Animal Instincts- Kirin Initial Research


First brief for the media elective, and it’s one that’s so far up my street I think I can see my house from here; ‘Animal Instincts’. I quote ‘thoroughly research and investigate the attributes of, and narratives associated with, a mythical creature. Consider its visible and ‘psychological’ attributes, history, mythology and symbolism’. My immediate thought was a dragon, but I can’t help but think that there’s so much mythology for the dragon that I’d never get through it all enough in just two days- and then I thought of the kirin or quilin. NEXT STAGE- RESEARCH– FOR ALL THOSE WHO KNOW NOT OF THE KIRIN. I’ll warn you right now that this pretty longwinded- I’ve shoved in a snappy factfile for those who’d rather read the TL;DR version of affairs

The qilin, kirin, chi lin or kylin is a mythological East Asian chimera thought to be a harbinger of happiness and auspicious omen of the birth of a sage or great ruler. Its attributes most commonly include its gentle demeanour, its step soft enough not to trample blades of grass or insects and to walk on water, it would not eat flesh or living vegetation. When represented as a statue, it was ‘helpful’ to good people, a blessing and protector, boosting the career, solving dangers, bringing prosperity and fending off demons. However, mythologically, the kirin punished the evil and wicked, becoming fierce when a pure person was threatened by a sinner, breathing fire and such. For this reason, a statue of kirin is traditionally not placed in the home of a person involved in industries such as prostitution, gambling and drug dealing. It is said to always be lonely.


Physically, the appearance of the kirin varies with the telling and the culture; often associated by westerners with the unicorn, the kirin of the Jin Dynasty had the head and scales of a dragon and the body of a powerful ungulate, usually a horse. It was wreathed in flame and smoke, a quality shared with the Ming Dynasty kirin, which was similar, but exchanging the horse for oxen and giving it antlers. The Manchu Qing Dynasty kirin gained the tail of a lion, and sometimes even the body of a tiger. Generally, it is given a multi-coloured body and a yellow underbelly, sometime one horn, sometimes two.

A creature found not just in Chinese mythology, the Korean interpretation, called Gilin, is described with a deer’s body, ox’s tail, horse’s hooves and a great mane. The Japanese is similar, a deer-shaped dragon varying in the way that the single horn faced backwards, unlike the western unicorn. Rather thought-provokingly, the Japanese word for giraffe is ‘kirin’, which brings about an interesting idea for the origin of the creature. Like the giraffe, the kirin is quiet-natured, vegetarian, elegant-looking. It even has similar horn-like growths on its head, and it’s distinctive coat pattern could easily be confused with scales

.uncited2This has been a reoccurring historical factor associated with the kirin. Ming Dynasty court diplomat and explorer Zheng He’s exploration of East Africa brought back giraffes to the Emperor of the time, who promptly claimed that the capture of these ‘kirin’ were a sign of the greatness of his power. Conversely, in 1414, a giraffe was brought to the Ming emperor Yongle, who supposedly remarked curtly that he was no sage and that the creature was certainly no kirin, seeing through the intended flattery. There’re further sightings, such as the Han Emperor Wu, in 122 BC, an appearance in the garden of Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor, in 2697 BC, where kirin supposedly stomped on a rock three times and spoke in a voice like a temple bell. As the creature left, it had symbols on its back, which the emperor copied down. This was, apparently, the first case of written language in China.

Of course, as with any creature like this, the ‘history’ of the kirin is closer to mythology. Perhaps the most famous tale of it is in its association with Confucius (6th century BC), where it appeared to his pregnant mother, coughing up a jade tablet that foretold the future greatness of the unborn child, prophesising a man with the capability to be king, who would not become king. Confucius’ death was supposed to have foreshadowed by the injuring of a kirin by a charioteer. Because of its association with the birth of great sages and illustrious rulers, the sighting of a kirin was helpful to an emperor, giving evidence that he had the Mandate of Heaven. This was a philosophy that indicated that he had been given the right to rule from divinity- granting him a certain legitimacy, and a kirin is said to only appear in an area ruled by a wise and benevolent leader, even if the area is just a house.


The symbolism of the kirin is fairly extensive, most basically incorporating protection, magnificence, joy, prosperity, success, wisdom, harmony and longevity; all that good stuff. The combination of its association with sages and rulers and its presence in certain temples linked to fertility goddesses in Chinese culture suggests that kirin has connotations of fertility. However, it is fertility in the oriental sense, which differs to the western sense; the kirin’s fertility is a wish for a male child with good morals and the intelligence to bring wealth and success to the family- somewhat like the stork of European culture, it is the bringer of the long-awaited heir, carrying extraordinary children from heaven on its back.

In the Chinese hierarchy of mythological animals, kirin is the third most powerful creature and one of the four benevolent creatures (long (dragon), fenghuang (phoenix), kirin (unicorn) and xuanwu (tortoise)). This association with power and strength has brought about a more recent assimilation into the military; the late Qing Dynasty (1662-1911) used the kirin as a symbol for first grade military officials of the Imperial Court.



Name: Qilin, kirin, chi lin or kylin (I’m going with kirin)

Physical appearance: Variable, but most commonly dragon-headed, with a thick mane of flame and smoke and one or two antlers, the body and legs of an ungulate (usually horse or deer), the tail of a lion or ox, and covered in scales, of a dragon or fish.

Attributes: Incredibly gentle, but lonely, it could walk on grass without trampling it and would eat nothing living. It was a blessing and protection, kind to the good, but fierce towards the evil and wicked.

In history (and sort of also in mythology): An omen of both the birth and death of Confucius in the 6th century BC. Associated with the discovery of written language when it appeared to ‘Yellow Emperor’ Huangdi in 2697. Oft confused with the giraffe, both convincingly and unconvincingly by various emperors.

Associated Symbolism: Protection, magnificence, joy, prosperity, wisdom, harmony, longevity, fertility, strength.

Information sourced from Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica, ‘Meaningful Mythology of Chine’ blog and ‘’


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