The Qilin 麒麟 

aka the Kirin, Girin, Kylan, กิเลน. 

This Page focuses on explaining features of the creature for an SCA context (focus on pre-1600), but I have added other aspects of the mythos as well that is hopefully useful to a wider audience.

Note: There are multiple cultures that a Qilin exists in, stemming from the Sinosphere in general. Depending on the language, it can be spelled different ways, but they are all the same creature. These names are Qilin/Chilin, Kirin/Girin/Kilin, and Kylan. 麒麟 is the characters for it. These are the ones I know of. See the end for a TL;DR. 

Features of a Qilin 

There are a few creatures in the Sinosphere cultures that are referred to (due to outdated translation) as “Unicorns”. Often, translators will call them a “Chinese Unicorn”. This is still happening today in translations. However there are a few different horned creatures that they apply that translation to: One, the Qilin. Two, the Xiezhi. (And sometimes) Three, the Pixiu. The Qilin is depicted with various horn amounts (one, two, or none), but does have goat or deer-like cloven hooves, with an ox-tail (long with hair on the end), and generally no wings. The Xiezhi, on the other hand, has one horn, claws, and no wings. The Pixiu has either one or two, beast-like claws, and wings. There is misidentification between a Xiezhi and Qilin often, because earlier depictions of Xiezhi also show it as a one horned goat, due to its myth of origin. I mention this because, during my continual search for Qilin in museums, other creatures have been misidentified quite often. For example, the MET recently (between 2020 and 2021) went through and changed many items that were called Qilin before, to simply “Mythical Beast”. 

A note on wings on the Qilin: I believe, across the board for celestial creatures, especially in earlier art, wings as a feature can be interchanged with the flames depicted on their legs, because both indicate flight. 

Western Interpretation of a Qilin, fighting a Lion. Ottoman, mid-16th c. Smithsonian. 

Girin, in a Goguryeo Tomb mural (Anak Tomb No. 1), depicted with wings. Late 4th c - Early 5th c CE.

Qilin on Pedestal of Sitting Buddha, taken from Qilin Cave, Turpan, (Tang) 7th/8th c CE. State Museums of Berlin.

1609 Illustration Plate for the Qilin in a printing of the Sancai Tuhui, National Diet Library of Japan.

Qilin on a Rank Badge, in the Style of a Giraffe, 16th c - Early 17th. The MET.

Bottle/Vase with Three Qilin, Ming (Wanli Reign), c. 1573-1620. British Museum.

The Qilin is mentioned in the Sancai Tuhui (三才圖會) which is an encyclopedia compiled during the Ming Dynasty. 1609 or 1607 is its first published date, and it had been compiled for years before that. Due to it being a print, it was reprinted many times after the initial run, and there are copies printed as late as the 1800s that survive in various libraries and museums. Scans of a copy found in the Japanese National Diet Library were used in this case (Page 99 and 98). The encyclopedia entry, as translated by Þorfinnr Hróðgeirsson (mka Alec Story)(1): 

“Dai the Greater's Book of Rites(2)” reads: The qilin is as long as 360 caterpillars [?](3). “Shuowen Jiezi”(4) reads: the female, we call "qi", the male we call "lin." The cry of the male is the wandering sage. The cry of the female is returning wisdom.(5) The spring cry is supporting the young. The autumn cry is nurturing peace. In spring and autumn, when its feeling and spirit matches the king- that is, it does not abort fetuses, and does not break eggs - then the qilin comes from the outlying descendents, the countryside's sons. It is said, when the king is birthed in good and killed in evil, then the Lin will come from the wilds or the clouds. The Lin [male] has horns. The Qi [female] is similar to the Lin, but without horns. The Song Yun(6) reads, "the qilin's color is blue-green/light yellow [untranslatable]." The qilin has the body of [some kind of] deer, the tail of an ox, the feet of a horse, round hooves, and one horn. Above the horn there is flesh. (7) 

In this entry, the author referenced multiple other texts that the Qilin has been mentioned in, and explained how Qi and Lin refers to the legendary differences between the female and male version of the beast. It also mentions one prominent aspect of the Qilin legends: that it is a herald of a good ruler or sage, be it that person’s death or birth. 

The Qilin as a creature has existed since at least the 3rd c BCE(8), and has remained in symbolical use to present day. The Qilin is long known for symbolizing prosperity, serenity, and longevity. Almost all depictions of Qilin have celestial flames indicating their status as such, and as noting their ability to fly. They have scales of some sort; This is visualized as simply a snake-like belly, with artistic patterns on the back, or as a fully scaled hide. As said above, Qilin always have cloven hooves, like a goat. Earlier depictions show the “flesh above the horn” as a single, knob-ended horn, similar in shape to a Western-style saddle horn. 

A giraffe’s ossicones, tortoise-shell spotting, ox-like tail, and cloven hooves all matched the Qilin’s description to Ming dynasty minds when the emperor was brought one in 1414. A blurb from the MET about the event states, 

“...a giraffe [...] was presented to the Yongle emperor (r. 1403–24) from the king of Bengal, which was a major trading center on the maritime route between the Arabian Peninsula and China. The Chinese immediately associated it with the qilin, an auspicious mythical creature. [...] The giraffe also influenced the design of the qilin rank badge used for nobles.”(9)

Giraffes, after this point (and still today in at least Japan and Korea) are called after the Girin/Kirin, which can make searching slightly difficult with only that keyword (an occasion where using the Chinese characters are useful to distinguish between a giraffe and a kirin). 

