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The gentle and benevolent Qilin of Chinese mythology

The gentle and benevolent Qilin of Chinese mythology

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Chinese mythology is full of fantastic supernatural and mythical creatures. Whilst the Western world is probably most familiar with the dragon and the phoenix, there are other equally interesting, though less well-known mythological beings. One of these is the Qilin.

Like the Chinese dragon, the Qilin is composed of different animals. Over the centuries, however, the depiction of the Qilin has changed. In general, the Qilin is said to have an equine-like body. Thus, the Qilin may have the body of a deer, or an ox, or a horse. The body of the Qilin is also covered with the scales of a fish, and is often enveloped in fire. As for its head, it is quite similar to the Chinese dragon, yet, even this feature has its variations over time. Some Qilin, for example, have been depicted with a single horn. Hence, the Qilin has been compared to the European unicorn, and has been dubbed as the ‘Chinese Unicorn’, while others are shown with antlers. Nevertheless, it has been suggested that the Qilin and the Chinese Unicorn are two separate mythological creatures altogether.

Although the Qilin may be terrifying to behold, legends describe it as a gentle and peaceful creature. In Buddhist depictions of the creature, for instance, the Qilin is shown to be walking on clouds, as it refuses to harm even a single blade of grass by walking on it. Yet, in some stories, the Qilin is capable of incinerating people, and possesses a variety of supernatural powers. These abilities are only revealed, however, when it is required to defend innocent people from the malice of evil-doers.

The Qilin is said to have walked on clouds to avoid damaging the grass. Picture: ‘Qilin’ by Sleepingfox

As the Qilin is believed to be a benevolent creature, its appearance is regarded as an auspicious sign. It is also believed that the Qilin would only appear during the reign of a good ruler, or shortly before the birth or death of a sage. According to popular belief, the birth of one of China’s greatest sages, Confucius, was made known when a Qilin appeared to his pregnant mother. This Qilin coughed up an inscribed jade tablet that foretold the future greatness of the child in the womb. Furthermore, when a Qilin was injured by a charioteer, it was taken as a foreshadowing of the death of Confucius.

Since the Qilin was associated with greatness, it would be of little wonder that that the Chinese emperors wanted one to appear during their reign, so that he may enhance his reputation. One Ming emperor had his chance in the 15 th century. In 1414, the fleet of Zheng He returned to China after its voyage to East Africa. The gifts that were brought back included a pair of giraffes. These were bought from merchants when the fleet landed in modern day Somalia. Due to some similarities between the giraffes and the Qilin, the Emperor Yongle proclaimed these animals as magical, and saw them as a legitimisation of his greatness. Incidentally, the word for Qilin in Korean ( Girin) and Japanese ( Kirin) are actually the same ones used for giraffe. This shows the long lasting influence of the Chinese identification of the giraffe with the Qilin.

A Qilin with giraffe-like form. Picture: Qilin by Vrolokya

Apart from this linguistic influence, the Qilin has also had an influence on the cultural heritage of the Hakka (a Chinese dialect group) people. The Qilin dance is similar to the more common lion dance, both of which are usually performed during the Lunar New Year. Although the basic form and the ritual of the Qilin dance is similar to that of the lion, the pattern of steps, gestures, and music are quite distinct from its more famous counterpart. Although the Qilin dance is relatively obscure, it seems that it is getting more popular today. Thus, the Qilin will probably become better known as more people come to know about it and its place in Chinese mythology.

Featured image: An artist’s depiction of a Qilin. Credit: Megaloceros-Urhirsch

By Ḏḥwty


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Cultural China, 2014. Magical Chinese Unicorn Qilin. [Online]
Available at: http://traditions.cultural-china.com/en/210Traditions9158.html

Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014. qilin. [Online]
Available at: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/110049/qilin

Parker, J. T., 2007. The Mythic Chinese Unicorn. [Online]
Available at: http://chinese-unicorn.com/title/

Szczepanski, K., 2014. What is a Qilin?. [Online]
Available at: http://asianhistory.about.com/od/Asian_History_Terms_N_Q/g/What-Is-A-Qilin.htm

Wikipedia, 2014. Qilin. [Online]
Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qilin

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Available at: http://www.theworldofchinese.com/2013/06/the-legendary-qilin/


The qilin ( [tɕʰǐ.lǐn] Chinese: 麒麟 ), or kirin, is a mythical hooved chimerical creature known in Chinese and East Asian mythology said to appear with the imminent arrival or passing of a sage or illustrious ruler. [1] Qilin are a specific type of the lin mythological family of one-horned beasts.


