During the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, circa 500 B.C.E., when China was in a state of tremendous political turmoil, people began to record the appearance of certain phenomena called xiangrui meaning ‘propitious’ or ‘auspicious.’ According to Wu Hung,
Xiangrui refer to certain phenomena that the people of the Han dynasty interpreted as expressions of the will of heaven…. Good omens indicated that the ruling emperor was enlightened and governed his country well. In contrast to the auspicious xiangrui, the Han people considered other natural phenomena, such as eclipes or big gusts of wind, to represent Heaven’s dissatisfaction. This view of natural phenomena already existed before the Qin Dynasty, especially during the Eastern Zhou. But at that time evil omens were more frequently mentioned. (Wu, 1984, 39)
Among the xiangrui, one of the most notable was the lin, or “deer-like” animal, which first appears in ancient Chinese literature in the eleventh poem in the Shijing (Poetry Classic), a text which dates from the late Western Zhou Dynasty to the middle of the Spring and Autumn period, circa 840-620 B.C.E. The most famous reference to the lin, which is traditionally attributed to Kong Qiu (Confucius) (551-479 B.C.E.), is found in the Chunqiu (Spring and Autumn Annals), a chronicle covering the years 722 to 483 B.C.E. compiled at the feudal court of Lu (the home state of Confucius.) The statement refers to the year 481 B.C.E. and reads as follows: “In the Spring of the (Duke’s) fourteenth year, they hunted in the West and caught a lin.”
In later times people came to believe that these were the last words written by the great sage, and that therefore they must indicate something of great significance. It was as a result of the subsequent analysis of this single brief sentence, that there arose a mistaken belief that the lin, or “deer-like” animal, was the original Chinese unicorn. Yet it in this brief reference there is no description of the lin, nor any mention of any horn(s). In addition, by the time of Confucius, the concept of the mythic one-horned female goat-like zhi, which determined guilt or innocence in a court of law, was already very ancient. So why did people come to believe that the lin was the Chinese unicorn?
The origin of the lin character is extremely obscure, but it appears to be based on a Shang Dynasty ob pictograph composed of a deer, together with the graph wen meaning ‘stripes,’ ‘lines,’ ‘elegant,’ ‘refined,’ ‘literary’ (Hsü, 1998, 651). Hence the meaning of the character lin is ‘a deer with beautifully patterned fur’ (fig. 15 A and B).
Figure 15. Development of the lin character
A. Shang Dynasty
B. Shang Dynasty
C. Zhou Dynasty
D. Han Dynasty
However, there is nothing to indicate that there was any relationship at all between this particular animal and the later legend of the lin. In other words, the lin character has no history. It seems likely, therefore, that an existing character was borrowed to represent the idea of the mythic lin, and that the lin itself had no basis in reality. Yet by the Western Zhou Dynasty, according to Axel Schuessler, it had already acquired the meaning “unicorn” (Schuessler, 1987, 386). This may have been due to the fact that by this time the ob pictograph had evolved, like that of the zhi, into a bs character showing a beast with a single three-pronged horn (fig. 16).
Figure 16. Comparison between the ancient characters for zhi (left: pronounced jhuhr) and lin (right: pronounced leen)
It is also possible that the lin’s “beautifully patterned fur” may have added to this confusion between the unicorn zhi and the lin, for, as we have seen, one of the salient features of the Saola is its beautifully patterned fur.
Among the earliest of the Han Dynasty references to the lin is that found in the first comprehensive history of China called the Shiji (Records of the Grand Historian) written by Sima Qian (145?-86? B.C.E.). In the Fengshan chapter of the Shiji, there is a passage which reads as follows:
The following year (122 B.C.E.) when the emperor went to Yong to perform the suburban sacrifice he captured a beast with one horn which looked like a unicorn. The officials announced, ‘Since your majesty has performed the suburban sacrifice with such reverence and care, the Lord on High has seen fit to reward you by presenting this one-horned beast. Is this not what is called a unicorn (lin)?’
The emperor thereupon visited the Five Altars and presented an additional burnt offering of an ox at each one. He presented the white metal coins, symbolic of the auspicious white deer, to the various feudal lords as a hint to them that he had by now received the necessary omens proving that he had found favour with Heaven. (Watson,  1993, 27)
Nonetheless, in some early Han Dynasty texts, lin simply means “big deer” (Mair, pers. comm. 2005).
By the Han period the lin graph had evolved into a character composed of two parts, one representing the deer-like animal, and the other indicating the appropriate pronunciation (fig.15 D). By this time, the polysyllabic character qilin was also in use to indicate this mythic beast. As was explained in the case of the term xiezhi, this bisyllabicization was created to cope with phonological processes, especially the growing lack of ability to handle consonant clusters. (Mair, pers. comm. 2005). Therefore, the wide-spread assumption that the term qilin means “male” and “female” is simply not true.
In order to finally put an end to the confusion about the true identity of the Chinese unicorn, it is necessary to re-examine in detail two commentaries which were written during Han times on the famous sentence in the Spring and Autumn Annals: “In the Spring of the (Duke’s) fourteenth year, they hunted in the West and caught a lin.” The Gongyang commentary, which was supposedly based on an oral tradition that stemmed from one of
Confucius’ disciples, reads as follows:
Why did he record this?
