Traditionally, this animal-shaped bronze has been thought of as belonging to a type of wine vessel called a zun; this designation is supported by the inscription. The zun is a pouring vessel and with a spout, usually the head of the animal. There is, however, no spout and no opening between the head and body of this rhino vessel. Perhaps it held food and might better be described as a belonging to a type of vessel known as a gui.
During the late part of the Shang dynasty (approx. 1500‒1050 BCE), Shang power was focused in the city of Anyang. The majority of the ceremonial vessels cast there come from a standard set of shapes, have richly decorated surfaces, and short inscriptions. In contrast, this vessel has an unadorned, natural form and a lengthy and detailed inscription. It was first published in 1845, shortly after its discovery in Shandong province in a buried cache of seven bronzes, and likely reflects the artistic preferences of the people living in that area during the late Shang dynasty (1600–1050 BCE).
A twenty-seven-character inscription cast into the inside of the rhinoceros's belly mentions the patron, Xiaochen Yu; an unnamed king's trip to Kui; a gift of cowry shells to Yu; and the king's campaign against the troublesome Renfang, who lived in the Huai River valley south of Anyang.