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Qilin, Wade-Giles ch’i-lin, in Chinese mythology, the unicorn whose rare appearance often coincides with the imminent birth or death of a sage or illustrious ruler. (The name is a combination of the two characters qi “male,” and lin, “female.”) A qilin has a single horn on its forehead, a yellow belly, a multicoloured back, the body of a deer, and the tail of an ox. Gentle of disposition, it never walks on verdant grass or eats living vegetation.

The first qilin is said to have appeared in the garden of the legendary Huangdi (Yellow Emperor) in 2697 bce . Some three centuries later a pair of qilin were reported in the capital of Emperor Yao. Both events bore testimony to the benevolent nature of the rulers.

The advent of a great sage was made known when a qilin appeared to the pregnant mother of Confucius (6th century bce ). The qilin thereupon coughed up an inscribed jade tablet that foretold the future greatness of the unborn child. The death of Confucius was foreshadowed when a qilin was injured by a charioteer.

In 1414 a live giraffe was brought to China for the first time and presented as a qilin to the Ming emperor Yongle. The tough old warrior, seeing through the intended flattery, curtly remarked that he certainly was no sage and the animal was certainly no qilin. In Japanese, a giraffe is called kirin, but the characters are those for qilin.

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The Gentle and Benevolent Qilin in Chinese Mythology

Chinese mythology is full of fantastic, supernatural, and mythical creatures. While the Western world is probably most familiar with the dragon and the phoenix, there are other mythological creatures that are just as interesting, though less well known. One of these is the Qilin. Like the Chinese dragon, the Qilin is composed of various animals. However, over the centuries, the [&hellip]

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Although appearing vicious, the Qilin is generally gentle unless confronted by evil people, when flames will erupt from its mouth and it becomes extremely fierce and will use its magical powers to destroy the wicked. The Qilin is a vegetarian and has a very quiet nature and it is said that it can walk on grass without disturbing a single blade. The Qilin, according to legend has the ability to walk on water and will only appear in areas ruled by wise and kind leaders, whether it is a country, or a single household.

The earliest recorded mention of Qilin was in the 5th century BC. The Qilin has appeared in works of history and fiction ever since. It is believed that the Qilin was originally an artist’s imagination of a giraffe, similar to the stone lions, or Fu Dogs which guard Chinese gates.

The design of the stone lions was created using verbal descriptions of African lions. Carvings and statues of Qilin can be found throughout many of Beijing’s imperial sites. In the Summer Palace for example, the Qilin is found on roofs of palaces and temples, on walkways, and crafted into large bronze statues to guard buildings.

The famous Daoist book ‘The Eight Immortals Cross the Sea’ says that the immortal Li Tieguai rides a Qilin. During the Qing (1644-1911) Dynasty, the Qilin was depicted on the Mandarin Square, a symbol of rank placed on the chest and back of officials clothing, of military officials of the first rank.

The Qilin is also very important to practicers of Feng Shui. It is believed that the Qilin will bring wealth to houses and offices. The Qilin is also a very popular part of Chinese Tea culture. Many types of Chinese Teaware feature Qilin in its decoration or shape.

What Are Some Other Creatures from Chinese Mythology?

As mentioned, the Qilin is only one of several unicorn-like figures in Chinese Mythology – and even that pales compared to the number of animal-like beings that exist throughout Chinese lore!

Some of the “unicorn” types other than the Qilin include:

  • The Xiniu was a cow-like being with one horn coming from the back of its head and over to the front. Its name meant ‘rhinoceros.’
  • The Bei ze was a combination of the Qilin and the dragon. This beast was usually two-horned, and many of the Forbidden City statues were likely meant to be these.
  • The Bo horse was a horse with an ox’s tail, a horn on its forehead, and the voice of a person’s call. This creature could walk on water.
    Another version of the Bo’ had features from jungle cats, including the teeth and claws of tigers. This one was said to devour predatory animals such as leopards.

Other creatures of interest, though, cannot and should not be forgotten about! Here are three of the most famous:

  • The Chinese dragon – Dragon myths exist worldwide, but the Chinese mythological dragons are heavily spiritual creatures. Depending on the period, the dragon’s color, and the type of myth, they all have varied powers. They are often benevolent, but sometimes ferocious, and are closely associated both with water and fire. They share many physical traits with some versions of the Qilin
  • The Tortoise – Tortoises and turtles are important creatures in Chinese myth, associated with spirituality and creation. They carry the Islands of the Immortals upon their backs through the water, and they are a symbol of longevity. For Buddhists in particular, tortoises are considered one of four animals to be spiritually gifted.
  • The Cat – the Cat is a ward against evil in many Chinese myths. It is said to ward off rats, protect the silkworms so important to the silk export, and even protect against evil spirits. However, it wasn’t always good news! Like their dual symbolism in the West of bad luck/good luck, a stray cat was considered a symbol of bad finances in China or another kind of bad omen.

