The Chinese Unicorn Qilin

The Chinese Unicorn Qilin

Unicorn myths have existed for thousands of years in various cultures. The ancient Chinese culture also has its own unicorn called qilin. The Chinese unicorn qilin is quite different from the typical European unicorn.

Qilin does not look like a horse, but it is rather a dragon-like creature.

Today, we are going to explore the Chinese unicorn, starting with its history. Next, we will take a look at the appearance of a qilin. The legends about qilin and this mythical creature’s meaning in Taoism and Buddhism will also be discussed.

The History of Chinese Unicorn Myth – Qilin Is Identified with Giraffes

Qilin is mentioned for the first time in Zhuo Zhuan, “The Commentary of Zhuo”, an old Chinese chronicle of history. This book covers episodes taking place from 722 BCE to 468 BCE.

As strange as it sounds, in the Ming Dynasty the qilin became associated with giraffes. The reason for this was a Chinese explorer Zheng He, who brought two giraffes from Somalia to Nanjing. The giraffes were thought to be qilin.

Because of this association between giraffes and qilin, even today, the Japanese word for qilin, kirin, means both a unicorn and a giraffe.

What Does Qilin Look Like?

Despite the association between qilin and giraffes, the Chinese unicorn is not described to look like either a giraffe or a horse. Most often qilin resembles the Chinese dragon.

Qilin is often gold-colored, but it can be any color. They can have either antlers or hooves. Qilin often has a flowing mane and a beard.

Qilin can even sometimes have fur or feathers. Most often they have scales like those of a dragon or a fish on part of their bodies. Qilin is portrayed with its body on fire from time to time. That is because qilin can also breathe fire like a dragon.

Sometimes the Chinese unicorn is not actually portrayed as a unicorn because it can also have two horns.

The bronze qilin statue in the Summer Palace in Beijing has very dragon-like features; scales, a mane, and a beard. However, it has hooves instead of antlers. It also has two horns instead of one.

Legends About the Qilin

Qilin is one of the gatekeepers in Chinese mythology. According to legends, qilin would only appear before the reign of a benevolent ruler or sage. It is told, that a qilin also appeared before the birth of Confucius.

Chinese emperors really wanted a qilin to appear during their reign so that they could prove how great rulers they were. This also explains why the emperor claimed the giraffes that were brought to China to be qilin.

There are many good values the qilin symbolizes in Chinese mythology; longevity, good luck, prosperity, success, protection, and fertility. The heavenly voice of qilin sounds like the wind or chiming bells.

The Chinese Unicorn Qilin in Taoism and Buddhism

Qilin also has a role in religion. In Taoism, the qilin is described as a creature that is able to tell evil from good. Qilin only punishes the evil ones. It is told that qilin has appeared in court to tell if the defendant was guilty or innocent.

According to Buddhism, the qilins are peace-loving vegetarians. They avoid harming any living creatures. They don’t want to even harm grass, so they don’t walk on it. Instead, they are described to walk on clouds or water.

Qilins defend pure people, and these normally peaceful creatures can become fierce if they defend a pure person from an evil one.

Qilin Is One of the Significant Mythical Creatures in China

The Chinese unicorn, qilin, is an ancient mythical creature. It has different variations, and it is a mixture of different animals. Often qilin has features of a dragon, and it also has scales. Qilin also sometimes has fur or feathers. Part of its body can be on fire, and it can have either hooves or antlers.

Technically, the qilin is not always a unicorn, because it can also have two horns instead of one.

In Chinese mythology, the qilin is a good omen. It is told that qilin appears before the birth of a benevolent ruler or sage.

According to Taoism, qilin can tell evil from good. In Buddhism, the qilin is a peaceful creature and won’t harm any living beings. They don’t eat flesh, and they even avoid walking on grass. Qilin can be fierce when they defend a good person from an evil one.

Do you have some additional information about the Chinese unicorn myth you would like to share? What do you think, is qilin still a unicorn, even though it’s so different from the classic European unicorn?

Please share your thoughts about qilin in the comment section below! Learn more about where unicorns live.

Share this on:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  1. Hi,

    Your post is interesting and intriguing. As a minister and teacher of World History, I was struck by the amount of information I had never heard of. It was engaging to think about how the qilin is similar to angels in Christianity and how they function the same. It occurred to me that all religion has something common.

    Great article. Keep up the good work!

  2. I love unicorns and I love dragons- but I had not heard of the Chinese unicorn before today. What an interesting, informative article. The first few pictures of the qilin statue in Beijing I would not have associated with a unicorn because it has two horns. But I totally see it in the other two pictures.

    Thank you for sharing!

    1. Thanks, Amber! Yes, some of the qilin statues in China are easy to confuse with other animals like dragons and lions, which also have many statues.

  3. That was really interesting,
    I really not sure how to answer your question at the end of your post, Is it a unicorn? It certainly does not look like what I seen protrayed as a unicorn in the last. It like you said looks nothing like a horse or even a giraffe for that matter.

    But as many things that are mysterious, often stories are retold slightly different each time and well who knows maybe all the horse like unicorns most westerners see as unicorns actually look a lot more like this chinese unicorn. Is an article I wrote chinese new year. Do you think other than when great sages and leaders are about to be announced that chinese new year would be a good time to see one of these mythical chinese Qilin.

    As Chinese new year from what I understand is all about getting rid of evil spirits and letting good spirits come in? Would seem like what I believe this chinese unicorn would like:)

    1. Hi Sam,

      You´re right, the Chinese new year would be an appropriate time for the Chinese unicorn to show up. Especially if it was the year of a dragon beginning!