Qilin: The Chinese Unicorn

A Ming Dynasty Ki-lin or Qilin in the dragon-fish style (double horns, dragon head oxen hoves and fish skin hide). Photo by Leonard G

I remember mentioning something before in class about an old myth that said a writing unicorn came out of the Yellow River and gave a scroll to Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, and the Chinese writing system originated from that scroll. Actually, I got it wrong; the “unicorn” of China, known as the qilin, is said to have appeared 5000 years ago to the Emperor Fu Hsi along the banks of the yellow river. Another story says that around 2800 BC, the Emperor of China saw markings on the qilin’s coat and perceived them as a written language, which is debatable because many descriptions of the qilin say that it has scales like a dragon, not a coat. Anyway, here’s the gist of it:

The Story

A qilin from the Qing dynasty at the Summer Palace in Beijing, China. Photo by Leonard G.

Emperor Fu Hsi was a benevolent leader who taught his people important skills like cooking. One day near sunset, he was walking alone along the Yellow River when suddenly a creature unexpectedly rose climbed from beneath the water’s surface, walking so lightly that it seemed to walk on the surface of the river and left no footprints in the mud. The creature, the qilin, was seemingly and miraculously composed of many familiar animals–the qilin he saw had the legs and body of a wild deer, the tail of an ox, the head of a wolf, and a long horn, similarly colored to the fur and made of flesh. The hairs on its back had many colors: red, yellow, blue, white, and black, as well as yellow fur on its belly. Its gaze was intelligent, and to Fu Hsi, it radiated dignity and strength.

A large scroll was tied to the qilin’s back, and it approached Fu Shi and knelt on the ground, indicating the heavy scroll with its horn. Fu Shi relieved the qilin of its burden and unrolled it on a dry section of the bank; the paper was seemingly untouched by the water, as was the ink. He saw and studied what was apparently a map of his empire, with hair-thin lines showing rivers and settlements, each accompanied by strange groups of markings. The Emperor noticed that no two of these groups were alike–he looked up, hoping to ask the qilin for an explanation, but it had vanished.

So it was said that the qilin of China gave to Emperor Fu Hsi the Chinese written language.

The Chinese Qilin (versus the western unicorn)

A 17th-18th century Qilin-shaped incense burner on display at the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts, Stanford University, California. Photo by Brokensphere

The description of the qilin (another popular spelling is “ki-lin”) in the story is just one of many; some say the head is shaped like a dragon or a horse’s and the body has scales. However, the greatest difference between the Chinese qilin and the popular western image of the unicorn is the horn. Unlike the ivory horns popular with modern unicorns, the qilin’s horn was made of flesh. In one description influenced by the Buddhist value of life, the horn was tipped with soft flesh so that it could never be used to harm another creature. Almost all the characteristics of the horn vary with different versions of the qilin–long, short, fleshy, flesh-tipped, etc. Male qilin were said to have horns, while females did not. The pictures on this page also depict the qilin with two horns; however, the qilin in the story had a single horn protruding from its forehead, and in this aspect, the fantastical western and fantastical eastern so-called “unicorns” overlapped.

The qilin was one of China’s four legendary creatures. It was the “most worthy of all haired animals” and represented the earth element. The qilin’s fur contained all of the sacred Chinese colors. The other superior creatures were:

  • the dragon, symbol of strength and goodness, leader of scaly animals, representative of the air element
  • the phoenix, a mythical bird said to burn itself to death and rise again from the ashes, leader of all feathered creatures, symbol of the fire element
  • and the tortoise, the most important shelled animal, the only non-mythical superior creature, and symbol of water.

Qilin were very solitary animals who lived in deep forests and high up in the mountains, and rarely appeared except for special purposes. Whenever a qilin showed itself to an emperor, it was believed that ruler would enjoy a long and peaceful reign. Their appearances also foretold the births of great men. A story with many different versions tells how Confucius’s pregnant mother saw a qilin who foretold her son’s greatness. Many hopeful mothers-to-be pasted pictures of qilin on their walls in the hopes that they too would give birth to great men. Gods overseeing the delivery of babies were portrayed riding on the backs of qilin.

After the influence from the spread of Buddhist virtues, the qilin was said to refuse to step on even an ant or a blade of green grass. It also refused to eat any living thing and lived for nearly 1000 years. The appearance of the qilin to Emperor Fu Hsi is probably the oldest story with a unicorn’s appearance in the world, after that of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden which occurred at the beginning of time.

Written by Alina Zhu.


James, Giblin Cross. The Truth About Unicorns. New York: HarperCollins Children’s Books, 1991.


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