The carved decoration on this rare and beautiful rhinoceros horn cup has been particularly skillfully rendered. While a number of rhinoceros horn cups are carved with the decoration going over the rim and into the cup at one end, by the handle - as with the pine branches on the current cup - far fewer examples have carved decoration over the whole of the interior. The artist who carved this cup, however, has carved the entire interior as if it were a depression in a rocky surface; complementing the exterior rockwork.
This is a classic example of the finest rhinoceros horn carving, which has created a cup wholly given over to the theme of a figure in landscape. The figure in this case is the boatman who propels his craft along the river beneath overhanging rocks and trees. The boat appears to be filled with flowers, including lotus blossoms. This could suggest that the young man in the boat represents the eternal desire for sons, and that the lotus flowers provide a rebus for the successive birth of sons, since one of the words for lotus in Chinese is lian, which is a homophone for 'successive'.
However, the cup bears a poetic inscription carved in low relief on the surface of one of the rock faces. A possible translation of this inscription is:
'From the beginning [of his journey] to [the time] of his return, his age had become that of the pine and stone, and he knew not the year.'
This inscription thus brings to mind the Daoist fascination with the idea of losing one's sense of time and place. One of the most famous stories in this genre is that told by Ren Fang (AD 502-557) in his Shuyi Ji Tales of the Extraordinary. Ren Fang tells the story of a woodcutter named Wen Shuxiang who was searching for wood in the mountains when he came across two old men playing weiqi chess. He stood leaning on his axe handle watching them for a while, and they gave him a small nut-like thing to eat. He stayed and watched their game with great attention, and when he could finally tear himself away he saw that his axe handle had rotted away and he had a long white beard. When he returned to his village all the children had grown up and his contemporaries had long since died.
As the decoration on the current cup shows a man guiding his boat along the river, it is possible that the inscription's reference is to another famous story. This is a tale that originates in the work of the famous poet Tao Yuanming (AD 365-427). Tao Yuanming wrote Taohua yuanji, 'Peach Blossom Spring': a story that has inspired poets, painters and craftsmen alike for centuries. The story goes that in the Taiyuan period (AD 376-396) of the Jin dynasty there was a fisherman from Wuling in Hunan province who one day followed the stream in his boat for so long that he forgot how far he had gone. Suddenly he came to a place where blossoming peach trees were crowded along both banks of the stream, and their petals floated down around him. Fascinated, the fisherman followed the stream to its source at the foot of a mountain, where both the stream and the peach trees came to an end. He could see a small hole in the rocks through which shone a light, and so he left his boat and walked until he came through the rocks and into a beautiful, verdant land with plentiful food and happy people. The people of this land were kind to the fisherman, entertained him royally, and asked him many questions about his own land. When he eventually left to return home, the people told him not to tell anyone about their land. The fisherman eventually managed to find his way home, and did tell the people of his village about the beautiful land he had seen, but, try though they might, they never found the way back to the Peach Blossom Spring. This story provides a perfect example of losing a sense of time and place, as well as confirmation that the most worthwhile things are found by accident, not by deliberately striving for them.
It is possible that some of the trees overhanging the river on the current cup are intended to be flowering peach trees, and that some of the flowers in the boat are intended to be peach blossoms. If so, the craftsman who made the rhinoceros cup has allowed himself a little license for the inclusion of some lotus flowers as well. There are many examples of rhinoceros horn cups carved with figures in landscape which take as their theme some aspect of Su Shi's Ode to the Red Cliff, for example, but the subject of this cup is much rarer, and has been masterfully carved.