As far as is known, stories from the Eastern countries
are the beginnings of unicorn lore. In The Lore of the Unicorn, Odell
Shepard names six different unicorns. They are the King, the Kioh
TWan, the Poh, the Hiai Chai, the Too Jon Sheu, and the Ki-Lin. Shepard
suggests they may all derive from a single original. The Unicorn,
was one of the favorite motifs in Chinese art for many hundreds of years.
unfailingly gore the guilty but never touch the innocent.
It has long been associated with law enforcers and judges. In the
Han period, pictures of this animal were painted behind the seats of judges,
and in the third and fourth century AD the caps of judges and censors were
decorated with embroidered figures of this unicorn. A name more proper
for this type of unicorn is a Xie Zhi, for the term zhi is a generic one
and the prefix Xie is added to make the animal more specific. It
was under this name that it was used on the robe badges for officials of
the Censorate. Under the influence of Confucianism and Buddhism,
however, a second type of unicorn evolved, and the aggressive characteristics
were softened. It developed into an auspicious omen, and the Li-ki
and other ancient books refer to it as appearing only when there was a
wise and virtuous ruler, and that it had a discriminating mind that it
enabled it to know when benevolent rulers or wise sages would appear in
the world. It was considered to be able to walk on water, and that
it had a perfect goodwill, gentleness, and benevolence to all living creatures.
The horn shrank and became soft and fleshy and was never used for harming
anyone. Buddhists represented it as carrying the civilizing Book of the
Law, and revered it because it avoid treading on any living insect, or
even destroying the grass under its feet. It never ate contrary to
right, meaning that it would shun carrion or what other animals had left.
Everyone accepted that it crowned itself with rectitude, and
||However, other sources say there are actually five
types of Chinese “unicorns,” the Qilin, the Xie Chai, (often called the
Xie Zhi), the Bai Ze (Pai Tsê), the Xie Niu and the Ki - Lin.
All had a single horn originally, though, as I said, in Ming times the
representations showed two horns. The early unicorn was considered
as an aggressive beast, and it was said that it ate fire in its ravenous
fury, but it was specially praised for being able to discriminate between
good and evil, and that it would gore the wicked whenever it meets them.
One myth has it that Emperor Shun, the first law-giver, had a minister
who would have a beast with a single horn in his court that would, on demand,
have two horns. Can they be called “unicorns,” therefore?
The Mings also had a bei ze, and this had a head shaped like a dragon,
two horns, a mane and tail similar to the qilin. However, on robes
it was more colorful with several hues, but although its body was like
a qilin its legs and feet were those of a Chinese lion, and one look at
its cat-like paws would immediately serve to distinguish it from a qilin,
which always had cloven hoofs. The name bei ze cannot be meaningfully be
translated into English for the characters literally mean “white marsh.”
There is also a strange beast to be found on early Ming badges of rank
on which there is a comical tawny cow like animal with large black spots
scattered irregularly over its body. It has a long thin tail and
has one large horn at the back of its head, curling forward between the
ears. (Another “unicorn!”) This design was used as one of the badges of
lower ranking military officers. This is a xiniu (hsi-niu), usually translated
as a “rhinoceros.” The military rhinoceros, however, was a mythical
creature and was not the rhinoceros of the same name as a living animal,
and the use of the term in connection with the badges gives a totally wrong
impression. A better translation would be “auspicious ox.”
Some historians have described it as a “fabulous bovine animal” which is
a somewhat clumsy expression, though at least is far more explanatory than
“rhinoceros.” The similarity between the Bible translation of the
word re‘em and the xieniu is intriguing. The Qings also had their
own “unicorns.” These are different again and are magnificent beasts with
spiky hair, and but they also have a fearsome and aggressive appearance.
In the Forbidden City, there is a pair of huge gilded qilin to be found
outside the Palace of Compassion, Ci Ning Gong. This palace was the residence
of the Qianlong emperor's mother and the qilin were placed there by him
in her honor. And to add to the confusion, they are confusingly similar
to the beasts mounted outside the Heaven's First Gate and if it were not
for the fierce claws it would be easy to assume they are one and the same.
These beasts, however, are Cha Yu. Be careful how you approach them.
