Legends of Kirin or Kylin

Kirin, Kylin or Qilin
Kirin, Kylin or Qilin | Source

The kirin (or kylin) is one of the “Four Divine Creatures” (四灵兽) that are often mentioned in ancient Chinese texts. The other three are the Phoenix, Turtle and Dragon.

Description of kirin (麒麟)

The mythical kirin is an oxen-hooved animal with a dragon-like head surmounted by a pair of deer’s antlers and flame-like head ornaments. It has the scales of a snake and a hairy and curly tail.

This celestial beast could live for 2,000 years. Its mouth can spit fire and roar like thunder. ‘Ki’ (麒) is the male and ‘rin’ (麟) the female. The female ‘rin’ does not have horns.

The depiction of this auspicious animal may vary, due to the cultural differences between Chinese dynasties and regions.


Characteristics of kirin

The kirin is a gentle and peace-loving animal. Its diet does not include meat. It takes great care not to trample on flowers or grass and never to tread on or harm any living things. As such, it is called a benevolent beast (仁兽).

Kirin brings blessings only to the good folks, especially those who are filial. As it will punish the wicked, those who are engaged in vice trades cannot keep kirin in their home or office.

The kirin is an animal of justice and humanity. It is a symbol of peace, joy, serenity, prosperity, success and longevity.

Kirin originally occupied the top position among the four divine creatures. However, the dragon later was favoured by the Chinese emperors and became a symbol of royalty. Kirin, as a result, became more closely associated with the common folks, who regarded the auspicious animal as the protector of their homes.

During the Qing Dynasty, only members of the royal family can use the dragon symbol. Robes embroidered with kirin were strictly for top grade court officials. This is an indication of the high position of the kirin, which is second only to the dragon, the royal symbol.


Legends

Narrated below are some of the interesting stories relating to kirin:

(1) Kirin delivering a child

The most popular one is the story about the “Kirin delivering a child”. ( 麒麟送子)

The legend arises from the story of the birth of Confucius, the great, ancient Chinese sage. A kirin, with a scroll in its mouth, appeared in the courtyard of his parents’ home. The scroll is called yu-shu (玉书 ), and had some words written on it (麒麟吐玉书).

The scroll served as an announcement of the will of Heaven. It disclosed that the baby to be born is going to be “a man of extraordinary good moral character and talent, an exemplar of human excellences. Although he is not on the throne, he has the virtue of a king. During the weak Eastern Zhou rule, he can possibly be “Su Wang”, an uncrowned king. (Original text: 水精之子孙,衰周而素王)

On the same night of this happening, Confucius was born. The kirin was credited with bestowing Confucius to his parents, who have been longing for a son.

Hence, the belief “Kirin can deliver a child” spreads. In ancient days, a male child was often called “kirin son” (麒麟儿 or 麟儿). The word Kirin is also used to describe a brilliantly talented person.


(2) A messenger of Heaven


According to ancient records, the arrival of a kirin is a sign of a very special event.

A very special event can be one regarding the birth or death of a great sage, as in the case of Confucius.

Many stories about the relations between kirin and emperors exist. The kirin was reckoned to be the messenger of Heaven, and thus its presence is an indication of the rise and fall of a dynasty.

The kirin was said to have appeared during the reigns of the legendary rulers, who were morally upright and benevolent, such as Fu Xi ( 伏羲), Huangdi (黄帝), Yao (尧) and Shun (舜).


Emperor Wu, the greatest emperor of the Han Dynasty, was believed to have obtained a white kirin ( 白麟 ) during hunting in 122 BC. He wrote a “Song of the White Kirin” as well as changed the era name (年号) to “Yuanshou” (元狩) to commemorate the auspicious episode.

The emperor also had a “Kirin Tower” (麒麟阁) built and rewarded his officials handsomely. In 51 BC, his great grandson, Emperor Xuan had the paintings of eleven court officials hung in the KirinTower, as an acknowledgement of their significant contributions to the country. The term “Kirin Tower” became a description for remarkable meritorious service and highest honour.

There were claims that Emperor Taizong of Song had a kirin in his possession too.

All the rulers or emperors mentioned above were hardworking and diligent. Under their reign, the country prospered. The sightings of a kirin often coincided with a peaceful and prosperous era. Thus, the kirin is regarded as an auspicious omen.


(3) Confucius and Kirin

The birth and death of Confucius were closely associated with kirin.

There was a tale that tells about Confucius’ mother having met a kirin while praying at the Niqiu Mountain for a son. Confucius was later born.

When he was aged 71, he was told that an elk was wounded in a hunting session and left to die outside the city. He went to see and found that it was a kirin. The hunting event later came to be known as “West hunt captured kirin” (西狩获麟).

Confucius lamented the death of the auspicious beast in his historical works “Spring Autumn” (春秋) (also called Lu Chunqiu). The section on kirin was generally assumed to be his last written work. He was said to have ceased writing books after recording this sad event.

Grief-stricken by the premature death of his only son and saddened over the death of the kirin, Confucius died in 479 BC. This was two years from the time he recorded the West hunting incident.

After his demise, the story “Kong Zi huo lin jue bi” (孔子获麟绝笔) became widely circulated. “Kong Zi” stands for Confucius. “Huo lin” refers to the “West hunt captured kirin” event. “Jue bi” means the last written words of a person. As mentioned earlier, the recording of the infamous hunting event was considered to be the last of Confucius’ writings.

The Kirin became a Confucian symbol due to its close association with the great sage.


Kirin culture of the Chinese

As an auspicious animal, the kirin symbol is often used in feng shui for different purposes. Please refer to Chi Lin and Feng Shui for more details.

The Chinese also have a kirin folk dance, history of which dated more than 500 years ago. There are some variations in the folk dance, from region to region and village to village.

(Note: The kirin is also known by the name of qilin, chi lin, kei leon, kylin or Chinese unicorn.)


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