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Chinese Unicorns

Unicorns have been with us, in one form or another, since the dawn of history. It's believed they were first described by the Chinese as a miraculous creature called the Ch'i lin (or K'i lin), a "great unicorn," that radiated exquisite colors, had a voice like a thousand wind chimes, avoided fighting at all costs, lived for a thousand years, and had a horn twelve feet long. It was said that Ch'i lin walked so softly its hooves made no sound. Some believed this was because it was so soft-hearted it did not want to crush the blades of grass beneath its feet.

Ch'i lin was very special to the Chinese. It was a creature of great power and wisdom, and would show itself at special times. Its appearance was always considered a sign of good fortune. When a ruler was just and kind and the times peaceful and prosperous, the unicorn would appear in a glade. It would also appear when a great leader was about to die or be born.

The earliest recorded appearance of the Ch'i lin was to a legendary Chinese sovereign called Fu Hsi c. 2900 BC. As the story is told, Fu Hsi was sitting on the bank of the Yellow River one day near the end of his life. He was thinking about mortality and trying to think of a way he could record his thoughts for following generations (writing had not yet been invented). Suddenly a Ch'i lin rose out of the river and came toward him. On its back it carried certain magical sigils from which Fu Hsi was able to devise the first written Chinese language. Over time the script has evolved so naturally that today's readers of modern Chinese are still able to understand something written 2,000 years ago.

The signs which had inspired Fu Hsi are called the Pa Kua, or eight trigrams. They are a symbolic combination of broken and unbroken lines and form the basis not only for Chinese writing, but also for the philosophic and divinatory systems known as the I Ching, or Book of Changes. Fu Hsi is one of four men given credit for authoring this work, along with King Wen, the Duke of Chou and Confucius. Fu Hsi was followed as sovereign by Shen-nung and then by Huang Ti, who was also known as the Yellow Emperor or the August Sovereign. He became one of the most revered of all Chinese rulers. There is a record in the Bamboo Books of the appearance of a Ch'i lin at his palace in 2697 BC, shortly before his death. The Ch'i lin walked silently, majestically into the palace, roamed its halls and vanished. The unicorn carried in the middle of its forehead a long, straight, tapered and helically grooved ivory horn. During the reigns of the following four Emperors, in what is considered China's Golden Age of peace, justice and good government, the Ch'i lin often appeared as a mark of approval. The most famous example of the appearance of a Ch'i lin foretelling the birth of a great leader happened over 2,500 years ago when it came to a young woman named Yen Chen-tsai. She and her husband had no son and though she prayed constantly, her prayers went unanswered. After a long time, she decided to make a pilgrimage to a holy shrine in the mountains. As she was traveling to the shrine, a Ch'i lin appeared, knelt before her and dropped into her hand a tiny jade tablet from its mouth. On one side was a message which said: "The son of the essence of water shall succeed to the withering Chou and he will become a throneless king." Months later Yen Chen-tsai ("the essence of water") bore a son called Kung Fu Tse, better known as the great Chinese sage, Confucius. Confucius never wore a crown or commended men. But, through his teachings, Confucius probably did as much to shape China as the power of many kings and warlords combined. Seventy years later, while writing his Spring and Autumn Annals, it is said that Confucius was told by one of his disciples that a strange beast had been killed nearby by a party of noblemen. They had been out hunting and surprised the beast by setting fire to the underbrush. Some witnesses said the creature ran into a chariot and was killed by accident, others said the hunters were too quick with their spears. Whatever the truth of the incident, the animal had been killed and its body abandoned at a crossroads. Confucius left with his disciple to see this animal for himself. He immediately recognized the creature and cried: "It is a Ch'i lin. The Ch'i lin, benevolent beast, appears and dies. My Tao is exhausted." Confucius ended his Annals prematurely with an account of the incident and is then said to have laid down his pen and never written another word. However, that may not be exactly the case as the following poem is attributed to Confucius and it appears it was written after seeing the Ch'i lin:

In the age of Tang and Yu the Unicorn
and the Phoenix walked abroad.
Now when it is not their time they come
And what do they seek?
The Unicorn, the Unicorn, my heart is sad.

By the time of the Middle Ages, most people in China were familiar with the unicorn. When sailors aboard the Chinese Emperor's jewel ship arrived in East Africa in 1415, they were told stories about the horned creature they knew as the Ch'i lin. They were very surprised since Africa and China are totally different and they did not expect this animal to be known there.

The Africans described the animal as having the body of a deer, a long neck and a single horn. It was gentle, graceful, rarely spoke or made noises and was said to be 18 feet tall. According to the reports, it would hide among the mimosa. The Chinese crew was able to capture one of these creatures and returned with it to China. There was much excitement in the Emperor's Court when it was reported they were bringing home a Ch'i lin. As it turned out, the Somali word for the animal was girin, which had confused the expedition's leader. In fact, the African "unicorn" turned out to be the giraffe!

The Four Sacred Beasts: The Chinese Unicorn

There is an ancient Chinese myth which explains the creation of the universe. In the beginning, the universe was merely an egg. Heaven and earth were not separate. The stars and the planets were one. But when the egg of the universe cracked, Chaos spilled out. Heaven and earth separated and the stars and planets split.

Into this chaos came P'an Ku, the first god/human. It took him 18,000 years to create the present universe and earth. He was assisted in this work of creation by the four most fortunate animals--the dragon, the phoenix, the tortoise and the unicorn. When P'an Ku's work was completed, he died. The dragon swan into the seas. The tortoise crawled into the swampy wetlands. The phoenix rose into the sky and flew to the open lands. The unicorn galloped into the green forests. These four sacred animals became the guardians of the hidden realms upon the earth and those places beyond, where their strength is undiminished by contact with humans.

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