The Qilin (Chinese: 麒麟; pinyin: qílín) is a mythical hooved Chinese chimerical creature known throughout various East Asian cultures, and is said to appear with the imminent arrival or passing of a wise sage or an illustrious ruler. It is a good omen that brings rui (Chinese: 瑞; pinyin: ruì; roughly translated as “serenity” or “prosperity”). It is often depicted with what looks like fire all over its body. It is sometimes misleadingly called the “Chinese unicorn” due to conflation with the unicorn by Westerners.
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. The word Qilin is derived from the Somali word Geri, which means Giraffe.
In legend, the Qilin became tiger-like after their disappearance in real life and become a stylised representation of the giraffe in Ming Dynasty. The identification of the Qilin with giraffes began after Zheng He’s voyage to East Africa (landing, among other places, in modern-day Somalia). The Ming Dynasty bought Giraffes from the Somali merchants along with Zebras, incense and other various exotic animals.Zheng He’s fleet brought back two giraffes to Nanjing, and they 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, thin 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. The identification of Qilin with giraffes has had lasting implications; even today, the giraffe is called kirin (기린) by the Koreans and kirin (キリン) by the Japanese.
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.