Qílín (Chinese: 麒麟 or 騏驎; also latinized as ch'i-lin, ki-lin, ky-lin) is legendary animal from Chinese mythology, frequently called the Chinese unicorn. Qilin is known as a humane and benevolent animal (仁獸, rén shòu). It never harms any living thing and when it walks, no blade of grass is bent and no insect is crushed beneath its hoof. Qilin does not live in China, or any place for that matter, but is rather a denizen of heaven and serves as a divine steed and a messenger. Its appearance is an auspicious sign, signaling that the ruling monarch is kind and wise, and his rule pleases the gods.
It is said that the female is called the lin (麟), the male is called the qi (麒) and "qilin" is a designation for the whole species. However, "lin" alone often carries the same generic meaning.
Erya describes the lin as resembling a large jun (麕, jūn; a kind of a hornless deer) with the tail of an ox and one horn on its head. The accompanying commentary says the horn is made of flesh, not bone, and despite being the weapon of war, it cannot hurt anyone. Shuowen Jiezi defines the lin as a large female deer and qi as a benevolent beast with the body of an elk, the tail of an ox and one horn.
Later art portrays the qilin a great deal resembling the dragon, with carp's scales all over its body and two antlers instead of one horn. Frequently flames engulf its body.
Creation of the world
There are four spiritual animals (四靈, sì líng): the dragon (龍, lóng), the unicorn (麟, lín), the phoenix (鳳, fèng) and the tortoise (龜, guī). When the giant Pangu separated heaven from earth, those four creatures accompanied him. When the world was created out of Pangu's body, they led different animals: the dragon became the king of the scaly creatures, the phoenix ruled the birds, the tortoise creatures with a shell and the qilin became the master of quadrupeds; each the first and the best of their respective domains.
The spiritual animals are commonly associated with the four symbols (四象, sì xiàng) representing four cardinal directions: the Azure Dragon of the east, the Vermillion Bird of the south, the Black Warrior (tortoise) of the north and the White Tiger of the west. They form the basis of Chinese astrology. The tiger was chosen instead of the qilin, because it better fits the iconography of 28 lunar mansions, however those two are frequently confused, both being regarded as the king of beast.
The birth of Confucius
In the late Zhou Dynasty period, China was in crisis. The king only controlled a small strip of land near the capital and the rest of the country was divided into small, constantly warring states. Shu Liang He (叔梁紇) was a general in the army of the state of Lu. He had daughters from a previous marriage, but his only son was lame and incapable of carrying on his legacy, so he wed young Yan Zheng Zai (顏徵在), hoping she would give him an heir. Zheng Zai, worried by her husband's old age, prayed in the temple on Ni Qiu Mountain for a son. Soon she became pregnant. During her pregnancy a qilin came to her. In its mouth it had a jade tablet with words inscribed on it:
The son of the essence of water will succeed the waning Zhou as an unadorned king
Recognizing a divine messenger, Zheng Zai tied an embroidered ribbon to its horn. The qilin stayed for two nights and then left. Zheng Zai gave birth to a son, who became known as Kong Zi or Confucius. In remembrance of this event, the Chinese have a saying:
Heaven bestows a qilin son
Young brides put pictures of a qilin in the nursery room (often with babies on its back), hoping it would bring them a son of great virtue. The word "qilin" can be used to refer to a very talented person.
Capture of a lin
Confucius was a minister in his home state of Lu. He was working on a chronicle, which he called "Springs and Autumns". The last entry reads as follows:
In the fourteenth year [of Duke Ai's rule], in spring, a hunt in the west captured a lin.
Later sources took on to explain the Master's choice of words and why he stopped working on the chronicle.
A wagoner serving the noble Shusun family, called Zi Chushang (子鉏商), was gathering firewood in the Daye (大野) marshland, west of Lu. He found a strange creature, resembling a jun (麇), but horned, whereas juns are known to be hornless. He broke its left fore leg and brought it to his master. Appearance of strange animals is an unauspicious sign, prophesying great calamities, so Shusun sent for Confucius. He asked: "It looks like a jun, but is horned. What is this creature?" Confucius came to see it and said: "It is a lin." Hearing this and knowing that a lin is an auspicious animal, Shusun took the animal and sent to the capital.
Confucius went back home. One of his disciples, Zigong noticed dark spots on the lapel of his master's coat and asked him why he had been crying. Confucius said: "Lin comes only when there is a sage king on the throne. Now it appeared when it was not a proper time for it to do so and it has been injured. That is why I was so much affected."
Tradition says that he composed a poem to express his grief:
In the age of Tang and Yu the Unicorn and the Phoenix walked abroad.
Now when it is not their time they come and what do they seek?
The Unicorn, the Unicorn, my heart is sad.
Du Yu, one of later scholars, believes that it was that event that convinced Confucius to compile a chronicle. On the other hand, He Xiu, the glossarist of the Gongyang commentary, holds opinion that the work was already finished and seeing the captured lin made the sage abandon his stylus. Zhu Xi takes a balanced approach: "I do not dare to pronounce any decision whether it was the completion of the book which moved the lin to come, or whether it was the appearance of the lin which moved Confucius to compose the book. It may, indeed, be presumed, that the appearance of the creature at a time not proper for it, and its then being killed, was altogether an inauspicious thing; and if the sage then laid his stylus aside, we may be assured he meant thereby to intimate something!"
- James Legge, The Chinese Classics, book XII, p. 834