Episode 51: Chinese Unicorn

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Unicorn is loved by everyone in the west as a symbol of purity, grace and peace. Interestingly, there is an equivalent legendary animal as unicorn in Chinese mythology called qilin 麒麟.


In the book ShuoWenJieZi 说文解字from Han Dynasty 汉朝, it says, qi, is a kind of benevolent animal with a deer body, ox tail and one horn. I recently found out there is a word for an organism containing a mixture of genetically different tissues which is chimera. The word is originally from a Greek mythical animal with a lion’s head, a goat’s body and a serpent’s tail. So hey chimera is not only found in China. Lin is the female of the animal. In the book ZhengXiangJi 徵祥记, it says, qilin never steps on bugs or snap grass. In the book LiJi 礼记, it says, qilin, phoenix, turtle and dragon are the four sacred animals.

The image we see today of qilin usually has a dragon-like face and sometimes it has two horns as well. So I guess qilin is not a unicorn strictly speaking. I mentioned once in our previous episode. But I don’t know if you still remember that what animal qilin is based on in real life. I can give you a hint. Since the animal is originally from Africa, the Chinese name qilin is from the word “giri” in the language of Somali. Yes! It’s giraffe. In the book TianFeiLingYingZhiJiBei 天妃灵应 之记 碑, it says the year 1415 , Zheng He 郑和 , the most important explor in Chinese history, arrived Africa with his boats and brought giraffes from Somali to China. And people started calling this giant animal qilin from the word giri. Even today, in Japanese, kirin , which is qilin,is still the name for giraffe.


Borrowing the name of giraffe, the long neck is missing in the mythical animal. The similarities we can find between the two animals are the quiet and peaceful nature. Also of course the antlers and the cool coat pattern looking like scales.


In the folktales, qilin arrived at the house when Confucius 孔子 was born. Qilin is a symbol of good omens and also fertility. Since it brings Confucius to the world, Chinese people think kids are brought by qilin like the delivery stork in western culture. Qilin is depicted in decorations for babies and children. In some stories, deities have qinlin as pets and ride them. In the hierarchy of the mythical animals, qilin might be the third only to the dragon and phoenix.


麒麟 qilin

说文解字 ShuoWenJieZi



天妃灵应 之记 碑TianFeiLingYingZhiJiBei

郑和 Zheng He


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