Shang Dynasty oracle bone pictographs are almost invariably based on the observation of existing phenomena. But the question is, what animal did the zhi pictograph represent? In the past, the most likely candidate seemed to be some ancient species of goat-antelope such as the goral. However, in May of 1992 a joint biological survey was conducted by the Ministry of Forestry and the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, in Ha tinh province, Vietnam (map 2).
Map 2. China and Neighbouring Countries to the South
This survey revealed the existence of a previously unknown mammal called the Vu Quang bovid (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), or in the local Vietnamese language, the Saola (colour plate 2).
Plate 2. A living adolescent Saola
In the Lao and Lao-related languages in the animal’s range on both sides of the Laos-Viet Nam border, saola is the word for a pair of parallel wooden posts that support part of a local apparatus that is similar to a spinning wheel (sao = post(s): la is the apparatus). Indigenous people gave this name to the animal because the tapering posts resemble a pair of saola horns. An approximate translation of the species’ common name, then, is ‘spinning wheel posts.’ (Robichaud 1998, 397)
According to the authors of a 1993 report in Nature magazine, the collected specimens of skulls, horns, hooves and skins indicate that the Saola is “distinct in appearance, morphology and DNA sequence and cannot be ascribed to any known genus” (Vu Van Dung et al. 1993, 443–45) (colour plate 3).
Plate 3. Artist’s rendition of an adult Saola
They also estimated that only a few hundred of these wonderful creatures survive in the wild. Tragically, although the Vietnamese government has added the Saola to its list of endangered species, making it a criminal offence to catch or kill one, the publicity surrounding its discovery may be the cause of its extinction because local hunters, lured by the promise of great financial gain, continue to hunt it down.
Because the Saola lives in such a remote and inhospitable region, in the mountainous jungle which separates Vietnam from Laos, it is familiar only to the local rustic inhabitants. Dr. Cao Van Sung, Deputy Director of the Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources, Hanoi, believes that this is probably the reason why there is no Chinese character for this animal in the Vietnamese written language which existed prior to French colonization. Therefore, it is fruitless to search for an epigraphical connection between the Saola and the zhi. (Sung, personal interview 1995). According to Dr. Sung, there is as yet no scientific evidence to confirm the presence of the Saola north of the Red River. However, in the future this picture may change as taxonomic methods improve both in Vietnam and China, and previous faunal misidentifications are corrected.
The adult Saola is described in the article in Nature as a fairly large animal, about 1.5 metres long from nose to anus, standing about 80–90 centimetres high at the shoulder and weighing approximately 100 kilograms. Its face and body colour range from dark brown to rich reddish brown, which, because of the limited number of characters available in Chinese to describe colours, would be designated by the character huang (yellow/brown,) with distinctive patternings in white. Its cloven concave hooves are described as small and dainty with short blunt toes about 4 centimetres high and 6 centimetres long.
Based on observations of a captured female Saola, the most striking aspect of her behaviour was her tameness in the presence of humans. As a result, the Saola is known locally as “the polite animal” because it is not obstinate or excitable and “always steps slowly and quietly through the forest” (Robichaud 1998, 401). However, the Saola is afraid of dogs. “Standing stiffly and facing the dog, she brought all four hooves together, thereby arching her back. She dropped her head and pointed her muzzle down and back a few degrees toward her forelegs, thereby bringing the tips of her horns forward toward the dog” (ibid, 403). According to local villagers, “a saola pursued by domestic hunting dogs invariably makes a stand in a stream with horns lowered and her rump to a boulder or to the streambank” (ibid, 404).
The most striking feature of the Saola is its highly bridged skull and its two long, almost parallel, straight horns (colour plate 4).
Plate 4. Head of the Saola or Vu Quang bovid
These horns are strong and smooth with cores extending close to the horn tips, and it has been suggested that the smoothness of the horn sheath is the result of animals sharpening their horns by rubbing them against small trees. The horns average 41 centimetres in length and the internal width between the horn bases averages just 3.7 centimetres. This raises the possibility that a Saola, when viewed from the side, and particularly if glimpsed briefly moving through a dense forest or jungle setting, might appear to have only one horn. Moreover, if we compare the artist’s rendition of the Saola (colour plate 3) with the earliest surviving pictorial image of the goat-unicorn zhi in China (fig. 11), it becomes clear that they bear an uncanny resemblance to one another, particularly in the rounded shape of their heads and the length and straightness of their horns. It is the horns above all that provide the most telling evidence for the identification of the Saola with the zhi, for in all early Chinese images of unicorns, the smooth single horn is either long and straight, or long and slightly curved.
Based on the evidence cited above, an hypothesis can be formulated as follows: The Saola was native to north China in Shang times and is the ancient bovid mammal upon which the Shang Dynasty oracle bone character for the zhi is based. It disappeared from north China sometime during the early Western Zhou Dynasty, migrating southward with other tropical fauna as the climate gradually cooled. Eventually it reached Vietnam and survived to the present day in the amazing biological time capsule formed by the dense and previously isolated mountainous jungles of Vietnam and Laos (colour plate 5).
Plate 5. A young Saola in the jungle
The goat-ox Saola, like all other bovid mammals, including cattle, goats and antelopes, has two horns. Similarly, in the Shang Dynasty ob pictographs, the zhi clearly has two long straight horns. So where did the idea of a unicorn come from? It is possible that an aberration could have occurred in nature whereby the two horn buds of the Saola somehow became fused, producing a single smooth straight horn with a thick base. And this idea is particularly tempting in light of the fact that Wang Chong in Lun Heng describes the unicorn as a sage animal born with one horn. It is also true that the base of the horn on the wooden zhi from Wuwei is unnecessarily thick (colour plate 6).
Plate 6. Detail of the head of the Wuwei unicorn in Plate 1
If this sculpture had been carved from a single block of wood, then a thick base for the horn would be logical, to prevent it from breaking off. Here, however, the horn has been carved separately and then attached to the head, so there is no practical reason for this thickness. Roel Sterckx, who has studied in depth the meaning of anomalous and uncanny beasts in early China, concludes that
writings from the Warring States and Han periods firmly linked the perception of anomaly in the animal world with the idea that freak animals and anomalous animal behaviour embodied change in the affairs of human society. In the same way that human sagacity was paralleled to images of metamorphosis in the animal realm, the sage was perceived as the agent who de-anomalized strange animals by relating their physical shape and appearance to receptive categories. As a cosmic agent able to change and accommodate to changing circumstances, a salient feature of the sage-ruler’s disposition toward the non-human world was his perspicacity to unveil the prodigy as a category of normality. (Sterckx 2002, 237)
Thus, both the literary and archaeological evidence seem to suggest that some ancient memory of a one-horned goat-like animal survived, and was passed down in the story of the famous magistrate Gao Yao and his zhi. It is possible that the idea of a unicorn arose as the result of a passing glance at a Saola, or that an aberration occurred in nature. But it is important to remember that both Wang Chong’s description and the Wuwei wooden unicorn zhi date to the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 C.E.), more than a thousand years after the Saola had disappeared from north China. Thus, a more credible source for the origin of the concept of a unicorn may lie in a later misinterpretation of the ancient ob pictograph for the zhi.