Like the Chinese dragon, the Qilin is a chimerical creature composed of different animals and the qilin has been depicted in a number of different ways over the centuries. Like the unicorn, a qilin has a single horn on its forehead, while others are shown with antlers, and still others show the Qilin with head of a dragon. Most descriptions say it has a yellow belly, a multicolored back, the hooves of a horse, an equine-like body which might look like the body of tiger, or a deer, or an ox, or a horse and it has the tail of an ox. The body of the Qilin is also covered with the scales of a fish, and is often enveloped in fire. They have thick eyelashes, manes that always flow upward, and beards and as nature spirits they can take on any color that matches their dwelling place.
They are known to have a gentle disposition, and to be very peaceful, as the Qilin is sometimes shown walking on clouds, and it refuses to harm even a single blade of grass, stepping so lightly that it doesn’t even bend down the grass. It can also walk across the water’s surface and they avoid eating meat or any living vegetation. In some stories, the Qilin is capable of incinerating people by spouting flames from its mouth, and it possesses a variety of supernatural powers. These abilities are only revealed, however, when it is required to defend innocent people from the malice of evil-doers. Qilin had a supernatural instinct to seek out truth and purity. They were called on as judges in some stories, because they would always know who was telling the truth.
The appearance of a Qilin is regarded as an auspicious sign, because this benevolent, mythical beast is thought to bring serenity and symbolize good luck and prosperity. Qilin were very solitary animals who lived in deep forests and high up in the mountains, and rarely appeared except for special purposes. It is believed that the Qilin would only appear during the reign of a good ruler, or shortly before the birth or death of a sage. According to popular belief, the birth of one of China’s greatest sages, Confucius, was made known when a Qilin appeared to his pregnant mother. This Qilin coughed up an inscribed jade tablet that foretold the future greatness of the child in the womb. When a Qilin was injured by a charioteer, it was taken as a foreshadowing of the death of Confucius.
The qilin is known throughout various East Asian cultures and it is believed to be the guardian of the heavenly gates and they were thought to be a symbol of power, peace and stability. It first appeared in the historical record with the Zuo Zhuan, or Chronicle of Zuo, which describes events in China from 722 to 468 BCE. According to these records, the first Chinese writing system was transcribed around 3000 BCE from the scroll that was on a qilin’s back. The qilin is said to have appeared 5000 years ago to the Emperor Fu Hsi along the banks of the yellow river. A large scroll was tied to the qilin’s back, and it approached Fu Shi and knelt on the ground, alerting the emperor to the heavy scroll with its horn. Fu Shi relieved the qilin of its burden and unrolled it on a dry section of the bank, and he saw what was apparently a map of his empire, with hair-thin lines showing rivers and settlements, each accompanied by strange groups of markings. The Emperor noticed that no two of these groups were alike and when he looked up, hoping to ask the qilin for an explanation, it had vanished.