The Qilin also spelled Kylin, or Kirin (Japanese and Korean) is a mythical hooved Chinese chimerical creature known throughout various East Asian cultures, and is said to appear in conjunction with the arrival of a sage. It is a good omen that brings rui (roughly translated as "serenity" or "prosperity"). It is often depicted with what looks like fire all over its body.

Name in other languages

The Qilin is known in other languages as: Sabitun Sabintu (in Manchu), Hariharipo Hariharimo (in Tibetan), Билигтэй Бэлэгтэй Гөрөөс (in Mongolian), Kỳ lân (in Vietnamese), Girin (in Korean), Kirin (in Japanese) and Keilun (Cantonese).


The earliest references to the Qilin are in the 5th century BC book Zuo Zhuan. The Qilin made appearances in a variety of subsequent Chinese works of history and fiction. At one point, however, it became identified with the giraffe, and even today, the giraffe is called a "qilin" in Korean and Japanese.

The Qilin became a stylised representation of the giraffe in Ming dynasty. It is known that on Zheng He's voyage to East Africa (landing, among other places, in modern-day Kenya), the fleet brought back two giraffes to Beijing. It is also known that these two giraffes were referred to as "Qilins". The Emperor proclaimed the giraffes magical creatures, whose capture signalled the greatness of his power.

The identification between the Qilin and the giraffe is supported by some attributes of the Qilin, including its vegetarian and quiet nature. Its reputed ability to "walk on grass without disturbing it" may be related to the giraffe's long legs. Also the Qilin is described as having antlers like a deer and scales like a dragon or fish; since the giraffe has horn-like "ossicones" on its head and a tessellated coat pattern that looks like scales it is easy to draw an analogy between the two creatures.

It is unlikely that giraffes and qilin were regarded as the same creature in pre-modern times however. For example, typical depictions of the qilin have much shorter necks than giraffes. However, the Chinese character 麒 and 麟 both carry Chinese radical 鹿, suggesting that it was originally a type of deer, or perhaps an antelope.

The nature of the beast

Although it looks fearsome, the Qilin only punishes the wicked. It can walk on grass yet not trample the blades and it can also walk on water. Being a peaceful creature, its diet does not include flesh. It takes great care when it walks never to tread on any living thing, and it is said to appear only in areas ruled by a wise and benevolent leader (some say even if this area is only a house). It is normally gentle but can become fierce if a pure person is threatened by a sinner, spouting flames from its mouth and exercising other fearsome powers that vary from story to story.

Some stories state that the Qilin is a sacred pet (or familiar) of the deities. Therefore, in the hierarchy of dances performed by the Chinese (Lion Dance, Dragon Dance, Phoenix Dance, etc), the Qilin ranks highly; second only to the Dragon and Phoenix who are the highest.

In the Qilin Dance, movements are characterised by fast, powerful strokes of the head. Qilin Dance is often regarded as the hardest dance to perform due to the weight of the head, stances and the emphasis on "fǎ jìn" (Traditional Chinese - 法勁) - outbursts of strength/power/energy


There are variations in the appearance of the qilin, even as seen in a single country such as China, owing to cultural differences between dynasties and regions.

Ming dynasty example

In the Ming dynasty of China (1368–1644) the Qilin is represented as an oxen-hooved animal with a dragon-like head surmounted by a pair of horns and flame-like head ornaments.

A Qing dynasty example

The Qilin of China's subsequent Manchurian dominated Qing dynasty (1644–1911) is a much more fanciful animal. Manchurian depictions of the Qilin show a creature with the head of a dragon, the antlers of a deer, the skin and scales of a fish, the hooves of an ox and tail of a lion. (An image is shown above as a bronze sculpture.)

In Japan

In Japanese, the Qilin is called Kirin. Japanese art tends to depict the Qilin as more deer-like than in Chinese art. Kirin Brewery Company, Ltd. is named after the animal, and the word Kirin has also come to be used in modern Japanese for a giraffe. It's depicted as a dragon shaped like a European-style unicorn, only with a horse's tail instead of a lion's.

