Courtesy of:  http://www.worldheritage.org

qilinThe qilin, kirin, or kylin is a mythical hooved chimerical creature 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 (Chinese: 瑞, p ruì). 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. Origins 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 to Nanjing, 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 or earth-tones. It is said their auspicious voice sounds like the tinkling of bells, chimes, and the 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.

There are variations in the appearance of the qilin, even in historical China, owing to cultural differences between dynasties and regions.


  • Jin
    During the Jin Dynasty, the qilin is depicted as wreathed in flame and smoke, with a dragon-like head, scales, and the body of a powerful hooved beast such as a horse.
  • Ming
    In the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), the qilin is represented as an oxen-hoofed animal with a dragon-like head surmounted by a pair of horns and flame-like head ornaments.
  • Qing
    The qilin of China’s subsequent Manchu Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) is a fanciful animal. Depictions of the qilin show a creature with the head of a dragon, the antlers of a deer, the skin and scales of a fish, the hooves of an ox and tail of a lion.


  • Gilin or kirin (both pronounced “kirin”) is the Korean form of “qilin”. It is described as a maned creature with the torso of a deer, an ox tail with the hooves of a horse. The qilin in Korean art were initially depicted as more deer-like, however over time they have transformed into more horse-like. They were one of the four divine creatures along with the dragon, phoenix and turtle. Gilin were extensively used in Korean royal and
    buddhist arts.


  • Kirin is the Japanese form of “qilin”, which has also come to be used in the modern Japanese word for a giraffe. The Japanese art tends to depict the kirin as more deer-like than in Chinese art. Alternatively, it is depicted as a dragon shaped like a deer, but with an ox’s tail instead of a lion’s tail. The Kirin Brewery Company, Ltd., is named after the animal and uses a picture of one in its labels. They are also often portrayed as partially unicorn-like in appearance, but with a backwards curving horn.  In the Post-Qin Chinese hierarchy of mythological animals, the qilin is ranked as the third most powerful creature (after the dragon and phoenix), but in Japan, the kirin occupies the top spot. This is following the style of the ancient Chinese, as qilin was ranked higher than the dragon or phoenix before the Qin dynasty. During the Zhou dynasty, the qilin was ranked the highest, the phoenix ranked second, and the dragon the third.

Cultural representations
The qilin has been frequently depicted in works of literature and art.

  • In Jorge Luis Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings, there is a section on “The Unicorn of China”.
  • In Takashi Miike’s The Great Yokai War, the hero is bitten during a street festival by the dancer’s kirin head. According to local custom that makes him the next “kirin rider”, a hero who defeats malevolent yokai, and he is seen riding the kirin through the sky at the climax of the film.
  • In Gosei Sentai Dairanger, Kazu of the Heavenly Time Star uses his Chi to manifest the power of the kirin to become the Kirinranger and pilots the Mythical Chi Beast, Sei-Kirin.
  • In The Twelve Kingdoms anime series, based on the fantasy novels by Fuyumi Ono, the monarch of each kingdom is chosen by a kirin, who then becomes his or her principal counselor.
  • The kirin in the manga Genju no Seiza is the only deity who can tell which baby the constantly reincarnating Holy King has taken host of. He is blind and deaf, but able to sense thoughts, and thus unpopular in the palace despite the respect given to him.
  • In the Dungeons & Dragons universe, the Ki-rin are monsters in the Oriental Adventures setting, cited as an example of how D&D uses influences from many places.
  • In the video game series Final Fantasy, Kirin is one of the Espers (summoned monsters) in Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy Tactics Advance.
  • Kirin also makes an appearance as the strongest of the “gods” in Final Fantasy XI.
  • In the computer game Guild Wars Factions, players encounter both helpful kirin charged with safeguarding certain areas, as well as several tainted kirin as enemies.
  • In the Magic: The Gathering set “Saviors of Kamigawa”, there are five kirin, one for each color of Magic: Infernal Kirin, Skyfire Kirin, Cloudhoof Kirin, Celestial Kirin, and Bounteous Kirin.