Chinese Unicorns Symbolism

The mention of the Chinese Unicorn goes back to the days of Confucius. At that time it had a more peaceful appearance. When walking, it did not cause any harm even to insects. When stepping on the grass it did not crush it. It fed only on magic grasses. It could walk on water and fly. When carved on gravestones, it would protect from evil spirits, as well as accompany the dead to heaven.

However, over time this peaceful appearance has changed. Though it was once a symbol of peace and gentleness, it has also acquired the features of power and strength. In Feng Shui, Qilin symbolizes long life, celebration, magnificence, joy, wisdom, and famous children. It is a gentle, kind, and benevolent creature and carries a mystical good omen.

The Qilin Dance

As well as every other influence which the Qilin has had on China, it also provided a dance to the Hakka, one of the Chinese dialect groups, as said by AncientOrigins. It has similarities to the lion dance, which you may be familiar with as a more commonly seen dance, but it is distinctive in some of its movements. As people across the world take an increasing interest in the Chinese people and their traditions and cultures, the dance might become better known.

According to ChinaTownology, the dance requires two performers for every Qilin, and needs good coordination between the two. It is characterized by powerful movements of the Qilin’s head, which is often quite weighty, so the dancers must be skilled and experienced.

If you’re interested in seeing the Qilin dance, you can watch it being performed above, accompanied by wonderful traditional music and the beautiful colors many of us associate with Chinese culture. As you may be able to see, it’s not easy to perform! One of the lovely things about it, however, is that it is occasionally referred to as the unicorn dance, and that’s something we would love to see more of across the world!

History of the Qilin

The qilin first appeared in the historical record with the Zuo Zhuan, or "Chronicle of Zuo," which describes events in China from 722 to 468 BCE. According to these records, the first Chinese writing system was transcribed around 3000 BCE from the markings on a qilin's back. A qilin is supposed to have heralded the birth of Confucius, c. 552 BCE. The founder of Korea's Goguryeo Kingdom, King Dongmyeong (r. 37-19 BCE), rode a qilin like a horse, according to legend.

Much later, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), we have solid historical evidence of at least two qilin showing up in China in 1413. Actually, they were giraffes from the coast of Somalia the great admiral Zheng He brought them back to Beijing after his fourth voyage (1413-14). The giraffes were immediately proclaimed to be qilin. The Yongle Emperor was naturally extremely pleased to have the symbol of wise leadership show up during his reign, courtesy of the Treasure Fleet.

Although traditional depictions of the qilin had a much shorter neck than any giraffe's, the association between the two animals remains strong to this day. In both Korea and Japan, the term for "giraffe" is kirin, or qilin.

Across East Asia, the qilin is one of the four noble animals, along with the dragon, the phoenix, and the tortoise. Individual qilin are said to live for 2000 years and can bring babies to deserving parents much in the manner of storks in Europe.


The earliest references to the qilin are in the 5th century BC Zuo Zhuan. [2] [3] The qilin made appearances in a variety of subsequent Chinese works of history and fiction, such as Feng Shen Bang. Emperor Wu of Han apparently captured a live qilin in 122 BC, although Sima Qian was skeptical of this. [4]

The legendary image of the qilin became associated with the image of the giraffe in the Ming dynasty. [5] [6] The identification of the qilin with giraffes began after Zheng He's 15th-century voyage to East Africa (landing, among other places, in modern-day Somalia). The Ming Dynasty bought giraffes from the Somali merchants along with zebras, incense, and various other exotic animals. [7] Zheng He's fleet brought back two giraffes to Nanjing, and they were referred to as "qilins". [8] The Emperor proclaimed the giraffes magical creatures, whose capture signaled the greatness of his power.

It is said that the female is called the lin (麟), the male is called the qi (麒) and "qilin" is a designation for the whole species. However, "lin" alone often carries the same generic meaning. [9]

The identification between the qilin and the giraffe is supported by some attributes of the qilin, including its herbivory and quiet nature. Its reputed ability to "walk on grass without disturbing it" may be related to the giraffe's long, thin legs. Also, the qilin is described as having antlers like a deer and scales like a dragon or fish since the giraffe has horn-like "ossicones" on its head and a tessellated coat pattern that looks like scales, it is easy to draw an analogy between the two creatures. The identification of qilin with giraffes has had a lasting influence: even today, the same word is used for the mythical animal and the giraffe in both Korean and Japanese. [10]

