Sunday, January 31, 2010

The legend of the Qilin

When I was 12 and recovering from appendicitis in the hospital, Louisette, a dear friend, gave me a book entitled "Contes et légendes des Antilles".
I have always loved reading but this book took me to another dimension and ever since I have been a big fan of legends and myths and while looking for tidbits about Giraffe, I discovered the legend of the Qilin.

The Qilin is believed to be a creature of perfect good will, gentleness and benevolence to all living creatures in Chinese mythology.

All over Asia Qilin is heard of and with names such as Kylin, Keilun, Kirin, Girin, Kirin, Sabitun Sabintu, Kỳ lân, Ki len. Except for Sabitun Sabintu, they are all quite similar for the non-linguist that I am, don't you think? There is also the famous Japanese beer named after it: kirin beer. I do not drink so I can only hope that its taste pays tribute to the Qilin.

Of course I had to know more about the Qilin.

I discovered that that perfectly kind creature is sometimes said to be a giraffe! There is even a theory that says that the Qilin is in fact a stylised representation of the giraffe !!! So now after legend, linguistics and beer we came full circle back to the giraffe ^__^ 

The connection between Qilin and Giraffe is based on the journeys of  Zheng He ( born in 1371 during the Ming dynasty), who travelled a lot as a mariner, explorer, diplomat and fleet admiral. He even reached East Africa (modern-day Kenya), and returned home to Beijing with 2 giraffes. It is 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. Besides the giraffes, Zheng He brought back from his trips ostriches, zebras, camels and ivory.

Some elements that lead to think that the giraffe is the Qilin are the following:
  • The Qilin is described as a vegetarian creature of quiet nature -- just like the giraffe.
  • The Qilin  has the reputation to be able to "walk on grass without disturbing it". This brings to mind the gracious walk of the giraffe's long legs.
  • The Qilin is good and compassionate: the Qilin cannot even eat leaves that are still alive, it has to wait until they fell from the tree naturally. Ok, the giraffe eats leaves, fresh shoots, flowers, pods, and fruits from trees, of which acacias are the most important source of food so maybe when she first arrived in China she could not find fresh leaves in trees? dry sason oblige maybe? Or maybe she did not like the leaves that were there? She had no choice than to eat what she found: leaves that fell from the tree naturally!
  • The Qilin has a voice like a thousand wind chimes.Hum! Giraffes are usually silent.They bellow, grunt or snort when alarmed, as when confronted by lions, and can also moo in distress. Maybe it does sound like a thousand wind chimes, but I would have have to pursue that further ^__^
  • the Qilin avoids  fighting at all costs. Giraffes are peaceful! They are non-territorial and social. True,  sometimes they do fight: it is called "necking", and they usually "neck" over a female. But they have a good reason, right?

The following is the mythical part of the Qilin:
  • It is considered to be the second most powerful creature in the Chinese culture, behind the dragon.
  • It can live for 2000 years.
  • It comes only in times of prosperity.
  • It represents the strong positive ideas of auspiciousness, and its appearance is said to signify the arrival of a sage, the birth or death of a great ruler, or the compassion and generosity of a living one.
  • It makes sure not to purposefully harm any other creature as long as you are good, but if you are bad, it can spit fire.
  • Other special abilities also include walking on water, and flying. .
  • That creature is often depicted with what looks like fire all over its body.
So in conclusion it seems that the Qilin is "just" a myth, the name of which was borrowed and applied to the giraffes when they arrived in China in 1414. Also, giraffes have much longer necks than some of the Ming-era depictions of the Qilin. One example of Qilin / Kirin below....

Dear readers,
I hope you enjoyed reading about the Qilin as much as I enjoyed researching and writing about it and to conclude let me present you with our own interpretation of Sophie The Giraffe as a Qilin!

Thank You very much Dan
for helping me make Sophie into a unique  Qilin!

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