Giraffe with Two Keepers, Copy, 17th c CE, The MET

The king of Bengal gifting the Yongle emperor a giraffe in 1414 spurned many copies of the painting that spread the good news that the emperor had received a Qilin.

Rank Badges 

Rank badges, sometimes called Mandarin Squares in English, are large badges that are worn on the front and back of a government official’s robe to denote their rank and position. In general, birds were for civil positions, and beasts were for military positions, but this is a generalization. This practice spread along with the Ming Dynasty’s reach and the adoption of similar Confucian government structures into Korea, Vietnam, and the Ryukyu Kingdom. In China, rank badges have been officially in use since 1391 CE, where the practice stemmed from the patterns woven into the fabric in Yuan nobility, and quickly became fashion and palace uniforms before it became a structured rank system for the officers. The qilin was not one of those official ranked beasts until the early Qing dynasty in 1662, however we see them on unofficial/personal badges made in the same way before this, as pictured(10). Wives of civil officials would wear their husband’s badge, and badges mimicking the official’s were worn fashionably. 

Rank Badge of Qilin, Ming 15th or 16th c. Sold at Auction in 2012.

Qilin Outside of China and Post-1600CE

So far, the Qilin shows up through shared literature with China pretty early on, especially in Korea.  I would assume Vietnam gets their Kylan well before 1600CE as well, since they are in a similar relationship with China.  Recently, I was able to find a Japanese depictions of Kirin that matches descriptions, and is prior to the Imjin Wars/Japanese Invasion of Korea. I still theorize the Kirin as a motif likely blossomed in popularity after it was included in a 1712 Japanese encyclopedia remake of the Sancai Tuhui, called the Wakan Sansai Zue (和漢三才図会), because the Edo depictions are abundant. 

As you can see below, the overall picture of the Qilin across the Sinosphere had become a fairly uniform depiction, with variations on whether it had one or two horns, and whether the scales are literal, or hexagonal like a giraffe, or sometimes polka dots but with a reptile belly, and sometimes added turtle shells.

Girin on Rank Badge, Joseon, 1864-1892. LACMA. 

Qilin Figure, mimicing earlier period tomb guardian statues, but this one included the turtle shell back seen in the Japanese art to the right. Qing, 1750s.  Hallwylska Museum. 

Three Kirin Frolicking in the River, depicted with turtle shells instead of scales, Edo, 17th c. State Museums of Berlin.

Modern Depictions (Both in and outside of Asia)

Modernly you can see them in My Little Pony, games like Monster Hunter, and as the titular icon for Kirin Beer, and sometimes even in the news when the North Korean leader visits the Kiringul. 

Unfortunately, with the confusion that comes from calling the Qilin a "Unicorn," a lot of artists tend to depict it as a horse with a "Chinese dragon head," however any depiction that does that, I would then file the creature as a LongMa (龍馬), which literally means Dragon Horse. (I'm looking at you, Shang-Chi.)

This is related to the reason that I loathe hearing people call the Qilin a chimera. It is its own creature, and its features are described as what they most closely look like from existing creatures, and not that it's literally a chimera of those. There is a very uniform look, especially in the 15th c, and going forward, which I contribute to the well-distributed printed encyclopedias going around with images plates. 

The TL;DR: 

● Qilin, Kirin, Girin, Ghilen/Gilen and Kylan are all romanizations for the same creature (麒 麟) 

● It has cloven hooves, scaly hide, ox-tail, horns, and celestial flames (sometimes but rarely wings instead) indicating its nature/status as celestial. 

● It’s associated with serenity and prosperity, and seeing one is a good omen. 

● Will be confused with the modern word for giraffe in at least Korean and Japanese. 

The previous SCA Precedent against registering Qilin

June 1991 LoAR Previous rejection of a Qilin: “Thomas Hawkwood the Archer. Device. Quarterly counter-ermine and ermine, a kirin Or maintaining an arrow and a dove argent. There is no heraldic monster called a Kirin. There is a similar Chinese charge called a Ch'ilin (Chinese unicorn), but it doesn't look all that similar to the submission. As a consequence the blazon does not reproduce the emblazon, making this unregisterable.”

The Registration of Qilin in the SCA Currently

This is the defining instance of the qilin, a fantastical beast of Chinese origin.

SENA A2B4a states "Attested depictions of fantastical plants or animals are also registerable with a step from core practice under this rule, if they can be shown to be known before 1600 and have a standard enough depiction to be identifiable." The submitter provided documentation showing that this is an attested depiction of a fantastical animal appearing in art and writing dating to at least the 14th century CE. Based on this evidence, it has a standard enough depiction to be identifiable: notably flames, scales, cloven hooves, ox's tail, and optional horns.

The qilin is thus registrable with a step from core practice.

The tincture of a qilin's flames are an unblazoned artistic detail.

Thomas Hawkwood's denied Kirin Armory from 1991
Choi Min's Qilin Couchant
Shinjo Takame's Kirin Rampant
Margret Junc's Kirin Passant

Qilin Art for Use in Submissions

 by Choi Min