This vessel might have been used to hold wine or food, and the oval opening might have been covered with a now-missing lid that would have conformed to the contours of the animal.
This rhino is the only one known that is depicted entirely in its natural state. The folds of thick skin give you a sense of what a real rhino’s hide looks like. The ears stand up and extend outward, indicating a state of alertness, while the drooping belly of the rhino gives a sense of the weight of the animal.
The rhino also includes an inscription inside. Cast at the same time as the rhino itself, it records a royal gift of cowry shells to “Lesser Minister Yu.” The inscription notes that this honor took place during the 50th year of an unnamed king, the same year that the king mounted a campaign against an enemy named Renfang. Because of this information, scholars can date the vessel to the last king of the Shang dynasty, in the early 11th century BCE.
Want to know more? Director Jay Xu discusses this and other objects in his lectures from the series Culture and Arts of China: From the Neolithic Age through the Tang Dynasty, available on iTunes U.
Sadly, today all rhino species are endangered, if not already extinct. Learn more at World Wildlife Fund.