They like to eat men! You can see, therefore, the Chinese recognized five
different animals that had a single horn, namely the xiezhi, the qilin,
the baize, the xiniu, and the ki - lin. It is, therefore completely
inappropriate to refer to all or any of them under the generic term of
“unicorns,” especially as some of them are depicted with two horns.
They should be referred to by their Chinese name, especially since in most
cases a literal translation is either impossible or inappropriate.
The k'i-lin or kirin (Monoceros orientalis) is a very rare and beautiful
unicorn that is native to eastern Asia, including China, Korea, and Japan,
as well as parts of Tibet. It has always been extremely shy,
but it is the chinese unicorn that we know of best since it is the unicorn
that has appeared to people to foretell future events. It can be
easily recognized from all other unicorns because of its heavily spotted
back, which is covered with white markings of various shapes and patterns,
and its unusually blunt tipped horn. Unlike the karkadann, the Ki
- Lin unicorn avoids fighting at all costs and is the very symbol of peace
and tranquility. Its voice is sweet and delicate, sounding something
like the ringing of a small silver bell. In general the ki-lin resembles
a small stag, but has the body of a musk deer and the shaggy tail of an
ox. It is yellowish under the belly and is multicolored, having all
five of the most gay and perfect colors known to the Chinese (red, yellow,
blue, white, and black). A few artists have even depicted it covered
by dragon like scales. It is likewise sometimes shown surrounded
by clouds. In any case, it always envelops itself with benevolence.
All in all, it is considered the emblem of perfect good, the noblest form
of animal creation. It was said that K'i-lin walked so softly its
hooves made no sound. Some believed that this was because it was
so softhearted it did not want to crush the blades of grass beneath its
feet. It had a voice like a thousand wind chimes, avoided fighting
at all costs and lived for a thousand years. It has always been extremely
rare and apparently is only found in the most remote and
|pictures of it being ridden
by he goddess of Fecundity holding a child in her arms were often placed
in the nuptial chamber. The Ming dynasty qilin were quite different.
The spirit road to the Ming tombs sports qilin, but they are heavy, cumbersome
beasts with a stern frown, and it would seem that there is very little
likelihood of them being able to walk on grass without damaging it, let
alone on water, or to avoid crushing any insects that got underfoot, the
usual attributes of a qilin. Furthermore, they
undisturbed woods and forests of China.
says it also "is supposed to spring from the centre of
the earth and perhaps he was originally a representative of the earthy
element as the phoenix represents fire, the dragon air, and the tortoise
water." In Chinese myth these four animals all foretell future events.
The phoenix, a legendary bird with brillant colors, lived more than one
life. It consumed itself by fire periodically, and a new young phoenix
sprang from the ashes. In Chinese mythology, the phoenix represented
fire and was the first prophetic animal. No one knows whether the
phoenix was purely imaginary, or if its origin could be traced to a real,
but extinct, bird. The dragon, the second prophetic animal, was a
divine creature that signified wisdom. For centuries it was the imperial
emblem. The emperor's throne was called the Dragon Throne and his
face was called the Dragon Face. It was said that when an emperor
||Ancient Chinese drawings show the Ki, which is the
male unicorn, the Lin, the female unicorn, and the combined male and female,
the Ki-Lin sometimes spelled k'i-lin, or simply ki-lin). In these
the Ki has a smooth coat and, legs and paws like a lion. The Lin
has scales an cloven hoofs. Both have full manes that spread upward
from the backs of their necks. When the male and female are combined
in the Ki-Lin, some of the features change. For instance, they lose
their manes, but gain a shaggy beard, and in place of one pointed horn
the new creature has two homs, each of which has three prongs with rounded
tips. This is but one description of the Ki-Lin, however. In
a painting from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the Ki-Lin resembles a bull
with one horn curving forward. Yet two Chinese porcelain figurines
from the K'ang Hsi period (1662-1773) are of creatures more dog-like in
appearance with claws on their feet and with human mouths. A short
horn grows between each figure's ears. Colombian author Jorge Luis
Borges in his Book of Imaginary Beings describes the Chinese unicorn in
yet another way: The Unicorn is foremost [most important] of all the 360
creatures that live on land. It has the body of a deer, the tail of an
ox, and the hooves of a horse. Its short horn, which grows out of
its forehead, is made of flesh; its coat, on its back, is of five mixed
colors, while its belly is brown or yellow. It is so gentle that
when it walks it is careful not to tread on the tiniest living creature
and will not even eat live grass but only what is dead. The span
of this animal's natural life is a thousand years. Chinese writers
say the Ki-Lin comes "from afar, presumably from heaven." But Shepard
died, he ascended into heaven on the back of a dragon.
