In the summer of 1974, the Chinese Exhibition of Archaeological Finds of the People’s Republic of China toured the great museums of the world. Among the many spectacular objects on display was an extraordinary wooden carving of a charging unicorn (see colour plate 1.) which had been discovered in 1959 in a tomb at Wuwei, Gansu Province,1 dating to the first or second century of the Common Era (C.E.).2
Plate 1. Wooden unicorn from Wuwei, Gansu Province. Eastern Han Dynasty.
The unicorn is depicted charging forward with its head lowered, its chin tucked tightly into its chest, and its tail extended upward at a sharp angle. The single straight horn attached to its head is levelled as if to butt or impale something. Thirty-eight and-a-half centimetres high and fifty-nine centimetres long, this sculpture is composed of nine separate pieces of wood: two each for the ears, the forelegs, and the hind legs, and one each for the body, the tail and the horn. Its body was originally painted white, and decorated with strokes of black and red pigment.
In the catalogue accompanying this great Chinese Exhibition, William Watson made the following comments about this beast: “The Chinese unicorn, ch’i-lin was anciently described as having the body of a deer, the tail of a cow and the hoofs of a horse. From the Han period it was believed to be a benevolent animal, whose fleshy horn equips it for war, although it never does harm. Its appearance in the empire was a good portent, deserving immediate report to the emperor … “(Watson 1973, 120–21.) Nevertheless, this book will attempt to prove, beyond a shadow of doubt, that the mythic Chinese unicorn was not the qilin (pronounced cheeleen) but a one-horned female goat-like beast called the zhi (pronounced jhuhr.)
But what, you may well ask, is the unicorn zhi, and where did the idea of a one-horned goat-like animal come from? What was the original meaning and significance of the zhi, and how did the zhi become confused with the qilin? In order to answer these questions, we must travel back into the past, to the time of the legendary Emperor Shun, who reigned circa 2255 to 2205 Before the Common Era (B.C.E.) during the Neolithic period in China.
According to an ancient Chinese legend, long, long ago, before history began, the land was ruled by the great Emperor Shun. He was the last in the series of five culture heroes who ruled prior to the establishment of the first historical dynasty, the Xia. Each of his predecessors was famous for inventing rules and regulations designed to improve the organization of human society. But Shun’s innovation was perhaps the greatest of all. For, with the able assistance of his Minister of Justice, Gao Yao, he formulated the first law code. Gao Yao was a very wise counsellor, but sometimes, when even his acumen was baffled, he would appeal to his infallible one-horned goat zhi to butt the guilty person with its horn.
An early version of this ancient tale, which dates to the first part of the Eastern Han Dynasty, appears among the writings of the scholar Wang Chong (c.27-100 C.E.) His account is found in Lun Heng (The Scale of Discourse) Part 2, in the Shi Ying (Auguries Verified) section, Book 17, Chapter 2, (Forke, 1962), and its new translation by James Hsü reads as follows:
At present in the courtyards of public buildings, Gao Yao’s xiezhi is painted, and scholars declare that the xiezhi is a goat with one horn, which by instinct knows the guilty. When Gao Yao, administering justice, was doubtful about the guilt of a culprit, he ordered this goat to butt it. It would butt the guilty, but spare the innocent. Accordingly, it was a sage animal born with one horn, a most efficient assistant in judicial proceedings. Therefore did Gao Yao hold it in high respect, using it on all occasions. Consequently, it belonged to the class of supernatural creatures of good omen.
Although Wang Chong uses the Han Dynasty polysyllabic Chinese character xiezhi to designate the mythic unicorn, this story is clearly that of the famous magistrate Gao Yao and his zhi. The Chinese believe that this association between the unicorn zhi and justice under the law dates back to the Bronze Age in China, if not before. Yet belief is one thing, and reality another, and in the natural world there is no such animal as a one-horned goat. So where did the idea of a goat-unicorn come from, and what evidence exists to confirm the link between the zhi and the law?