Chinese Unicorn Qilin Dance

The “Chinese Unicorn Qilin Dance” (麒麟舞) is listed under the Intangible Cultural Heritage of China.

Chinese unicorns
Chinese unicorns | Source

What is Chinese Unicorn?

Chinese unicorn is one of the four most important mythical animals in Chinese legends. The other three are the Phoenix, Dragon and Turtle. Other names for the Chinese unicorn are qilin, chi lin, kei leon, kirin or kylin.

It was said to be a creature of great power and wisdom, and its appearance was always considered to be a sign of good fortune.

The depiction of the Chinese unicorn varies from dynasty to dynasty. In the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644), qilin was represented as an animal with a dragon-like head, oxen hooves, a pair of horns and flame-like head ornaments.

The qilin became a more fanciful animal under the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1912); it has a dragon’s head, deer’s antlers, fish’s skin and scales, ox’s hooves and a lion’s tail.

Changes in hierarchy

During the Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BC), the Chinese unicorn was ranked the highest, with Phoenix second and the Dragon third. However, the Chinese hierarchy of mythological animals experienced changes over the centuries. By post-Qing, the qilin was ranked third, after the Dragon and Phoenix.


The Dance Legend

Once upon a time, there were a severe drought and plague in China. Crops were dying, and the people were having a hard time surviving. Both the Earth Deity and Laughing Face Buddha discussed ways to solve the crisis. The Buddha knew that Qilin, a divine animal, has the magical power to stop the disaster but did not know its whereabouts.

Later, with the assistance of the Monkey God, they managed to find the Qilin’s cave. The Qilin agreed to help. Upon arrival on earth, it spat fire and bestowed ‘rui’ (瑞) (meaning serenity or prosperity) upon the people. Immediately, both human and animals became well and there were also bumper harvests.

Ever since then, the qilin was considered an auspicious animal. The Chinese people created a dance out of the above story. The dance known as “Tristar meet a friend, qilin leaves his cave” (三星会友. 麒麟出洞) was performed during festive and celebratory occasions.


Qilin plucking the greens

Dance of the Qilin

In China, there are several regions that have their own variations of qilin dance. Described below are four of the well-known ones.


(1) Dongjiang Qilin Dance (东江麒麟舞)

The Qilin Dance of Huizhou Xiaojinkou (惠州小金口) is referred to as Dongjiang Qilin Dance. It originated in the regions around Sichuan Er Mei Mountain. In 1958, due to the construction of the Xinfengjiang Reservoir (新丰江水库), many people migrated to Xiaojinkou and brought with them this qilin folk dance.

The folk dance has more than 300 years of history and existed before the reign of the Qing Emperor Qianlong. The Xiaojinkou Qilin Dance composition was based on an ancient tale.

According to the fable, a monk by the name of “Sha Xian” (沙仙和尚) and the Fairy Qilin (仙麒麟) both happened to live in the Er Mei Mountain in Sichuan. As the monk wanted the qilin to descend from the mountain to bestow auspiciousness to mankind, he decided to tame the divine animal.

He tried to attract the qilin with its favourite food ‘qing’ (some kind of green plants), but the latter was not moved. However, after a few attempts, the qilin finally came for the food. The monk purposely teased the animal and denied it the food. After playing several tricks on the qilin, the monk managed to tame it. He then brought the Fairy Qilin to earth to bring serenity and prosperity to the people.

· Repertoire performances

“Tao lu biao yan” (套路表演) or repertoire performance can only be held if there is more than a dozen performers available. The traditional repertoire includes “Sha Xian Teasing Qilin”(沙仙戏麒麟), “Sha Xian Taming Qilin” (沙仙驯麒麟), “Si Men Ba Dian Martial Arts (四门八点拳术), Empty-handed combat(空手对白刃), martial arts involving different weapons, etc.

The current repertoire of the Dongjiang Qilin Dance comprises the “New Year’s Greetings Dance” (拜年贺岁舞), “Qilin Celebrating Bumper Year” (麒麟贺丰年), and “Big-head Buddha Teasing Qilin” (大头佛戏麒麟).

Following the rhythms of the music, the qilin will show different moods and perform actions such as licking its own hooves, leaping into the air, lying prostrate, plucking the greens (采青), etc. The movements vividly portray the qilin’s strength and agility, as well as its playful side.

The performance is a combination of music, fine arts, drum techniques, and martial arts.

The Qilin Dance is performed for festivals, weddings, official opening of business or shop, house-warmings, and so forth. For wedding occasion, the bride and groom will “enter qilin stomach” (钻麒麟肚), symbolizing “qilin bestows a child” (麒麟送子).

The Dongjiang Qilin Dance was staged at the Shanghai World Expo in 2010.


(2) Hakka Qilin Dance (客家舞麒麟)

Dongguan Zhangmutou (东莞樟木头) in Guangdong Province is a pure Hakka town. In 2005, it was granted the title “Unicorn Folk Art Town” (中国民间文艺 - 麒麟之乡) and “Chinese Unicorn Dance Training Base” (中国民间文艺 - 麒麟舞培训基地). Its history of Hakka Qilin Dance is more than 450 years old.

The qilin dance is a folk performing arts that the Hakkas brought back to their hometown from Northern China. The dance is accompanied by drums and wind instrument “suona” (唢呐), and the music is very different from the Guangdong Lingnan (广东岭南) music.

The traditional Zhangmutou qilin outfit is known for its durability. The frame is made from whangee. High quality papers are pasted onto it to form the skin. The main characteristic is its beautiful shape, tall and spacious with a long tail.

Poeny, peach blossom, chrysanthemum, butterflies, etc. are painted on it, resulting in a bright, colourful and lively qilin. When in dancing action, the qilin looks mighty, agile and spirited.