In the Post-Qin Chinese hierarchy of mythological animals, the Qilin is ranked as the third most powerful creature (after the dragon and phoenix), but in Japan, the Kirin occupies the top spot. This is following the style of the ancient Chinese, as QiLin, before the Qin Dynasty, was ranked higher then the Dragon or Phoenix, in fact, during the Zhou Dynasty, the Dragon is the third, the Phoenix rank second.

Turko-Mongol Iran

In Ilkhanid and Timurid Mongol-Persian mythological miniatures, the buraq was portrayed in a style reminiscent of the Chinese qilin, reflecting the Chinese background of painters who introduced watercolor techniques to Iran and initiated several medieval schools of Persian miniature painting.

Contemporary media references

  • In the Dungeons & Dragons universe, the ki-rin are monsters in the Oriental Adventures setting, cited as an example of how D&D utilises influences from many places.
  • In the Twelve Kingdoms anime series, based on the fantasy novels by Fuyumi Ono, the monarch of each kingdom is chosen by a kirin, who then becomes his (or her) principal counselor. The kirin's name is derived from the name of the kingdom plus either "ki" (male) or "rin" (female).
  • The kirin appears in the video game series Final Fantasy. Kirin is one of the Espers, or summoned monsters in Final Fantasy VI. Kirin also makes an appearance as the strongest of the "gods" in Final Fantasy XI.
  • It also appears in the game SaGa Frontier as a playable character named Kylin, the only master of "Space Magic."
  • The legendary Pokémon Arceus seems to be based off the Qilin.
  • In Digimon, Kudamon's Ultimate form, Qilinmon, is named after and based on the Qilin.
  • In Golden Sun: Lost age, Kirin appears as a summon option when two or more fire djinn are equipped
  • In the computer game Guild Wars Factions, players encounter both helpful Kirin charged with safeguarding certain areas, as well as several tainted Kirin as enemies.
  • In the Magic: The Gathering set Saviors of Kamigawa, there are five Kirin, one for each color of Magic. They are, Infernal Kirin, Skyfire Kirin, Cloudhoof Kirin, Celestial Kirin, and Bounteous Kirin.
  • The Kirin is one of the mythical beasts that passes through Count D's mythical petshop in Pet Shop of Horrors. It is said to have changed the fate of the world several times by choosing a worthy leader for a country. The Kirin's inability to walk on living beings is compared to the ancient, crippling Chinese practice of footbinding.
  • The Kirin in the manga Genju no Seiza is the only deity who can tell which baby the constantly reincarnating Holy King has taken host of. He is blind and deaf, but able to sense thoughts, and thus unpopular in the palace despite the respect given to him.
  • In Takashi Miike's The Great Yokai War the hero is bitten during a street festival by the dancer's kirin head. According to local custom that made him the next "kirin rider."
  • In the popular manga series Naruto, the Sasuke Uchiha's ultimate attack is called Kirin, and takes the form of the legendary beast.
  • In the free-to-play MMORPG, Perfect World, one of the classes a player can create, the werefox, has a humanoid Kirin form.
  • In the Otori Tales series, written by Lian Hearn, a kirin is brought to the Three Countries in the last book of the series, The Harsh Cry of the Heron.
  • In Gosei Sentai Dairanger, Kazu of the Heavenly Time Star, uses his Chi to manifest the power of the Kirin to to become the Kirinranger and pilots the Mythical Chi Beast is Sei-Kirin. The Sei-Kirin was then adapted to the Dairanger's 1994 counter part, the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. However, the Kirin was renamed as the Griffin Thunderzord. Despite the Sei-Kirin having no physical appearance to that of a Griffin, the name was changed was given to American audiences with no explanation even being given by the producers of the Power Rangers. It is commonly thought this change was made because of American audience's unfamiliarity with Chinese mythology.

See also


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