Chinese Unicorns
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.
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,
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
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
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
undisturbed woods and forests of China.
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 drawings 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
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
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
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
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."
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."