It is a well-established fact that unicorns have walked in every corner of the earth, and many different cultures recognize them in one form or another. Their hooves have landed on several continents and you may not be surprised to learn that there is a Chinese unicorn, the Qilin.
This word might sound like an attempt to cheat Scrabble, but the Qilin is an ancient and amazing legend of China. It is an extraordinary creature endowed with many powers and bears no resemblance to the European unicorn that many of us know, although it shares some similar characteristics.
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If you are interested in Chinese mythology and history, the Qilin is a wonderful thing to explore. China is full of lively 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, dragon and turtle being the other three. If you ever have the opportunity to visit China, you may be lucky enough to see 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 hard “kwuh” sound, or as “cue”. Neither one gives a very elegant word when it is 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.
WHAT IS A QILIN ?
According to Wikipedia, the Qilin is a mythical creature that represents the virtues of China. It belongs to ancient Chinese mythology, and is a combination of “qi”, male and female, “flax”. It is interesting to note that this representation of the male and female is also a characteristic of the European unicorn.
The Qilin is thought to date from 2697 BC and to have appeared in the garden of the legendary Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor of China. Qilins are among the gentlest creatures on Earth, and do not harm birds or beasts. They thus differ from the first European unicorns, as the early European unicorns were considered dangerous, powerful, but always virtuous and above all gentle creatures.
In many depictions of the Qilin, they are afraid to walk on the grass for fear of damaging innocent plants or insect life. Instead of letting his hooves touch the ground, he evokes clouds or fountains of water and carries himself on them.
The Qilin is not helpless, however; it is capable of producing fire, and if it is provoked by the need to protect an innocent being, such as the Black Unicorn, it will attack evildoers. Like the European unicorn, it can distinguish innocence in people, and will appear only to those who are pure enough.
WHAT DOES A QILIN LOOK LIKE ?
For those who do not know it, the Qilin is quite strange and does not look at all like the European unicorn. It differs slightly in its representations but is usually depicted as a four-legged creature. It resembles a Chinese dragon in some respects, and has a beautiful body, encrusted with gemstones with horse hooves at the end of its legs.
Of course, in many descriptions he has only one horn in the centre of his forehead, which is probably one of the reasons why he is related to the European unicorn in the first place. However, he is often depicted with two horns, and sometimes they look like antlers of a deer instead.
The Qilin often has the head of a dragon, a tiger or deer body and an ox-like tail. Wikipedia, however, describes the tail as serpentine. It also mentions that all Qilin have individual quirks, such as feathers, whiskers like a carp, 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. It looks like a patchwork of amazing creativity and inspiration, and it seems to represent so many different creatures within its own being.
A search for Qilin on Google images shows how varied, colourful and unique Qilin are.
THE POWERS OF A QILIN
So, an important question: what does a Qilin actually do? The powers that the Chinese believed the Qilin were endowed with are perhaps the most important reason why they are associated with the European unicorn. We have already talked about a gentle temperament as a characteristic of both, but a Qilin has many powers and has played an important role in all kinds of mythologies and stories.
Britannica tells us that Qilins were often associated with the birth of great chiefs or important people, such as the wise Confucius in the 6th century B.C. This was announced by a Qilin appearing to his mother-to-be and spitting out a jade tablet that predicted his birth. A Qilin would also have predicted the death of the same sage when he was wounded by a carter.
Qilin would only appear to those who were pure of soul and destined for greatness, and their appearance was a sign of good fortune and favour. Many believed that they would only appear under the rule of a great leader. Their association with people who are good is similar to that of European unicorns, which would allow only virgins or – in some stories – those of good character to approach them.
Wikipedia states that the Qilin also had the gift of prophecy, which is related to their ability to predict great people. The sighting of a unicorn, like that of a European unicorn, is a sign of astonishing fortune, and often of imminent joy for a country or an individual. They seem to be considered more powerful and unusual in Chinese mythology than European myths, but both are extremely fortunate and rarely seen.
The Qilin are able to walk among the gods and only come down to Earth at certain times. This is why they are also able to grant passage between the two worlds, and why they often carried 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 lives. This may have something to do with the European unicorn’s ability to travel from one world to the other and the common belief that it appears in dreams as a guide – but rarely in relation to the afterlife.
Of course, the importance of the Qilin to the Chinese people cannot be overestimated; 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.
THE QILIN GIRAFFE
There are many different stories about the similarities between a giraffe and a Qilin. According to the Ancient Origins, in the 15th century, a Ming emperor – Emperor Yongle – managed to bring back two giraffes from a trip to East Africa. He proclaimed that they were linked to the magic of the Qilin, 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 trick and proclaimed that they were not Qilins.
Whatever the true legend, it is clear that the giraffe had some satisfying similarities with the Qilin, including being a gentle vegetarian, very quiet, and having very striking characteristics. Some Qilin art is obviously inspired by giraffes, and in Korean and Japanese, the same word is used for giraffes and Qilin – “Girin” and “Kirin” respectively.
In a way, it seems that almost every creature on the planet has a relationship with unicorns, albeit sometimes a distant one. Have you ever associated a giraffe with the pure white-horned equids often seen in the West? Before I learned about the Qilin, I certainly hadn’t!
In addition to all the other influences that the Qilin has had on China, it also provided a dance to the Hakka, one of the Chinese dialect groups, as the Ancient Origins say. It has similarities with the lion dance, which you may know better as the lion dance, but it differs in some of its movements. As people around the world become more interested in the Chinese people, their traditions and culture, the dance may become more widely known.
According to China Townology, 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 skilled and experienced.
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 Chinese culture. As you can see, it is not easy to do! The good thing, however, is that it is sometimes called the unicorn dance, and it is something we would like to see more of around the world !
TO SUM UP THE QILIN
- It seems that in Chinese culture, the Qilin are an even more powerful, beautiful and amazing creature than the European unicorn. They share many of the same characteristics, but at extremes – for example, their kindness in not even damaging the grass. They seem to have achieved almost divine status in Chinese traditions, and their symbolism is of immense importance to Chinese history and culture.
- It is to be hoped that more people around the world will learn to know and respect the Qilin as we all strive to be more inclusive and better informed about cultures other than our own. The Qilin offer us the opportunity to see one of the most beloved mythological creatures in the Western world from a different perspective.
- It is 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 face difficult journeys.
A fusion has been created between the dragon and the unicorn, you can see it on these Unicorn Dragon T-Shirts.
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