Axel Schuessler reconstructs 麒麟 's Old Chinese pronunciation as *gərin. Finnish linguist Juha Janhunen tentatively compares *gərin to an etymon reconstructed as *kalimV, [11] denoting "whale" and represented in the language isolate Nivkh and four different language families Tungusic, Mongolic, Turkic and Samoyedic, wherein *kalay(ә)ng means "whale" (in Nenets) and *kalVyǝ "mammoth" (in Enets and Nganasan). As even aborigines "vaguely familiar with the underlying real animals" often confuse the whale, mammoth, and unicorn: they conceptualized the mammoth and whale as aquatic, as well as the mammoth and unicorn possessing a single horn for inland populations, the extant whale "remains [. ] an abstraction, in this respect being no different from the extinct mammoth or the truly mythical unicorn." However, Janhunen cautiously remarks that "[t]he formal and semantic similarity between *kilin < *gilin

*gïlin 'unicorn' and *kalimV 'whale' (but also Samoyedic *kalay- 'mammoth') is sufficient to support, though perhaps not confirm, the hypothesis of an etymological connection", and also notes a possible connection between Old Chinese and Mongolian (*)kers

(*)kiris "rhinoceros" (Khalkha: хирс). [12]

The qilin may be described or depicted in a variety of ways.

Qilin generally have Chinese dragon-like features. Most notably their heads, eyes with thick eyelashes, manes that always flow upward and beards. The body is fully or partially scaled and often shaped like an ox, deer, or horse. They are always shown with cloven hooves. In modern times, the depictions of qilin have often fused with the Western concept of unicorns.

As the Chinese dragon has antlers, it is most common to see qilin with antlers. Dragons in China are also most commonly depicted as golden, therefore the most common depictions of qilin are also golden, but may be any color, multicolored, or with various colors of fur or hide.

The qilin is depicted throughout a wide range of Chinese art, sometimes with parts of their bodies on fire. On occasion, they will have feathery features or decorations, fluffy curly tufts of hair, as depicted in Ming Dynasty horse art on various parts of the legs, from fetlocks to upper legs, or even with decorative fish-like fins as embellishments, or carp fish whiskers, or scales. [ citation needed ]

Qilin is often depicted as somewhat bejeweled, or as brilliant as jewels themselves, like Chinese dragons. They are often associated in colors with the elements, precious metals, stars, and gemstones. But, qilin can also be earthy and modest browns or earth-tones. It is said their auspicious voice sounds like the tinkling of bells, chimes, and the wind. [ citation needed ]

According to Taoist mythology, although they can look fearsome, qilin only punish the wicked thus there exist accounts of court trials and judgments based on qilin divinely knowing whether a defendant is good or evil, guilty or innocent, in ancient lore and stories. [ citation needed ]

In Buddhist-influenced depictions, qilin will refuse to walk upon grass for fear of harming a single blade, and thus are often depicted walking upon the clouds or the water. As they are divine and peaceful creatures, their diets do not include flesh. They take great care when they walk to never tread on a living creature, and appear only in areas ruled by a wise and benevolent leader, which can include a household. [ clarification needed ] Qilin can become fierce if a pure person is threatened by a malicious one, spouting flames from their mouths and exercising other fearsome powers that vary from story to story. [ citation needed ]

Legends tell that qilin have appeared in the garden of the legendary Yellow Emperor and in the capital of Emperor Yao. Both events bore testimony to the benevolent nature of the rulers. It has been told in legends that the birth of the great sage Confucius was foretold by the arrival of a qilin. [1]

Qilin are thought to be a symbol of luck, good omens, protection, prosperity, success and longevity by the Chinese. Qilin are also a symbol of fertility, and often depicted as bringing a baby to a family.

In ritual dances Edit

Some stories [ which? ] state that qilin are sacred pets (or familiars) of the deities. [ citation needed ] Therefore, in the hierarchy of traditional dances performed by the Chinese (e.g., lion dance, dragon dance), they rank highly third only to the dragon and phoenix who are the highest. [ citation needed ]

In the qilin dance, movements are characterized by fast, powerful strokes of the head. The Qilin Dance is often regarded as a hard dance to perform due to the weight of the head, the stances involved, and the emphasis on sudden bursts of energy ( 法劲 法勁 fǎjìn ).

Qilin as unicorns Edit

Qilin ( 麒麟 ) is often translated into English as "unicorn", as it can sometimes be depicted as having a single horn, although this is misleading, as qilin may also be depicted as having two horns. A separate word, "one-horned beast" ( 独角兽 獨角獸 Dújiǎoshòu ) is used in modern Chinese for "unicorns". A number of different Chinese mythical creatures can be depicted with a single horn, and a qilin, even if depicted with one horn, would be called a "one-horned qilin" in Chinese, not a "unicorn". Due to the mythical, mystical, and even whimsical similarities to the Western unicorn, however, the Chinese government has minted silver, gold, and platinum commemorative coins which depict both archetypal creatures. [13]

Watch the video: 魔法世界碰撞中国神兽为何它能圈粉无数Chinese mythical creature appears in Hollywood fantasy film (May 2022).


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