Qilin — Mythical Creature of Benevolence, Strength, and Auspiciousness 

Qilin also referred to as the Chinese Unicorn, is the symbol of benevolence, bravery, virtue, and talent, and represents a good omen that can foretell future greatness.

Qilin has been one of the most important and widely used mythical creatures in Chinese culture, as one of the Four Auspicious Spirits in Chinese mythology, along with Dragon, Phoenix, and Tortoise.

Qilin Painted by Yu Sheng and Zhang Weibang of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912)

Qilin Painted by Yu Sheng and Zhang Weibang of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — Palace Museum

Copper Qilin Shaped Censer of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644)

Copper Qilin Shaped Censer of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — Peranakan Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying) 

 

What Is the Origin of Qilin?

 

Qilin has been an auspicious creature since the moment it was documented, for its close connection to the birth and death of sage Confucius (about 551 BC — 479 BC). 

 

One day, a Qilin came to a family's yard, came to the pregnant mother, and spit out an inscribed jade tablet, saying "Son of God of Water, A Remarkable King But Without A Throne".

 

The next day, a baby boy was born into this family, who later grew up into Confucius, a great educationist and philosopher, and founder of Confucianism.

Jade Decoration of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) Based on Story of Qilin Spitting of Jade Book

Jade Decoration of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912), Based on Story of Qilin Spitting of Inscribed Jade Tablet that Foretold the Future Greatness of Confucius — Palace Museum

In Shijing (Classic of Poetry or Book of Songs), the first poetry collection in China that was compiled by Confucius, it was documented as a righteous, kind-hearted mythical creature, and was used to represent talented and virtuous nobles. 

 

In the year 481 BC, the king of the state where Confucius was living hurt and captured a beast, which later was identified as a Qilin, the auspicious creature that only appeared in peaceful and prosperous places. 

 

Unfortunately, this auspicious creature died soon, which in Confucius' opinion, was an omen of an upcoming chaotic, unstable era. 

 

He wept and wrote a eulogy, stopped writing books, and passed away two years later.

Since then, the activities of Qilin have been regarded as the symbol of the birth or death of a sage and can foretell a peaceful or chaotic era in the future.

Image of Qilin on Blue and White Porcelain Jar of the Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368)

Image of Qilin on Blue and White Porcelain Jar of the Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368) — British Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

 

What is the Relationship Between Qilin and Chinese Dragon?

 

In regard to the connection between Qilin and the Chinese Dragon, there are some different versions:

 

 

 

  • Qilin is the kid of a dragon and a cattle.

Images of Qilin Carved on Stone Fence of the Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368)

Images of Qilin Carved on Stone Fence of the Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368) — Capital Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

 

What Does A Qilin Look Like?

 

Qi for male and Lin for female ones, their looks in historical documentation and cultural relics differed in history.

 

However, generally, Qilin is colorful, and has a single horn, with a dragon or lion’s head, elk’s body, tiger’s eyes, dragon's scales, cattle's hooves, and ox’s tail.

 

They can fly in the sky, walk on water, roar like thunder, blow out fire, and are fed on grass.

However, with strong hooves and sharp horns, they had never trampled on anything; with such intimidating and strong power, they had never attacked anyone.

 

For thousands of years, they have always chosen to be compassionate, benevolent, and stays kind.

Image of Qilin on Cloisonne Pitcher of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644)

Image of Qilin on Cloisonne Pitcher of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — British Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

 

What Does Qilin Symbolize in Chinese Culture?

 

For the connection to the sage Confucius, Qilin has been the auspicious representative of:

 

  • The mythical creature that can bring people smart babies;​

  • Benevolence and Compassion;

  • Power and Righteousness;

  • Flourishing and Peaceful;

  • Omen of Appearing of Sages and Future Greatness;

  • Representative of brilliant people.

Qilin Carved on Jade Belt of the Ming Dynasty

Qilin Carved on Jade Belt of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — Tianjin Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying) 

 

How Have Images of Qilin Been Used Throughout History?

 

To Honor 

 

Qilin Court, a hall in the royal palace of the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC — 8 AD), placed pictures of exceptional and contributive generals and ministers that were approved by emperors. 

 

Since then, Qilin Court or Qilin Ge has been representative of exceptional accomplishment and supreme honor.

Qilin Hoof Shape Golds of the Western Han Dynasty

Qilin Hoof Shape Golds of the Western Han Dynasty, Made Under Command of Emperor Wu of Han (156 BC — 87 BC) to Memorize Encountering of A Qilin During His Hunting and to Award Nobles and Contributive Officials — Nanchang Relic Museum for Haihun Principality of Han Dynasty (Photo by Dongmaiying)

To Guard

 

In front of buildings, their statues are widely used to exorcise evil spirits, protect, and bring people living inside with good luck. 

Gilt Bronze Qilin in Front of Cining Gate of Forbidden City

Gilt Bronze Qilin in Front of Cining Gate of Forbidden City

To Show Power and Authority

 

In Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912), Qilin was the pattern for the highest-ranked military officials to be embroidered on their clothes (in Chinese is Buzi).

 

Click to Read More About Hierarchical Clothing Patterns of Officials

Qilin Buzi on First Rank Military Officer of Reign Period of Yongzheng Emperor (1722 — 1735)

Qilin Buzi on First Rank Military Officer of Reign Period of Yongzheng Emperor (1722 — 1735) — The Metropolitan Museum of Art

To Pray for Good Luck

 

Qilin Dance, from a royal performance to a civilians' celebration, has been a traditional dance in important festivals to pray for good harvests and happy lives.  

To Pray for Healthy and Smart Babies

 

Qilin's images, embroidered on clothes, painted on pictures, and made into amulets, which are given to women and kids to wear, have been a popular tradition in Chinese culture, to pray for healthy babies, and for kids to grow into brilliant and strong people. 

Qilin Carved on Gilt Silver Belt Decoration of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644)

Qilin Carved on Gilt Silver Belt Decoration of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — Haidian Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

 

Use of Qilin in Fengshui

 

As a kindhearted and powerful creature, Qilin statues have been widely used for Fengshui purposes and are believed can bring people fortune, wealth, luck, kids, and success. 

 

However, the placement of their statues usually follows certain rules:

 

  • A pair should be placed together;

 

  • Statues usually should face the door;

 

  • Qilin in the front gate is for good luck and protection, on the study desk for success and career, in the bedroom for healthy and smart babies;

 

  • Exact positions differ based on people's birth dates and hours;

 

  • Their statues would only protect kind people, those evildoers or people in illegal business should not place Qilin, or else they would be punished. 

Qilin Shape Cloisonne Incense Burner of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — Palace Museum

Qilin Shape Cloisonne Incense Burner of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — Palace Museum