Because he wanted to record a strange thing.
What is this strange thing?
The fact that the lin is not a Chinese animal.
Who caught it?
The people who collect firewood. These wood collectors are lower class people [common people, rustics.]
Then why did Confucius use the term shou for ‘hunting’? [a term which only applies to a royal or state hunt.]
Because he wanted to emphasize it.
Why did he want to emphasize it?
Because they caught the lin.
Why did he want to emphasize catching the lin animal?
Because the lin is a kind and humane animal [ren shou]. It comes when there is a sage king. If there were no such kings the lin would not come.
Someone told Confucius that there was a lin with horn [which was very rare, as opposed to a lin without horn].
Therefore, Confucius said, ‘Who did it come for?’
Confucius wiped his face with his sleeve and his tears stained the front of his robe when Yan Yuan [his favourite disciple] died.
Confucius said ‘Heaven must want me dead’ [because there was no one left to carry on his work and promote his ideas.]
When another disciple Zi Lu died, Confucius said ‘Heaven curses me.’
And when he heard that the lin had been caught in the Western Regions during a hunt, Confucius said ‘My way [Dao] is blocked.’ [The meaning here is that things are out of joint, abnormal. It is as if the whole world has been turned upsidedown.]
In the Guliang commentary it says:
Why did this event not happen in the State of Lu? [the state where Confucius lived in Shandong Province].
Because this was a parable [a story with a moral lesson].
To use the hunting term shou you would have to mention the place [in other words, the name of the hunting-ground]. But no place is named. This means that it was not really hunting.
The reason why it was recorded as ‘hunting’ is because they wanted to emphasize this event, the capture of the lin. That is why they used the term shou for ‘hunting.’
The reason why Confucius did not say that the lin ‘appeared’ is because although the lin was not a Chinese animal, Confucius did not want to exclude it from China.
If it had ‘appeared’ or ‘come’ this would mean [in Chinese] that it had come from outside China. So here he used the term ‘hunting’ to include it or adopt it as a Chinese animal. A foreign or ‘outside’ animal would not have affected China.
The reason he did not use the character you which means ‘to appear’ or ‘to exist’ to express the idea ‘to have caught’ the lin, is because he did not want to imply that the lin was rare in China, because the lin was a sign of peaceful times.
His wish was that the lin should always be in China [even though it was not Chinese and came from the West.]
Confucius’ wish that the lin would always be in China meant that he wished that the world would always be peaceful.
These Han Dynasty commentaries are interesting in that they provide the source material for belief in the imaginary lin. But it is essential to remember that they were written hundreds of years after the Spring and Autumn Annals and have no basis in fact. They are simply much later conjectures and are completely irrelevant as far as the concept of the mythic Chinese unicorn of justice is concerned because of their fanciful nature and their allegiance to Confucian thought.
The legend of the lin can be summarized as follows: Towards the end of his life, when he was informed that a ren shou, a “kind” or “humane” animal, had been captured, Confucius was devastated. In the past, xiangrui such as the lin were believed to appear only before wise kings as good omens from heaven. But in this instance, when the lin appeared, it found no corresponding sage king on the throne. This ominous appearance of the auspicious lin, plus the fact that it had been captured by common people, signalled the moral decay of the world, and meant that the Mandate of Heaven had been lost. Thus for Confucius, the capture of the lin meant the end of all hope for a better world. And in truth, soon afterward China was plunged into the chaos of the Warring States period. Later a legend would arise which said that after writing this sentence, Confucius threw down his writing brush in despair, and never wrote again.
In the minds of the ancient Chinese people, the unicorn zhi and the lin were two entirely separate mythic animals. They were derived from different sources, one real and one imaginary, and represented completely different traditions. The ancient myth of the female goat-unicorn zhi embodied the idea of a one-horned goat-ox which served a practical purpose in a court of law by distinguishing between the guilty and the innocent. The deer-like lin, on the other hand, belonged to the realm of superstition and fantasy—a xiangrui whose appearance was interpreted as an omen from heaven. In contrast to the mythic zhi, which was based on an animal native to China in ancient times, the mythic lin was completely imaginary. It did not appear in written records until the Western Zhou Dynasty, and was considered to be a foreign animal from the Western Regions beyond the borders of China. Furthermore, while the lin appeared only before a sage king or emperor as a portent or prophecy from Heaven, the unicorn zhi embodied the ideal of true justice for all, and hence fate and good fortune.
It is this democratic ideal of impartial justice under the law which lies at the heart of the mythic unicorn zhi tradition and accounts for its extraordinary longevity. In addition, because the unicorn zhi was a supernatural spirit animal which served to ward off evil and evil-doers, it was considered to be an auspicious guardian beast. In later times images of these two mythic beasts would be confused, perhaps due to the similarity of their Chinese characters and the fact that they were both thought to have beautifully patterned fur. But the essential meaning of the unicorn zhi, as the ultimate symbol of justice in ancient China, was never lost.