Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Antique Chinese Carved Rhino Horn Libation Cup

Horn libation cups were always regarded as mystic things and they were thought to be capable of detecting poison, not to mention proving useful as a sex aid when ground up into powder and washed down with wine. It was something which made them indispensable at the royal courts of Europe and they would have appeared after the Chinese trade routes were opened up by Marco Polo. But in addition to their magical properties, the cups had to be carved in the latest fashionable taste of the day among the mandarins and the Chinese ruling class.

During the Song, Ming, and Ching dynasties, the libation cup was decorated by Chinese artists using various high and low relief carving techniques and they used matt dyes to tint the bases.

Different types included leaf cups, full-tip cups, where the point of the horn was left intact, raft-cups, where the side of the horn was carved out like a boat and goblet cups.

Traditional Asian medicines commonly use animal parts in the composition of remedies. Rhino horns have been used in traditional Chinese medicines since 200BC. Current remedies recommend using rhino horn to treat a range of diseases – most commonly dispelling heat (fevers). It is a myth that rhino horns are commonly used in Asia as aphrodisiacs.

The horns of a rhino are composed almost entirely of keratin (a protein found in human skin, hair and nails) with deposits of calcium and melanin in the center.

The belief that rhino horns are able to dispel heat is explained by scientists at the Department of Biology and Chinese Medicinal Material Research Centre at the Chinese University of Hong Kong:

A very fundamental approach in Chinese medicine in analyzing the syndromes of an ailment is to differentiate them according to the ‘eight cardinals’: yin, yang, outside, inside, empty, full, coldsel and hot... in Chinese medicine, the term ‘fever’ covers not only a rise in body temperature but also a patient’s subjective feeling of heat within his body... herbal materials are noted to have such properties as four essences, five flavors and four directions of action. The four essences are cold, hot, cool and warm. A cold drug alleviates yang diseases, inflammation or hyperemia, and various fevers... Accordingly, rhinoceros horn, classified as a cold drug, is indicated for hot diseases. However, it is applied only when heat is trapped deep in the body in the areas of ying and XUQ, to help clean and detoxify the blood... Obviously, the conceptual function of rhinoceros horn in Chinese medicine is more far-reaching than just subsiding fever.

These scientists at the Chinese University of Hong Kong carried out a study on the antiphyretic (fever-reducing) effects of rhino horn on rats. They found that horn is able to reduce fevers in rats, but only at doses far higher than prescribed in traditional medicine. To curb the killing of rhinos for traditional medicine, other scientists have rebutted claims that rhino horns have any medicinal properties. In 1983, a study was undertaken by Hoffman-LaRoche at the request of the World Wildlife Federation and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The study ‘found no evidence that rhino horn has any medicinal effect. Dr Raj Amin of the Zoological Society of London, who demonstrated that the species and origin of the rhino could be identified from analyzing their horn, further stated that ‘there is no evidence that any constituents of rhino horn have any medical property.

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