Chinese oracle bone pictographs are almost invariably based on existing phenomena, and these phenomena are always depicted vertically, with their most salient features outlined in profile or silhouette. Thus, in the case of the zhi ob pictographs (figs.1 and 2), the animal is shown vertically, in profile, with its two horns at the top and its tail at the bottom. Only two of its four legs are depicted, and the head is reduced to its most important elements, in other words, a single eye and two unusually long horns.
During the early Western Zhou Dynasty, circa the eleventh century B.C.E., the Saola was disappearing from the heartland of Chinese civilization in north China. By this time also, the rules governing the formation of the ancient ob pictographs had long been forgotten, and the graph for the zhi had evolved into a bronze script graph of an animal with a single three-pronged horn (fig. 5 C).
Figure 5. The development of the zhi character
A. Shang Dynasty oracle bone (ob) pictograph
B. Shang Dynasty oracle bone (ob) pictograph
C. Western Zhou Dynasty bronze script (bs) character
D. Qin-Han Dynasties small script (ss) character
E. Han Dynasty (modern) character (mc)
This change was due to the extension and protrusion of the outline of the pupil of the eye of the zhi into the space between its two horns. As a result, the people of the early Western Zhou period may have misread the zhi character and come to the conclusion that the animal it represented had only one horn. Yet even if we accept the idea that the Saola was the animal upon which the zhi oracle bone character was based, and even if we agree that a later misreading of the character occurred, what evidence exists to provide a connection between the pictograph for the zhi and the story of Gao Yao? In other words, how do we know that this particular Chinese pictograph is meant to represent the legendary goat-unicorn zhi which butted the guilty with its horn in the law court of the famous magistrate?
Proof of this identification can be found in another early Western Zhou bs character fa, meaning ‘legal justice’ (fig. 6).
Figure 6. Western Zhou character fa (legal justice)
This character is composed of three separate elements: on the left is shui, the pictograph for ‘water,’ which, because it always seeks its own level, indicates impartiality of judgement, on the right is zhi (‘the mythic goat- unicorn,’) and below is the graph qu, which means ‘to get rid of’ or ‘to avoid.’ This is the first irrefutable evidence confirming the zhi‘s ancient association with legal justice, for without prior knowledge of the story of Gao Yao and his unicorn, the character fa makes no sense. Therefore, although the magistrate Gao Yao is not actually mentioned by name until the Warring States period (475-221 B.C.E.), in Chinese texts such as the “Yao Dian (The Canon of Yao)” in the Document Classic, the legend of Gao Yao and his zhi was probably already well known by the Western Zhou period, perhaps as early as the eleventh century B.C.E. Thus the concept of a mythical goat-unicorn that served the cause of justice in a court of law may be more than three-thousand years old in China.
The Shuowen jiezi (Explanation of Simple and Compound Graphs) is the oldest extant comprehensive dictionary of Chinese characters, dated to the first century C.E. There, two references to the zhi are found. The first is in the description of the character jian, meaning ‘grass,’ ‘a mat,’ ‘to present,’ ‘to recommend,’ and ‘to introduce’ (fig. 4) which reads as follows:
It is the grass eaten by the zhi animal. The graph is composed of zhi and ‘grass.’ In ancient times a deity gave the zhi animal to the Emperor Huangdi, and the Emperor asked ‘What does it eat and where does it stay?’ The reply: ‘It eats jian. In summer it lives in marshy areas. In winter it stays where evergreens and cypresses grow.’
Here it is evident that the mythic quality of the unicorn zhi was enhanced during the Eastern Han Dynasty by being linked with the most ancient legendary ruler of all, Huangdi.3 The second reference to the zhi in the Shuo wen is found in the definition of the zhi itself, which reads as follows: “The zhi is the jiezhi animal. It looks like an ox with one horn. In ancient times, in a lawsuit, it was commanded to touch the guilty. The character is a pictograph.” Here the zhi is described as looking like an ox, but this is rather unusual, since normally the character used to describe the zhi is yang, meaning ‘goat’ or ‘sheep.’ Nevertheless, this description in the Shuo wen adds weight to the theory that the original zhi animal was the wild goat-ox Saola.
The use of the term jiezhi introduces another problematic aspect of the development of ancient Chinese characters. It is important to address this issue here, because it has been the source of the enormous confusion, which still exists to this day, about the various names used for the mythic Chinese unicorn. Sometimes the zhi is called a jiezhi or a xiezhi ,4 but both of these terms are simply polysyllabic forms of the ancient character zhi. Polysyllabic characters were created as a result of changes which occurred in the Chinese written language prior to the Eastern Han Dynasty.
In the early Chinese script, a single character was used to indicate the meaning intended. Eventually, however, the limited number of early Chinese pictographs proved insufficient. As a result, the prefixes jie- and xie- were added to the original zhi to create the polysyllabic characters jiezhi and xiezhi, which were also used to designate the mythic Chinese unicorn. Victor Mair believes that
Since the zhi only has one basic meaning, that of a certain animal, there would have been no reason to disambiguate it by the addition of a prefix. Rather, it would seem to be that phonological processes were at work that led to the bisyllabicization of what were formerly phonologically complex monosyllables into two individually less complex syllables that together, as a bisyllabic word, managed to convey the fundamental phonetic components of the original monosyllabic word (Mair, pers. comm. 2005).
Thus, in the Shuo wen, when the authors say that the “zhi is the jiezhi,” they are simply emphasizing the fact that the jiezhi is the same mythic beast as the zhi. The use of the polysyllabic term jiezhi dates back at least to Warring States times (475-221 B.C.E.). During that period in south-central China, judges and magistrates of the State of Chu wore special caps made in the shape of three horns (fig. 7) which were called jiezhiguan, meaning “jiezhi‑caps” (Hayashi, 1963).
Figure 7 Images of jiezhiguan
Such three-peaked caps had been worn by people of power and authority since at least the Shang period. Proof of this statement is found in the oracle bone pictograph bian, meaning “cap”, which shows a seated man wearing a cap with three feathers sticking up . In fact, a cap with a feather decoration has been found even earlier, in a mark on pottery from the Neolithic Dawenkou Culture, circa 4300-2400 B.C.E. . By the Zhou Dynasty, the ob pictograph bian had evolved into a character showing a seated man with a three-peaked cap on his head (Hsu, 1996, 63). The fact that these official caps were called jiezhiguan in the Warring States period serves to confirm the ancient connection between the mythic unicorn zhi and the magistrate Gao Yao. For according to tradition, as a man of high status and an important government official, he would have worn such a “jiezhi-cap.” The term xiezhi does not appear in Chinese literature until the Eastern Han period, in Wang Chong’s account of Gao Yao and his xiezhi.