It’s a well-established fact that unicorns have walked in all corners of the Earth, and many different cultures recognize them in some form or another. Their hooves have touched down on several different continents, and it may not surprise you to learn that there is a Chinese unicorn – the Qilin.

The Qilin - often referred also as the Chinese unicorn.
An artistic representation of the Chinese unicorn, the Qilin. Image Credit

This word might look like an attempt to cheat at Scrabble, but the Qilin is an ancient and amazing legend of China. It is an extraordinary creature with many powers, and looks nothing like the European unicorn which many of us will be familiar with, though it does share a few similar characteristics.

If you have an interest in Chinese mythology and history, the Qilin is a wonderful thing to explore. China is full of vivid and unusual mythological creatures. Many of them are well-known, such as dragons and phoenixes, but the Qilin is beautiful, interesting, and very deserving of attention.

It is one of the four noble animals of Eastern Asia, with the phoenix, dragon, and tortoise making up the other three. If you ever have an opportunity to visit China, you might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one in this beautiful country.

How Do You Pronounce Qilin?

As the very first step, this peculiar word may prove a struggle to pronounce for those unfamiliar with the Chinese language. In English, we tend to pronounce the letter “Q” as a hard “kwuh” sound, or as “cue.” Neither of these makes for a very elegant word when followed by “ilin.” In Qilin, however, the “Q” is pronounced “che,” and one of the best ways to understand how to say this word is to break it down into two parts.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQV48BeUU_8

“Chee” and “lyn” are the two sounds needed here, as can be heard in the video above. The Qilin’s name might not be so intuitive to pronounce as unicorn, but it has a decidedly mystical and beautiful sound to it, which is very fitting for such an amazing creature.

What Is A Qilin?

According to mythology.net, the Qilin is a mythical creature which represents the virtues of China. It belongs in ancient Chinese mythology, and is a combination of both male, “qi,” and female, “lin.” Interestingly, this representation of both the male and female is also a characteristic of the European unicorn.

Statue of Qilin, located in Beijing Summer Palace
Statue of the Qilin in Beijing Summer Palace

The Qilin is believed to date back to 2697 BC, appearing in the garden of the legendary Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor of China. Qilins are among the gentlest creatures on Earth, and do no harm to birds or beasts. They differ from the early European unicorns in this way, as early European unicorns were considered dangerous, powerful creatures, though still virtuous and predominantly gently.

In many representations of the Qilin, it is afraid to walk on the grass for fear of damaging innocent plants or insect life. Instead of letting its hooves touch the floor, it conjures clouds or water fountains, and transports itself on these.

The Qilin is not defenseless, however; it is capable of producing fire, and if provoked by the need to protect an innocent being, it will attack evil-doers. Like the European unicorn, it can distinguish innocence in people, and will only appear to those who are pure enough.

What Does A Qilin Look Like?

To those who are unfamiliar with it, the Qilin looks quite strange, and not very like the European unicorn at all. It differs slightly in its depictions but is generally shown as a four-legged creature. It looks similar to a Chinese dragon in some ways, and has a gorgeous, gem-encrusted body with horse hooves at the end of its legs.

Statue of Qilin
The Qilin is often represented having head of a dragon, body of a tiger and flaming manes.

Of course, in many descriptions, it does have a single horn in the center of its forehead, which is likely one of the reasons for it being related to the European unicorn in the first place. However, it is frequently depicted with two horns, and sometimes they appear like the antlers of a deer instead.

According to ThoughtCo, the Qilin often has the head of a dragon, a tiger or deer’s body, and a tail similar to an ox’s. Mythology.net, however, describes the tail as serpentine. It also mentions that all Qilins have individual quirks, such as feathers, whiskers like a carp, glistening scales, and flaming manes.

While the European unicorns will always have a special place in our hearts, the Qilin’s individuality and blend of different animals is so creative and inventive we can’t help but love it. It feels like a patchwork quilt of amazing creativity and inspiration, and seems to represent so many different creatures within its own being.