Two persons are required for the dance; one controlling the qilin’s head and the other the tail. Depending on the rhythm, light, heavy, slow or fast, the qilin can be seen playing gleefully one moment, suddenly leaping high into the air at the next, licking its hooves, rolling about, plucking the greens, etc.


· Major reforms

In recent years, the ZhangmutouTown has made the following five changes to the traditional folk dance:

(a) The one-hour dance has been shortened to ten minutes or so.

(b) Several unicorns are employed in the performance, as compared to the previous one or two.

(c) In the past, qilin dance was mainly used for the traditional custom of “cai qing” (采青) or “plucking the greens” during festive and celebratory occasions. Such performances are called “bai men biao yan” (拜门表演) or “paying respects” performances.

Zhangmutou introduced new contents into the dance and developed it into a stage art. Its famous Hakka Qilin Dance was performed in Canada in 2002.

(d) The old qilin outfit was improved upon, resulting in a costume that reflects modern times.

(e) The setting up of qilin dance teams cross-village.

The 1st Chinese Qilin Dance Competition was held in ZhangmutouTown in 2003.

The Zhangmutou’s Hakka Qilin Dance Teams have performed in world-class events such as Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, Shanghai 2010 World Expo, and 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou.

(3) Huangge Qilin Dance (黄阁麒麟舞)

The Huangge Qilin Dance is an ancient folk dance of the Panyu Huangge Town (番禺黄阁镇) in Guangzhou. For more than a hundred years, the qilin dance has been performed to pray for or welcome peace, good harvests, happiness and prosperity. The dance originated in the Huangpu Heng Dang Village (黄圃横档村) during the Ming Dynasty.

The Chinese unicorn was depicted as a benevolent animal, having a dragon's head, deer’s horns, lion’s body, sheep’s hooves and ox’s tail. The dance is based on the “Qilin Plucking the Greens” (麒麟采青). Blending martial arts and dance techniques, the unicorn moves to the accompaniment of drums and Cantonese musical instruments, creating a joyous mood and celebratory atmosphere.

The Huangge Qilin Dance has one person controlling the head and another holding the tail. The qilin dance has a standardized artistic repertoire and performing techniques.

The repertoire comprises “Leaving cave”, “Circular movement of head”, “Playing with tail”, “Searching for qing”, “Kicking qing”, “Eating qing”, “Drunken qing”, “Spitting qing”, “Beating sand”, “Spitting yu-shu scroll”, “Strolling in the garden”, and “Returning to cave” (出洞、绕头、耍尾、寻青、踢青、食青、醉青、吐青、打沙、吐玉书、游花园、回洞”).

Since winning the “Mountain Flower Prize” in 2000, the Huangge Qilin Dance has won several other national awards, as well as provincial and municipal awards.

The HuanggeTown has also been named “Unicorn Folk Art Town” and “Chinese Unicorn Dance Training Base” by the Chinese Folk Literature and Art Association.


(4) Huanghua Qilin Dance (黄骅麒麟舞)

The Huanghua Qilin Dance has been very popular in the ancient cultural village of Qijiawu (齐家务). On the 15th night of every Chinese Lunar New Year, there will be a qilin dance to symbolize political stability, peace, bumper harvests, and all the good things in life.

According to some old villagers, the qilin dance was a performing arts in the imperial palace and was known as “Unicorn Sacred Dance” (麒麟圣舞). After the downfall of the Ming Dynasty, a palace artist brought the performing arts back to his hometown. Since then, the qilin dance was passed down from generation to generation.

For the Chinese unicorn dance that originated from the Ming Dynasty, the qilin is shown to have a dragon's head, deer’s trunk, horse’s hooves, ox’s tail, and wolf’s forehead. Its body is full of beautifully coloured scales.

· Characteristics of Northern Qilin

The Huanghua Qilin is well-known as the “Northern Qilin”. Its most remarkable characteristic is its huge and overwhelming appearance, as well as the display of high standard of acrobatics, involving dodging, turning, leaping and other types of difficult stances.

Bamboo is used to make the qilin frame. The skin is made from silk cloth. After the scales have been made from colourful silk and laser papers, they are sewn to the silk skin. Oil paint will be used to draw the head, teeth and other parts. The qilin produced under such a combination of materials appears vibrant, colourful and lively.

The qilin outfit is 4 meters long and 2 meters high. The two performers have to be young and robust. The one in command of the qilin’s head will have to stand on one-meter stilts and perform difficult acrobatic feats while bearing the burden of the 50 kg prop. Another person will handle the movements of the tail.

The dance features a pair of qilins, red and green, representing male and female. “The Golden Boy and Jade Girl” (金童玉女) will be seated on them. The pair of qilins will be joined by several other qilins, all dancing to the accompaniment of drums and music. The powerful, jerky movements make them look alive.

The 20-minute scene was an awe-inspiring sight, with the qilins looking so grand and majestic.

In 1999, when Beijing celebrated the return of Macau by the Portuguese, the Huanghua Qilin Dance was included as one of the programs in the celebration.

· Dying art

The production of the Huanghua Qilin outfit is very costly and time-consuming. Due to lack of resources and the high level of acrobatics skills required, the performances of Huanghua Qilin Dance have been drastically reduced in recent years. This particular qilin dance is in danger of being lost over time.


Qilin culture

Since ancient days, the Qilin has been considered an auspicious animal that brings peace and prosperity to mankind. The divine beast was the subject of many legends and literary works.

As a divine and auspicious animal, the qilin is also a favourite item in feng shui. Its image is used in feng shui for enhancement or cure purposes.

In recent years, the Chinese have been trying to promote qilin as a brand culture. Many handicrafts and products have been made involving the Chinese unicorn image.

Initiation of a New Qilin

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