THE CHINESE UNICORN
While the ancient Greeks and Romans believed the unicorn to be real,
the Chinese always believed it to be mythical. The Chinese
called the unicorn ki-lin (pronounced chee-lin) -- a combination of
their word for the male unicorn, ki, and the one for the female, lin.
According to Chinese legend, the ki-lin was one of the four superior
creatures -- three of them mythical, one of them real. The
latter was the very real tortoise, most important of the shelled
animals. Of the three mythological animals the phoenix, a bird
that lived for 500 years, was the leader of all feathered
creatures. The dragon,
Chinese symbol of strength and
goodness, held first place among the scaly animals. And the
ki-lin, the unicorn, was the most worthy of all hairy animals.
Indicating its importance, the ki-lin's hair and skin included
patches of all five of the sacred Chinese colors: red, yellow, blue,
white and black. Stories also said its musical call rang out
like a monastery bell.
In Chinese tales, the ki-lin was a solitary animal living in deep
forests or high in the mountains. The ki-lin never appeared to
humans except when it was on a special mission. Whenever a
ki-lin showed itself to an emperor, it was said the ruler would
enjoy a long and peaceful reign.
THE BIRTH of CONFUCIUS FORETOLD
The Chinese also believed that ki-lins appeared now
and then to foretell the birth of great men, such as the philosopher
Confucius. There are several different versions of what
happened when Confucius's expecting mother saw the ki-lin. In
one of them, she was walking in a wooded glade when a ki-lin
suddenly materialized in front of her. Impressed by its
strength and dignity, she took a red ribbon from her hair and draped
it over the animal's horn.
The ki-lin was pleased with her gift. It
walked around her slowly three times, then disappeared. Soon
after, in about 550 B.C., the woman and her husband welcomed their
son, Confucius, into the world.
In another version of the story, the ki-lin also
came to the mother in a forest glade, but this time carrying a jade
tablet in its mouth. The tablet was engraved with a poem
praising the man her son was to become. She took the tablet
from the ki-lin and the animal immediately vanished. A few
months later, she gave birth to Confucius, who eventually
accomplished all that the poem foretold.
Believing such tales, many Chinese mother-to-be
posted pictures of the ki-lin on their walls, hoping their sons too
would be great. The Chinese gods who distributed babies were
often portrayed riding on the backs of ki-lins.