The earliest three-dimensional images of unicorns in China have been found guarding the entrances to tombs of the Eastern Han Dynasty (24-220 C.E.). Since, according to Richard Ettinghausen and Odell Shepard, images of unicorns do not appear in West Asian or European art until the mediaeval period, these Chinese wooden sculptures of goat-unicorn zhi provide proof that the myth of the unicorn originated in China. The Han Dynasty was a period of great intellectual ferment, a time when many previously existing ideas and practices were finally synthesized into a coherent philosophical whole, creating a system of thought which was to dominate China for the next two millennia. It is beyond the scope of this book to discuss all the changes in ideology which distinguished Han culture, but there are three fundamental aspects which must be considered, for they had a profound and lasting effect on the mythic guardian unicorn tradition.
Firstly, during the Han Dynasty, the old idea that the emperor ruled by grace of the Mandate of Heaven, which could only be lost through his own moral turpitude, underwent a radical transformation. The Wuxing/Yinyang theories became dominant, with the result that each previous dynasty was thought to have been governed by one of the five phases. These phases were now believed to succeed one another in an unchanging and infinite cycle, each one giving rise to the next, so that everything was in constant motion and flux, and nothing was permanent (fig. 37).
Figure 37. Five Phases diagram
As a result, the ideas of transience and transformation became the leitmotifs of Han social, political and cultural life.
Secondly, and perhaps in reaction to this emphasis on evanescence, people became entranced with ancient ideas about achieving personal immortality. Known collectively as “The Search for Immortality,” these beliefs can be traced back to the Spring and Autumn period of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty. The literature of the Warring States period contains several passages referring to attempts made to formulate various medicines or elixirs which, if ingested, would make one immortal. During the Western Han Dynasty, emperors and commoners alike were caught up in the frenzy of this search for the elusive Elixir of Life. As a result, sorcerers and alchemists flocked to the Han court at Chang’an intent on making their fortunes by performing various esoteric rites or brewing up mysterious potions to prolong life. Unfortunately, since many of these concoctions contained poisonous elements such as cinnabar, which was considered to be the elixir ingredient par excellence, the results were sometimes dire.
This intense interest in alchemy as a means of transformation is typical of the Han Dynasty. However, it is clear that the goal of all these experiments and magic potions was not the attainment of a lifespan of infinite duration, but rather one of unusually long duration (Paper 1982, 38 n.16). Ever practical, the Chinese did not expect to find “eternal life” in any Western religious sense, but instead directed their energies towards a more realistic aim, that of achieving material or corporeal longevity.
Thirdly, during the Han Dynasty there was a revival of the ancient concept of cumulative power which had inspired the zoomorphic designs cast on bronze ritual vessels of the Bronze Age (colour plate 16).
Plate 16. Shang Dynasty bronze vessel (gong). ROM (933.12.52)
As noted by Wu Hung, in such designs the salient parts of different animals were combined to create a mythic image of great spiritual potency through the accumulation of the power of those various birds and beasts:
These zoomorphs are not formulated icons but assume endless variations: they combine features from different animal species but are never turned into naturalistic representations. These varying images seem to attest to a painstaking effort to create metaphors for an intermediate state between the supernatural and reality—something that one could depict but could not portray. (Wu, 1988, 106 n.18)
When this Bronze Age concept of cumulative power converged with the dominant Han belief in the transience and transformation of all things, it gave birth to a series of extraordinary metamorphoses in images of the guardian unicorn zhi during the Eastern Han Dynasty.
The notion of change and transformation … profoundly shaped the way in which humans and animals were thought to relate to each other in early China. It percolated into the discourse on the human-animal relationship, inspired the view that species boundaries were blurred and that living creatures were subject to various forms of metamorphosis, and influenced the explanation of the supernatural animal anomaly. More importantly, the changing correlations between man and beast and the image of physical transformation in the animal world provided models for human sagehood and daemonic power. (Sterckx, 2002, 241)
Because the unicorn, like the dragon, is a mythic beast, it is unconstrained by space or time. Never having been seen by a living soul except, perhaps, in dreams, the unicorn is not confined to one particular physical manifestation or another. Thus, at different times and in different places, images of unicorns have been altered to accord with prevailing ideas and beliefs. The mythic unicorn is, in essence, a shape-shifter—a fact that has long obscured its origin in China. It is this elusive quality, which was born out of the intellectual synthesis of the Han period, which has caused such enormous confusion about the true identity of the Chinese unicorn and led to endless misunderstandings and misidentifications. Yet in spite of all its amazing zoomorphic transmutations, the unicorn zhi’s essential role as a symbol of impartial justice, fate and good fortune, and protection against evil, was never forgotten.