An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

qilin 麒麟, unicorns

Aug 20, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald

The qilin 麒麟, mostly translated as "unicorn", was a fabulous beast in ancient Chinese mythology. It is described as possessing the body of a deer, the tail of an ox and one horn. Qi 麒 is the male unicorn, and lin the female animal. Lin is also an often-used abbreviation for qilin.

It is said that it represented kindheartedness (ren 仁) and appears if a ruler reigned in a benevolent manner that was approved by Heaven. The unicorn thus is a sign for a ruler that there is peace and happiness in his realm. The qilin itself used its horn only for defense purposes, did not trample on small animals, and did not willfully harm any plants.

Other auspicious animals are phoenix (fenghuang 鳳凰), turtle (gui 龜) and dragon (long 龍). These together are called the "four spirits" (siling 四靈).

Yuan Ke 袁珂, ed. (1985). Zhongguo shenhua chuanshuo cidian 中國神話傳說詞典 (Shanghai: Shanghai cishu chubanshe), 451.