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THE CHINESE UNICORN

While the ancient Greeks and Romans believed the unicorn to be real, the Chinese always believed it to be mythical.  The Chinese called the unicorn ki-lin (pronounced chee-lin) -- a combination of their word for the male unicorn, ki, and the one for the female, lin.

According to Chinese legend, the ki-lin was one of the four superior creatures -- three of them mythical, one of them real.  The latter was the very real tortoise, most important of the shelled animals.  Of the three mythological animals the phoenix, a bird that lived for 500 years, was the leader of all feathered creatures.  The dragon, Chinese silver unicorn Chinese symbol of strength and goodness, held first place among the scaly animals.  And the ki-lin, the unicorn, was the most worthy of all hairy animals.

Indicating its importance, the ki-lin's hair and skin included patches of all five of the sacred Chinese colors: red, yellow, blue, white and black.  Stories also said its musical call rang out like a monastery bell.

In Chinese tales, the ki-lin was a solitary animal living in deep forests or high in the mountains.  The ki-lin never appeared to humans except when it was on a special mission.  Whenever a ki-lin showed itself to an emperor, it was said the ruler would enjoy a long and peaceful reign.

THE BIRTH of CONFUCIUS FORETOLD by KI-LIN

The Chinese also believed that ki-lins appeared now and then to foretell the birth of great men, such as the philosopher Confucius.  There are several different versions of what happened when Confucius's expecting mother saw the ki-lin.  In one of them, she was walking in a wooded glade when a ki-lin suddenly materialized in front of her.  Impressed by its strength and dignity, she took a red ribbon from her hair and draped it over the animal's horn.

The ki-lin was pleased with her gift.  It walked around her slowly three times, then disappeared.  Soon after, in about 550 B.C., the woman and her husband welcomed their son, Confucius, into the world.

In another version of the story, the ki-lin also came to the mother in a forest glade, but this time carrying a jade tablet in its mouth.  The tablet was engraved with a poem praising the man her son was to become.  She took the tablet from the ki-lin and the animal immediately vanished.  A few months later, she gave birth to Confucius, who eventually accomplished all that the poem foretold.

Believing such tales, many Chinese mother-to-be posted pictures of the ki-lin on their walls, hoping their sons too would be great.  The Chinese gods who distributed babies were often portrayed riding on the backs of ki-lins.


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