinese—and symbolize the five traditional blessings of old age, wealth, health, love of virtue, and an honorable, natural death. The overall theme of longevity and strength expressed in this iconography heightens the formal function of this cup as a vessel appropriate for the administration of potent medicinal nostrums.