The Qilin, Kirin, or Kylin is a mythical hooved chimericalcreature known throughout various East Asian cultures, said to appear with the imminent arrival or passing of a sage or illustrious ruler. It is a good omen thought to occasion prosperity or serenity . It is often depicted with what looks like fire all over its body. It is sometimes called the "Chinese unicorn" when compared with the Western unicorn.
The earliest references to the qilin are in the 5th century BC Zuo Zhuan. The qilin made appearances in a variety of subsequent Chinese works of history and fiction, such as Feng Shen Bang. Emperor Wu of Han apparently captured a live qilin in 122 BC, although Sima Qian was skeptical of this.
Qilin have not always been described as vegetarian, though they tend to be depicted that way currently. This influence started when a religion from India known as Buddhism began to sweep over the Chinese Empire. Before it became a more Buddhist-like gentle god, it was often depicted more Taoist-like, and as both religions in China eventually began to merge, these ideals also merged in the Qilin. In legend, the Qilin became tiger-like after their disappearance in real life and become a stylized representation of the giraffe in Ming Dynasty. The identification of the Qilin with giraffes began after Zheng He's voyage to East Africa (landing, among other places, in modern-day Somalia). The Ming Dynasty bought giraffes from the Somali merchants along with zebras, incense, and other various exotic animals. Zheng He's fleet brought back two giraffes toNanjing, and they were referred to as "qilins". The Emperor proclaimed the giraffes magical creatures, whose capture signaled the greatness of his power.
The identification between the Qilin and the giraffe is supported by some attributes of the Qilin, including its vegetarian and quiet nature. Its reputed ability to "walk on grass without disturbing it" may be related to the giraffe's long, thin legs. Also the Qilin is described as having antlers like a deer and scales like a dragon or fish; since the giraffe has horn-like "ossicones" on its head and a tessellated coat pattern that looks like scales it is easy to draw an analogy between the two creatures. The identification of Qilin with giraffes has had lasting influence: even today, the same word is used for the mythical animal and the giraffe in both Korean and Japanese.
There are many different ways Qilin have been described, or depicted. Often the Qilin has been mistranslated as "unicorn" however, it can sometimes be depicted as having a single horn. Many books printed in English in the 20th Century reported that the characters for Qilin (麒麟) meant "unicorn" when in fact it did not. The actual word for "unicorn" in Chinese is 独角兽(Traditional 獨角獸) "du jiao shou". A Qilin that is depicted as a unicorn, or 1-horned, is called "Du jiao Qilin" 独角麒麟 (Traditional Chinese: 獨角麒麟) meaning "1-horned Qilin" or "Unicorn Qilin". However, there are several kinds of Chinese mythical gods which also are unicorns, not just Qilin. It is because of the whimsical, supernatural, mythical, mystical, and religious similarities in antiquity to the Western unicorns that the Chinese government minted coins in silver and gold several times depicting both the Qilin and the Western Unicorn together.
Qilin generally have Chinese dragon-like features. Most notably its head with eyes having thick eyelashes, a mane that always flows upward defying gravity, a beard, and scales on the body ranging either somewhat scaled to totally scaled like a dragon. However the body is depicted often equine-like ranging from deer shaped, ox shaped, or horse shaped but always with cloven hooves; not horse hooves. In modern times, the depiction of Qilin has much fusion with the Western unicorn throughout Asia, and among artists in the West.
The Chinese Dragon has antlers, so it's most common to see Qilin with antlers. Dragons in China are also most commonly depicted as golden, therefore the most common depictions of Qilin are also golden, but are not limited to just gold, and can be any color of the rainbow, multicolored, and various colors of fur or hide. The Qilin are depicted throughout a wide range of Chinese art also with parts of their bodies on fire, but not always. Sometimes they have feathery features or decorations, fluffy curly tufts of hair like Ming Dynasty horse art on various parts of the legs from fetlocks to upper legs, or even with decorative fish-like fins as decorative embellishments, or carp fish whiskers, or even carp fish-like dragon scales.
The Qilin are often depicted as somewhat bejeweled, or as brilliant as jewels themselves, like the Chinese Dragons. They are often associated in colors with the elements, precious metals, stars, and gem stones. But, Qilin can also be earthy and modest browns orearth-tones. It is said their auspicious voice sounds like the tinkling of bells, chimes, and the wind.
According to ancient Taoist time period lore, although it can looks fearsome, the Qilin only punishes the wicked, thus there are several variations of court trails and judgements based on the Qilin divinely knowing whether you are good or evil, guilty or innocent, in ancient lore and stories.
In Buddhist influenced depictions it will refuse to walk upon the grass for fear of harming a single blade, and thus is often depicted walking upon the clouds, and it can also walk on water. As it is a divine and peaceful creature, its diet does not include flesh. It takes great care when it walks never to harm or tread on any living thing, and it is said to appear only in areas ruled by a wise and benevolent leader (some say even if this area is only a house). It is normally gentle but can become fierce if a pure person is threatened by a malicious one, spouting flames from its mouth and exercising other fearsome powers that vary from story to story. Legends tell that the Qilin has appeared in the garden of the legendary Huangdi and in the capital of Emperor Yao. Both events bore testimony to the benevolent nature of the rulers. It's been told in legends that the birth of the great sage Confucius was foretold by the arrival of a qilin.
Some stories state that the Qilin is a sacred pet (or familiar) of the deities. Therefore, in the hierarchy of dances performed by the Chinese (Lion Dance, Dragon Dance, etc.), the Qilin ranks highly; third only to the Dragon and Phoenix who are the highest.
In the Qilin Dance, movements are characterized by fast, powerful strokes of the head. The Qilin Dance is often regarded as a hard dance to perform due to the weight of the head, the stances involved, and the emphasis on sudden bursts of energy (Chinese: t 法勁,s 法劲, p fǎjìn).
Qilin are thought to be a symbol of luck, good omens, protection, prosperity, success, and longevity by the Chinese. Qilin are also a symbol of fertility, and often depicted as bringing a baby to a family to decorate homes with.