This beast is usually considered to be imaginary, though dragons may possibly
be traced back to the age of dinosaurs. The third animal, the tortoise
or turtle, represents water and was thought to be an image or model of
the world. Its upper shell curved like the heavens, its lower shell
was flat the way the Chinese at that time believed the earth to be.
They read the future in the pattern on the tortoise shell. Fossils
of marine animals indicate that turtles may well be ancient animals that
escaped extinction, for they can still be seen today. The fourth
animal, the unicorn, represents the earth element. These four animals
and the elements they represents were believed to make up all creation.
The unicorn was the most important of all these creatures.
Why this should be so he does not say. Nor is it known why the Chinese
singled out these four creatures to represent the elements of earth, fire,
air, and water. But of the four, the unicorn has the *most appeal
as a creature that still fascinates researchers today. If it never
lived, it should have. Author Nancy Hathaway says "the unicorn seems possible,
even probable a creature so likely that it ought to exist." Shepard
says, "According to the testimony of Tse - Tche - t'ong - kien - kang -
mou, the ki-lin was first seen in the year 26917 B.C., in the palace of
the Emperor Hoang-ti, on which occasion it as a truthful prophet of national
felicity [happiness]." The emperor must have been delighted to have
had this indication that his reign would be a happy one. In Chinese culture
the unicorn showed itself only on important occasions, and was a sign of
good times to follow. One of the most famous happy occasions on which
afraid. The mysterious animal slipped
a tiny piece of jade from its mouth into her hand. Then it lowered its
head into her lap. For several hours Ching-tsae rested and
stroked the unicom's head. While she did this "the air shimmered
like water and was filled with the scent of cinnamon."
|the unicorn appeared was before
the birth of the great philosopher, Confucius. A young woman called
Ching - tsae had been walking for some distance when she became tired.
She stopped to rest in an ancient temple. As Ching - tsae sat in
a cool dark corner she fell into a trance. From behind an altar,
an animal with a single horn appeared. Like all Chinese, Ching
- tsae knew the unicorn was a good omen, and she was not
At last Ching-tsae was ready to continue her journey.
She pulled an embroidered white ribbon from her hair and tied it around
the horn of the Ki-Lin. As she did this, Hathaway says, "she suddenly
felt woozy; for a second her eyes closed, and the Ki'lin vanished."
Ching-tsae took the piece of jade home to her husband, Heih. On one
side of the smooth green stone an inscription had been carved. Ching
- tsae was so in awe of what had happened that she could only whisper what
the words said: "The son of the essence of water shall succeed to the withering
Chou [the ruler at the time] and be a throneless king."
It was clear to Ching-tsae and Heih that they had
been singled out in some special way, yet they did not understand what
the words meant. Ching - tsae returned to the temple many times,
hoping the unicorn would again appear. Once she thought she saw something
out of the comer of her eye, but when she whirled around to catch a glimpse
of the wispy phantom, nothing was there; it was only silk fluttering in
a sudden breeze.
In the winter a baby was born to Ching-tsae.
She named it Confucius. From his earliest days the child showed unusual
wisdom. He became a great teacher and philosopher, truly a "king
without a throne." In one version of the story some hunters kill
a Ki-Lin seventy years later and find the bit of ribbon that Confucius's
mother had tied around its horn. In another version, Confucius sees
the unicorn years later and knows it is predicting
that he will die soon.
Whether the tale is true or a myth, it had lasting
importance for the Chinese people. Shepard says that even today pictures
of the Ki - Lin are often displayed in the rooms of Chinese women in the
hope that their babies will grow to be great men. Pictures of the unicorn
"are also affixed to the red chair in which the bride is borne to her husband's
house, and the gods that oversee the distribution of desirable babies are
often depicted riding upon the ki - lin. To say of any man that a
ki - lin appeared at the time of his birth is the highest form of flattery."