Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Asian Unicorn

The Unicorn is an animal that has appeared all over the world in many cultures.  The most popular representation of the Unicorn is the one thought of by Western civilization; a majestic, white horse with cloven hooves and an elegant, pointed horn affixed to its forehead.  Depending on what myth you read, the unicorn of the West has various types of abilities: to control magic, to create rainbows, to gallop into the air as if it were flying, to grant immortality, to live forever, and the list goes on with varying details.  The one major thing that can be said about the Unicorn is that is has become one of the most recognized mythical creatures, to the point where it has been used as a poster child for mythology in many situations.

(this is probably the coolest gif I've seen)
However, contrary to the shimmering white equine we recognize so readily from Western mythologies, the Asian countries have their own form of the beast.  There are a wide assortment of names for this creature; Ch'i Lin, Qilin, Quilin, Kirin, K'i Lin, and other spelling variations due to continuous differing translations into Latin-based languages.  For simplicity's sake, when addressing the Asian Unicorn, this blog shall use the name Kirin, and focus on the Japanese interpretation of the beast.  This creature has an equally large number of descriptions to match its long list of names.  Some descriptions describe a dragon's head attached to the body of a deer, covered in scales, with the tail of an ox, and a large horn on its forehead.  Other variations speak of a creature covered in fire that can burn away evil people, or a chimera mixed with a fish's scales, a tiger's body, a horse's legs, and a dragon's head and neck.  With each new dynasty, era, or country, the Kirin would appear to be revised to fit the needs of the time or place.  Most frequently the Kirin was associated with emperors and wise scholars, so depictions could alter in order to boast ferociousness or otherworldly powers of those the Kirin would represent.

The origin of the Kirin comes originally from China (as many Japanese things do!), where it was one of the Four Divine Creatures that first arose in the world.  The other three are the phoenix, turtle, and the dragon.  Each of these four is associated with a season, an element, and specific written characters.  In the myth, the four creatures are created by the first God  before the world was made, and after the God had completed his task, the four disappeared into the dark, mysterious places in the world.  The dragon swam into the ocean depths, the tortoise went to the marshy swamp land, the phoenix went into the sky, and the Kirin disappeared into the depths of the forest.

After it was set upon the earth, the Kirin was said t have magical powers that allowed it to determine the purity of a person.  It was also known to be a peaceful creature that would also bring good luck and prosperity to those that encountered it.  Due to its innate ability to determine if a person is wicked or had succumbed to vice, the Kirin was seen as a symbol of justice that would punish those who strayed away from the path of good.  Some myths even spoke of a Kirin's ability to breathe fire that would only burn the evil people that it touched.  It was also noted as being so peaceful and benevolent that it would not even harm the blades of grass it stepped on, and so would walk silently over fields not ever bending a single blade.    

The Kirin was also a very elusive creature, that would only appear to people that would grow to have amazing purpose and power.  If an emperor were to see one, it would signify that he was ruling justly and fairly, and it was said that the most righteous rulers would often see the Kirin grazing in their palace meadows.  The Kirin did not just show itself to those of royalty, however.  It is said that a Kirin appeared on the day Confucius was born and presented his parents with a message telling them their son would grow to be a "man of extraordinary good moral and talent."  An even more amazing tale is that of Fu Hsi, the man that is credited with creating the written Chinese language.  It is said that a Kirin walked out of a river and appeared to Fu Hsi one day.  On the Kirin's back Fu Hsi saw 8 sigils that he devised the characters for the first written language.


  1. Ok, first of all: awesome gif.
    Second, I've never actually heard of Kirin before so this was a great way to be immersed in the Asian version of a unicorn. I think the similarity between the Western and the Asian unicorn is a really interesting way to bridge the two ideas together. - Rebecca Thompson

    1. Glad you enjoyed it!
      I was fascinated by the notion that Asian countries had their own interpretation of the equine beast, and just had to spread it.

  2. Japanese mythology really does have some of the most interesting creatures. I really liked that part about the Kirin, Phoenix, Dragon, and Turtle being the very first creatures God made. Why the turtle, though? Seems very misplaced among the mythological beasts. And, since you made the connection with the Kirin and the European unicorn, I was wondering if you know how the Western versions of the Phoenix and Dragon differ from the ones mentioned in that myth.

    1. Did some quick info search to give you some answers.
      The turtle is so important in Japanese myth because it is a symbol of longevity and good luck. There's even a myth talking about how Japan is riding on a turtle's back. The shell has also been used as an artistic pattern, and overall the turtle is a strong representation of long-life and support.
      I'm not positive about the phoenix, but the dragon I do know off the top of my head (yay high school reports!). In Europe the dragon is seen as an evil symbol, mostly based on its scaly similarities to the Garden of Eden's snake. It is represented as a cunning, cruel beast that is symbolic of greed and ferocity. It was commonly used on king's banners to show power and wealth.
      In Asia, however, the dragon is still seen as a ferocious creature, but with wisdom as its aid. They were seen as sky creatures (think the Chinese dragon), that were able to control or manipulate the weather (hurricanes, tornadoes, rainfall) and only the royals were allowed to use a dragon as a symbol, even more specifically, 5-toed dragons. 4-toed dragons were used to represent nobles, and 3-toed dragons were ministers. People below this rank were not allowed to use the symbol. Asian dragons are also seen as good luck, whereas European dragons are considered a bad omen.
      Quick look on phoenixes revealed that the Asian phoenix is considered a feminine symbol (the yang to the Chinese Dragon's ying), and is a totem of good luck and fortune. They are considered the king of the birds and have all the fundamental colors in their plumage. Its body is also meant to represent the six celestial bodies: the head is the sky, the back is the moon, the feathers are the planets, the eyes are the sun, the wings are the wind, and the feet are the earth.
      In contrast, the European phoenix is a symbol of renewing life and commonly associated with the sun. It is seen as a glowing orange, gold bird.

  3. Attractive blog, thanks to all the great representations of this mythical beast you include. The Kirin is a creature I have been unfamiliar with, so it was fun to gain some knowledge about this Chinese mythic beast. I appreciate the unique qualities described, especially that the Kirin can determine who is pure in heart. Another fascinating aspect of the discussion is that the creature led to the written language of characters in China. This is a fantastic link that shows us the importance of myth to culture. Nice job!