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What is a Qilin?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The qilin is the Chinese version of the unicorn, with a number of similar creatures including the kirin appearing in the mythology of other Asian cultures. The appearance of a qilin is supposed to bring good luck and prosperity, and you often see depictions of qilins worked into various clothing designs and works of art to convey fortune on the purchaser. Qilins are also depicted in a stylized dance known as a qilin or unicorn dance which involves feats of physical strength and dexterity on the part of the dancers.

The appearance of the qilin is a subject for debate. Most depictions involve a hodge-podge of animal parts, giving the qilin the scales of a carp, the hooves of an ox, the tail of a lion, and the head of a dragon, for example. In many depictions, the qilin has two horns, rather than one, and the horns may lie flat against the animal's head, rather than sticking out. Qilins are closely associated with fire, which they supposedly use to defend the righteous.

A qilin will only appear in an area which is controlled by a just, wise, and benevolent leader, and qilins are closely linked with sages and other wise people. According to the stories, qilins are very gentle, friendly animals, but they can become violent when they need to protect someone. In the course of protecting the righteous, a qilin may breathe fire, gore someone with its horn, or trample someone, making the qilin a useful friend to have at your back in a fight.

In most stories, the qilin is described as a very gentle, loving animal. According to the stories, qilins can walk on grass and flowers without causing harm, and they can also walk on water when they need to. The gentle animals eat a vegetarian diet, and conscientiously avoid injury to all living things. These traits are also regarded as virtues in some parts of Chinese society, so the qilin could also be said to be setting a virtuous example which others should follow.

For a brief period of time, the qilin was identified with the giraffe. This is probably because giraffes were quite novel to the Chinese when they were first brought to China, and giraffes are also naturally gentle, vegetarian animals with heads which do resemble those of some mythical qilin. The qilin is also associated with femininity, perhaps because it exhibits some classically feminine traits like gentleness.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a CulturalWorld.org researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon334506 — On May 13, 2013

Cultures are different everywhere. Comparing the Chinese culture to America is like comparing water to a rock; there are to many differences all the way back to when we are children being raised to adulthood and beyond. To some cultures, altering their bodies severely is a thing of beauty and power, while others look at it believe they have a medical condition or consider it 'ugly'.

So yes, children (at least most) consider the Qilin adorable, good luck, and worthy of their adoration, because they have been raised as have every other generation before them, that the Qilin, despite their angry looks, are protectors of life and good fortune. Just as Dragons are not just considered 'fire-breathing monsters' in China, but guardians and protectors that represent justice and good fortune.

Or how fire represents cleansing evil and the power of good and justice, whereas in America and the like, it's considered evil and destructive. The differences are nearly polar opposite among some cultures, and that's all there is to it.

By kylee07drg — On Jul 27, 2011

@lighth0se33 - I don’t know how the children feel about the creature, but I do know that it is supposed to bring them good luck. The Chinese use the qilin as a feng shui talisman to help children be successful.

Statues or images of the qilin also are said to help women who desire to give birth to a child. So, whether the children appreciate it or not, the qilin is there to help them.

Those who keep the talisman in their home make it face the exit. They don’t have to activate it, but they do believe that it likes to hear fairy tales and folk music. My Chinese friend has one, and she told me that singing or talking to it makes it work harder for her.

By lighth0se33 — On Jul 26, 2011

I have seen pictures of the qilin, and it is an absolutely ugly creature. I wonder if children in China view it with adoration, as American children do the unicorn? I really don’t see how they could.

This thing looks more like a dragon than a unicorn. I know that it is supposed to be gentle, but it must be a case of beauty and the beast. I would be downright terrified to have that thing visit me in a peaceful meadow!

I just can’t see children adorning their walls with posters of the qilin. Maybe the culture trains them not to be afraid, but it seems natural to cringe at the look of these things.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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