The qilin, or ch'i-lin, is essentially a Chinese unicorn; however, don't confuse it with the kirin, a similar creature in Japanese mythology. The name itself implies the ambiguity of its gender, as the 'ch'i' part is for male, and the 'lin' part for female. The rare sightings of this creature usually coincided with the birth or death of a great man. While somewhat similar in form to the traditional English unicorn, it has several physical differences. Also, its general symbolism is more complex than the traditional English view of unicorns.
The qilin is described as having a head and body similar to a deer, with hooves like a horse and a tail like an ox. It also has a fleshy horn which curves over its back; however, some accounts state that the qilin has multi-colored fur, while other accounts state that the ch'i-lin has brightly-colored scales. The qilin is said to live for a thousand years.
The qilin is a portent of good things to come, and also symbolizes strength, wisdom, and justice. It is said to personify all things that are good, pure, and peaceful, and is also considered to be the living incarnation of fire, water, wood, metal, and earth. This creature was the king of land animals, and could walk on grass without crushing it; it could also run at the speed of light; and it was believed to be able to see in the hearts of men. It could discern whether a man was guilty or innocent, and while the qilin was a benevolent animal, it would slice the guilty into pieces.
The first sighting of a qilin occured in 2800 B.C., when, according to legend, Emperor Fu Xi saw a qilin arise from the Huang-He River.
This creature was also spotted in 2697 B.C. in the halls of Emperor Huang-ti. This hailed the beginning of what are known as the 'lucky years'. During this period, the people learned how to build houses from bricks, musical instruments were developed, and, for the first time, the scattered Chinese tribes were united. Legend has it that the qilin showed itself to the emperor only one other time... to take him to the land of the dead.
It is also said that the qilin appeared in 6th century B.C. to a young woman named Yen Tschen-Tsai. She was shown that, one day, she would give birth to a 'king without a throne'. She became the mother of Konfuzius (Confucius, to the Western world), who grew up to found Confucianism.
Held in great admiration, the qilin is one of the four Si Ling, or spiritual animals; the others are the long, or dragon; the feng-huang, or phoenix; and the gui xian, or tortoise. According to Chinese legend, when the Earth was created, it was divided into four quadrants, and the four points of the compass--North, South, East, and West--and were each represented and protected by one of the si ling. The qilin guarded the West, and also corresponded to the season autumn, the element wood, and the color white.
The qilin is still a part of Chinese culture, with it's own choreographed dance, which is still performed during various festivities. The dance celebrates the existence of the first written Chinese.