The Plight of the Wild Rhino

Update May 22, 2015: Rhinoceros poaching continues to escalate in South Africa according to National Geographic. The slaughter continues despite news reports — National Geographic and PBS – that rhinoceros horns have no medicinal value nor curative properties. The Asian Art Museum does not condone nor promote the slaughter of rhinos.

The contest to find a nickname for the beloved rhino-shaped bronze vessel allows the museum to offer insight on the significance of art works made from rhino horns, as well as the endangered state of today’s wild rhino.

The rhinoceros was of special importance to the ancient Chinese, as the museum’s famous rhinoceros-shaped vessel, which dates from 1100–1050 BCE, attests. It is an awkward fact that great artworks are sometimes created amid deplorable circumstances. It is hard not to think of the current plight of the rhinoceros when viewing artworks made from rhino horns, or indeed of that of the elephant when viewing objects made of ivory. The rhinoceros was almost extinct in China by the time of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) due to hunting and habitat destruction. On November 10, 2011, the western black rhinoceros was declared extinct by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and all rhino species are currently endangered. So what are we to make of rhino horn art?

Rhinoceros horn was (and still is) valued for its medicinal properties, and considered an antidote to poison. Often carved into cups, it became a prized medium of artistic expression, and Chinese artists created great works of art from it; the period of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was one of particular excellence.

Examples of rhinoceros horn objects are on view in the museum’s Gallery 17, on the second floor. By displaying these objects we hope to improve understanding of traditional Chinese art and also to heighten awareness of the current threat to an animal long esteemed in Chinese culture, and admired by people the world over. For more information about rhino conservation, visit the World Wildlife Fund.

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