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Chinese Mythology 101: Qilin (Kirin)

By Charlotte Ip 20 June 2022 | Last Updated 27 June 2022

Header image courtesy of crystal51 (via Shutterstock)

Beside a waterfall enshrouded in mist, a mythical creature gives birth, a miracle unseen in centuries. Yet, the joy of this momentous occasion is cut short when a villain arrives on the scene, slays the parent, and steals the child, only for his master—a self-proclaimed ruler—to take the creature’s life to harness its magical powers. Unbeknownst to them, there was a twin, and the survivor eventually takes the stage to herald the arrival of a virtuous ruler.

Non-magical (or Muggle) fans may recall these scenes from the latest instalment of the Fantastic Beasts franchise, a plot that centres around a creature from Chinese mythology. Recognisable by its deer-like form and dragon scales, the filmmakers—for the most part—did justice to the mythical qilin, cleverly spinning its clairvoyant abilities into a magical conspiracy. However, surviving manuscripts still have much to reveal about this creature. From its origins to the tales it inspired, here is an introduction to the legendary qilin.

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Appearance and demeanour

While there is no unified concept of the qilin, ancient Chinese texts generally agree that the mythical creature resembles something between a water deer and dragon, inheriting the herbivore’s antlers, trunk, and hooves, and the carnivore’s scaled skin and tail.

Like the phoenix (鳳凰), the qilin’s name is a blend of the male “qi” (麒) and the female “lin” (麟), possibly rooted in the traditional belief that the phoenix and qilin are parents to all airborne and terrestrial beings, respectively. Illustrations of Auspicious Omens (瑞應圖), a collection of paintings from the Southern Song dynasty, depict the qilin at about two metres tall. Often regarded as the “Chinese unicorn” or “single-horned qilin,” these names might be misnomers, as some versions show the qilin to have two horns. With a lifespan of up to two millenniums, the dragon-deer hybrid is said to exude a commanding presence.

Its aggressive physique aside, the qilin is said to be a gentle creature, always prioritising kindness and righteousness, and gifted with an ability to see the same qualities in others. According to the Gongyang Zhuan (公羊傳), so untainted is the regal qilin that its birth foreshadows the imminent rise and fall of a prominent ruler. It allegedly spends its whole life roaming only the grounds of its homeland, where such an eminent leader resides.

Fabled origins

Legends of the qilin appear to have originated from a Shandong county called Juye. Stories began to circulate in Western Han (202 BC–220 AD), asserting that the mythical creature inherited its dragon-like characteristics from a four-generation lineage.

After the dragon-headed, phoenix-bodied maodu (毛犢) gave birth to yinglong (應龍)—the Yellow Emperor’s winged dragon—the latter bred with the horse-dragon longma (龍馬), who then gave birth to the qilin. Fast-forward to the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) during which the qilin catapulted to fame, the claim that it spawned from dragons gained traction.

Other stories also tell of the qilin as more earthly creature. According to the History of Ming (明史), Bengala envoys gifted a “qilin” to Emperor Yongle in 1414. Zheng He, a Chinese admiral and diplomat, also brought home the same species from his travels to Somalia. Upon seeing these colossal, hoofed herbivores, the emperor was convinced that the tributes were physical manifestations of the mythical qilin, and he commissioned artworks to be painted of each living miracle, all titled The Eulogy of the Qilin, an Auspicious Omen. Little did he know, though, this “magical creature” is what is known as a giraffe today.

Possible sightings

Believers are convinced of the qilin’s magical abilities, as the creature famously foretold the comings and goings of Confucius, one of the foremost philosophers in ancient China. Legend has it that a single-horned qilin spit out a letter (some say it was a jade tablet) foretelling the sage’s birth and his greatness. According to a folk tale, the prophetic qilin appeared before Confucius’s pregnant mother with a chubby infant slung across its back, crashing into her baby bump to release the Chinese saint.

Unfortunately, at the time, Confucius’s school of thought failed to gain favour on a political stage. Witnessing his duke’s fall from grace, the sage sent himself into exile in hopes of preaching his values to willing statesmen. Legends of his later life tell of a time when the philosopher was presented with dead game, which he presumed to be a monster. 

Upon closer inspection, Confucius registered that the corpse was that of a qilin. A saintly creature whose time on Earth had passed—it was all Confucius needed to confirm that his own end was nigh, and his beliefs only understood by Heaven. Consumed by grief, he put down his last words in the unfinished historical chronicle Spring and Autumn Annals (春秋), with a simple yet profound line denoting the qilin’s demise in Juye, Shandong.

As the first known instance of the qilin’s legendary prophetic abilities at work, the story inspired great adoration from subsequent generations, who began worshipping the creature with the hope of welcoming an illustrious son—this is how the traditional idiom “Qilin sends son” (麒麟送子) came by and endured as a Chinese custom.

Other qilin sightings were recorded in later times, but none are as salient as the tale of Confucius. Records of the Grand Historian (史記) tells of a story in which Emperor Wu of Han (156–87 BC) caught a qilin. In the Qing dynasty (1636–1912), some cows were said to have given birth to qilin, but they either died on the spot or were killed for looking abnormal.

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Cultural implications

As the head of the Four Holy Beasts, preceding even the dragon, phoenix, and turtle, the qilin radiates an aura of auspice far greater than its precognitive dispositions. “Qilin arrives in a prosperous age” (“盛世出麒麟”) is an ancient household saying which embodies faith in the creature to attract fortune and avert calamities and evil spirits. Even today, the qilin remains a symbol of opulence and success, represented in decoration like spring festival paintings, embroidery, and jade carvings hung across the living room door. Feng shui enthusiasts will assure you that this décor signals a proper tribute to the majestic beast. 

While commoners revere the qilin for its ability to bring good fortune, scholars are enticed by its virtuous character. Canonical scripts extol the qilin’s nobility, using the creature’s toe, forehead, and horns to bestow honour. Parents and grandparents with an extensive lineage are called “qilin toe” (麟趾); talents deemed rare and respectable are known as “qilin horn” (麟角); and “qilin and phoenix” (麟鳳) is a term to praise an esteemed, erudite sage. 

During Ming dynasty, the imperial court even embroidered the qilin onto the robes of prestigious military officers, positioning them as an example for all others to follow.

Qilins in Japan and Korea

As part of the Eastern circle, Japan and Korea have both adopted considerable elements of Chinese mythology into the fabric of their own cultures. Better known as kirin (きりん and 기린) in both regions, the qilin still enjoys a regal status in the folkloric realm.

Retaining the iconic dragon scales and horn, the Japanese kirin is more akin to a deer than a unicorn, with antlers protruding from the rear of its head. In Korea, the kirin appears to share closer ties with the horse. It is said that the god-king Dongmyeong founded the Goguryeo Kingdom on a steed-like qilin. Visual distinctions aside, what’s interesting is how both countries still pay tribute to the giraffe as living kirin, as the long-necked mammal bears the same name in each respective language (and possibly carries on its legacy).

In an age where folklore has faded in favour of science and modernity, the qilin has remained influential, especially in the Buddhist and Taoist circles. For a closer look at this mythological creature, you can find a pair of them diligently flanking the Wong Tai Sin Temple and Tin Hau Temple, as its benevolent nature makes it reliable guardians for places of worship.

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Charlotte Ip

Writer

Actively seeking profound stories or unique perspectives, Charlotte spends her days analysing and overanalysing authentic written works with a particular knack for dystopian fiction. Other times, you may find her engaging in a philosophical discussion about “quiet leadership” or a light-hearted chat about Taylor Swift. To make sure she’s all ears, buy her ice cream.

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