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It is a well established fact that unicorns have walked all over the earth, and many different cultures recognize them in one form or another. Their hooves have landed on several continents and you might not be surprised to learn that there is a Chinese unicorn, the Qilin.

This word might sound like an attempt to cheat at Scrabble, but Qilin is a ancient and amazing legend of China. It’s a extraordinary creature blessed with many powers and unlike the European unicorn many of us know, although it does share a few similar characteristics.

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Chinese unicorn qilin

If you are interested in Chinese mythology and history, the Qilin is a wonderful thing to explore. China is full of living and unusual mythological creatures. Many of them are well known, such as dragons and phoenixes, but the Qilin is beautiful, interesting and deserves a lot of attention.

It is one of the four noble animals of East Asia, the phoenix, the dragon and the turtle constituting the other three. If you ever get the chance to visit China, you might be lucky enough to spot one in this beautiful country.

How do you pronounce Qilin?

At first, this particular word may be difficult to pronounce for those who do not know the Chinese language. In English, we tend to pronounce the letter « Q » as a harsh « kwuh » sound, or as « cue ». Neither gives a very elegant word when followed by « ilin ». In Qilin, however, the « Q » is pronounced « che », and one of the best ways to figure out how to say this word is to break it down into two parts.

What is a Qilin?

Chinese unicorn the qilin

According to Wikipedia, the Qilin is a mythical creature which represents the virtues of China. It belongs to ancient Chinese mythology, and is a combination of « qi », male and female, « lin ». It is interesting to note that this representation of the male and the female is also a characteristic of the European unicorn.

The Qilin is believed to date from 2697 BC. J.-C. and that he appears in the garden of the legendary Huangdi, the yellow emperor of China. The Qilins are among the sweetest creatures on Earth, and do no harm to birds or beasts. They thus differ from the first European unicorns, because the first European unicorns were considered dangerous, powerful, but always virtuous and above all gentle creatures.

In many representations of the Qilin, it is afraid to walk on the grass for fear of damaging innocent plants or the life of insects. Instead of letting its hooves touch the ground, it evokes clouds or water fountains, and is carried on them.

The Qilin is not defenseless, however; he is able to produce fire, and if it is provoked by the need to protect an innocent being, like the black unicorn it will attack the evildoers. Like the European unicorn, she can distinguish innocence in people, and will only appear to those who are pure enough.

What does a Qilin look like?

For those who don’t know it, the Qilin is quite strange and doesn’t look like the european unicorn. It differs slightly in its depictions but is generally depicted as a four-legged creature. It looks like a chinese dragon in some ways, and has a gorgeous, gem-encrusted body with horse hooves at the end of her legs.

Of course, in many descriptions it only hasa single horn in the center of his forehead, which is probably one of the reasons he’s linked to the European unicorn in the first place. However, he is often depicted with two horns, and sometimes they resemble the antlers of a deer instead.

The Qilin often has the head of a dragon, the body of a tiger or deer, and an ox-like tail. Wikipedia, however, describes the tail as serpentine. He also mentions that all Qilins have individual quirks, such as feathers, carp-like mustaches, sparkling scales, and flaming manes.

While European unicorns will always have a special place in our hearts, the individuality of the Qilin and its mix of different animals is so creative and inventive that we cannot help but love it. Seems like a patchwork of amazing creativity and inspiration, and it seems to represent so many different creatures within its own being.

A search by Qilin of Google images shows how diverse, colorful and unique the Qilins are.

The powers of a Qilin

le qilin

So, an important question: what does a Qilin actually do? The powers that the Chinese believed the Qilins were endowed with may be the reason most important for which they are associated with the unicorn European. We have already talked about a mild temper as a characteristic of both, but a Qilin has a lot of powers and has played an important role in all kinds of mythologies and stories.

Britannica tells us that the Qilins were often associated with the birth of great leaders or important people, such as the sage Confucius in the 6th century BC. This was announced by a Qilin appearing to his future mother and spitting out a jade tablet that predicted his birth. A Qilin is also said to have predicted the death of the same sage when he was injured by a carter.

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

Le qilin

Wikipedia claims that the Qilins also had the gift of prophecy, which is related to their ability to predict grown-ups. The sight of a unicorn, like that of a European unicorn, is a sign of amazing fortune, and often of impending joy for a country or for an individual. They seem to be considered more powerful and unusual in the chinese mythology than European myths, but both are extremely lucky and rarely seen.

Unicorn shop

The Qilins are able to walk among the gods and only descend to Earth at certain times. It is for this reason that they are also able to grant passage between the two worlds, and that they often transported the greatest Chinese heroes from Heaven when they were babies. It was also believed that they accompanied noble souls when they returned at the end of their life. This may be related to the European unicorn’s ability to travel from one world to another, and the common belief that it appears in dreams as a guide – but rarely in relation to the afterlife.

Obviously, the importance of the Qilin to the Chinese people cannot be overstated; they are heralds of greatness, they have the power to predict the future, to bring luck and happiness, and to guide the passage from life to death.

La girafe Qilin

emepreur ming qilin

There are several different stories about the similarities between a giraffe and a Qilin. According to Ancient Origins, in the 15th century, a Emperor Ming – Emperor Yongle – managed to bring two giraffes back from a trip to East Africa. He proclaimed that they were connected with the magic of the Qilins, and that their presence proved his greatness as a leader.

In another version of the tale, Emperor Yongle received a giraffe as a gift from a « Qilin, » but he saw through the tower and proclaimed that they were not Qilins.

Whatever the true legend, it is clear that the giraffe had some satisfying similarities to the Qilin, including being a gentle vegetarian, very calm, and having some very striking characteristics. Some of Qilin art is obviously inspired by giraffes, and in Korean and Japanese the same word is used for giraffes and Qilins – “Girin” and “Kirin” respectively.

In a way, 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 that we often see in the West? Before I learned of the existence of Qilin, I certainly hadn’t!

La danse Qilin

danse du qilin

In addition to all of the other influences that the Qilin had on China, it also provided a dance for the Hakka, one of the Chinese dialect groups, as the Ancient Origins say. It has similarities to the lion dance, which you may be more familiar with as the lion dance, but it stands out in some of its moves. As people all over the world become more and more interested in Chinese people, their traditions and culture, the dance might become more famous.

According to ChinaTownology, the dance requires two performers for each Qilin, and requires good coordination between the two. It is characterized by powerful movements of the head of the Qilin, which is often quite heavy, so the dancers must be proficient and experienced.

danse qilin

If you are interested in seeing the Qilin dance, you can see it performed above, accompanied by wonderful traditional music and the beautiful colors that many of us associate with the chinese culture. As you can see, this is not easy to achieve! The great thing about it, though, is it’s sometimes called the unicorn dance, and it’s something we’d love to see more all over the world!

To sum up the Qilins

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

Hopefully, more people around the world will come to know and respect the Qilins as we all strive to be more inclusive and better informed about cultures other than our own. The Qilins offer us the opportunity to see one of the mythological creatures most beloved in the western world from a different perspective.

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