Rhinoceros horn, a popular material for carving in China, is not 'horn' at all, but is formed of a solid mass of hair. Its natural colour is yellowish with streaks. The golden-brown colour of Chinese rhinoceros horn objects is achieved by staining and polishing.
Though historical records refer to much earlier use of the material, the earliest surviving rhinoceros horn objects date to the Tang dynasty (AD 618-906) and are preserved in the Shōsō-in in Nara, Japan. Daoist writings of the fourth century AD ascribed magical properties to rhinoceros horn. The horn acquired a reputation in China as an aphrodisiac and was in great demand.
Cups were the most important objects carved in the material. Originally, they were probably used as ritual vessels, because of their special powers. By the Tang dynasty, rhinoceros horn cups were given to scholars who were successful in their examinations.
This cup is ornately carved with flowers and leaves. Its base is in the shape of an ancient bronze wine vessel, called a gu.