A search for Qilin on Google images shows just how spectacularly varied, colorful, and unique Qilins are.

The Powers Of A Qilin

So, an important question: what does a Qilin actually do? The powers which Chinese people believed Qilins to be endowed with are perhaps the most important reason they’re associated with the European unicorn. We’ve already discussed a gentle temperament as a feature of both, but a Qilin has many powers and has played an important role in all sorts of mythology and stories.

Britannica tells us that Qilins were often associated with the birth of great leaders or significant people, such as the sage Confucius in 6th century BC. This was heralded by a Qilin appearing to his soon-to-be-mother and coughing up a jade tablet which predicted his birth. A Qilin was also said to have foretold the same sage’s death when injured by a charioteer.

Qilins will only appear to those who are pure of soul and intended for greatness, and their appearance was a sign of good fortune and favor. Many felt that they would only appear during the reign of a great leader. Their association with people who are good is similar to that of the European unicorns, which would only allow virgins or – in some stories – those of good character to approach them.

Digital Arts - The Qilin
Representation of Qilin by Tikali, Deviantart.

Mythology.net states that Qilins also had the gift of prophecy, which links in with their ability to foretell great people. Sighting one, as with sighting a European unicorn, is a sign of amazing fortune, and often upcoming joy for a country or the individual. They seem to be considered more powerful and unusual in Chinese mythology than European myths, but both are extremely lucky and rarely seen.

Qilins are able to walk among the gods and only descend to Earth at certain times. Because of this, they are also able to grant passage between the two worlds, and often carried the greatest Chinese heroes down from Heaven when they were babies. They were also believed to accompany noble souls on their passage back at the end of their lives. This can be linked to the European unicorn’s ability to travel between worlds, and the common belief that they appear in dreams as guides – though rarely in relation to the afterlife.

Evidently, the Qilin’s importance to the Chinese people cannot be overestimated; they are heralds of greatness, have powers to predict the future, bring luck and happiness, and guide the passage between life and death.

The Qilin Giraffe

There are several different stories about the similarities between a giraffe and a Qilin. According to AncientOrigins, in the fifteenth century, a Ming emperor – the Emperor Yongle – was able to bring two giraffes back from a voyage to East Africa. He proclaimed these were related to the magic of Qilins, and that their presence proved his greatness as a leader.

Drawing of a giraffe that given to Yongle Emperor of Ming China as a present.
Drawing of a giraffe presented to Yongle Emperor of Ming China (r. 1402–24)

In another version of the tale, the Emperor Yongle was given a giraffe as a gift of a “Qilin,” but he saw through the trick and proclaimed that they were not Qilins.

Whichever legend is true, it’s clear that the giraffe did have some satisfying similarities with the Qilin, including being a gentle vegetarian, very quiet, and having very striking features. Some Qilin art is obviously inspired by giraffes, and in both Korean and Japanese, the same word is used for giraffes and Qilins – “Girin” and “Kirin” respectively.

In some ways, it seems that almost every creature on the planet has a relationship with unicorns, albeit sometimes distant. Have you ever associated a giraffe with the pure white horned equines often visualized in the west? Prior to learning about the Qilin, I certainly hadn’t!

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!

To Summarize Qilins

It seems that in the Chinese culture, Qilins represent an even more powerful, beautiful, and amazing creature than the European unicorn. They share many of the same characteristics, but to great extremes – for example, their gentility in not even damaging the grass. They seem to have achieved almost god-like status in Chinese traditions, and their symbolism is of immense importance to Chinese history and culture.

It’s to be hoped that more of the world will come to know and respect Qilins as we all make efforts to be more inclusive and knowledgeable about cultures other than our own. The Qilins offer us an opportunity to see one of the most loved mythological creatures of the Western world with a different angle.

It’s encouraging that so many cultures have developed legends of such a powerful, gentle, and pure creature, and we hope that Qilins and unicorns can continue to exist, spreading peace and joy and guiding us whenever we must face difficult journeys.