Large underglaze blue kraakporcelain bowl with qilin design.
Ming dynasty, Jingdezhen porcelain art.
The Qilin (Chinese: 麒麟; pinyin: qílín; Wade–Giles: ch'i-lin,騏驎), also spelled Kirin (from Japanese) or sometimes Kyrin, is a mythical hooved Chinese chimerical creature known throughout various East Asian cultures, and is said to appear in conjunction with the arrival of a sage. It is a good omen that brings rui (Chinese: 瑞; pinyin: ruì; roughly translated as "serenity" or "prosperity"). It is often depicted with what looks like fire all over its body. It is sometimes misleadingly called the "Chinese unicorn" due to conflation with the unicorn by Westerners.
The earliest references to the Qilin are in the 5th century BC book Zuo Zhuan. The Qilin made appearances in a variety of subsequent Chinese works of history and fiction.
In legend, the Qilin became tiger-like after their disappearance in real life and become a stylised representation of the giraffe in Ming Dynasty. The identification of the Qilin with giraffes began after Zheng He's voyage to East Africa (landing, among other places, in modern-day Kenya). Zheng He's fleet brought back two giraffes to Beijing, and they were referred to as "Qilins". The Emperor proclaimed the giraffes magical creatures, whose capture signalled the greatness of his power.
The identification between the Qilin and the giraffe is supported by some attributes of the Qilin, including its vegetarian and quiet nature. Its reputed ability to "walk on grass without disturbing it" may be related to the giraffe's long, thin legs. Also the Qilin is described as having antlers like a deer and scales like a dragon or fish; since the giraffe has horn-like "ossicones" on its head and a tessellated coat pattern that looks like scales it is easy to draw an analogy between the two creatures. The identification of Qilin with giraffes has had lasting implications; even today, the giraffe is called a "kirin" by the Japanese and Koreans.
It is unlikely that giraffes and qilin were regarded as the same creature in pre-modern times however. For example, typical depictions of the qilin have much shorter necks than giraffes. However, the Chinese characters of Qilun 麒 and 麟 both carry Chinese radical 鹿, suggesting that the eyewitness described them deer like animal, or perhaps an antelope.
Although it looks fearsome, the Qilin only punishes the wicked. It can walk on grass yet not trample the blades and it can also walk on water. As it is a peaceful creature, its diet does not include flesh. It takes great care when it walks never to tread on any living thing, and it is said to appear only in areas ruled by a wise and benevolent leader (some say even if this area is only a house). It is normally gentle but can become fierce if a pure person is threatened by a sinner, spouting flames from its mouth and exercising other fearsome powers that vary from story to story.
Some stories state that the Qilin is a sacred pet (or familiar) of the deities. Therefore, in the hierarchy of dances performed by the Chinese (Lion Dance, Dragon Dance, etc.), the Qilin ranks highly; second only to the Dragon and Phoenix who are the highest.
In the Qilin Dance, movements are characterised by fast, powerful strokes of the head. The Qilin Dance is often regarded as a hard dance to perform due to the weight of the head, stances and the emphasis on "fǎ jìn" (traditional Chinese: 法勁) — outbursts of strength/power/energy.