The existence of these Eurasian nomads called the Qiang, who were known as the “ goat people” and who practised animals ordeals, may help to account for the fact that later in the West there was “a vigorous and widespread belief in a unicorn inhabiting the table-lands of Tibet—a region included with the “India” of Ctesias—(which) can be traced in existing documents as far back as the time of Genghis Khan, and there is good reason for supposing that it is much older still” (Shepard [1930] 1982, 32). The reality which lay behind this notion was the presence in Tibet of an elusive long horned wild “antelope” called the chiru by the Tibetan nomads, or, by the Mongolians, the orongo (colour plate 7).

Plate 7. The chiru (Pantholops hodgsoni)

Of course, the Tibetans themselves, who have hunted the chiru since time immemorial, know that they are not unicorns. But single horns of the male chiru may have been traded to the West in antiquity, giving rise to the rumour about unicorns in Tibet. In fact, up until the end of the nineteenth century, Western travellers to Tibet were convinced that they could find unicorns there (Shepard [1930] 1982, 210). Even today, some people believe that this Tibetan beast is the animal upon which the myth of the unicorn was based. In order to disprove this theory once and for all, let us examine all the relevant facts of the case. George B. Schaller, who has spent many years studying and trying to protect and preserve the wonderful fauna of the Tibetan Plateau, describes the chiru as follows:

The chiru (Pantholops hodgsoni) is the only genus of large mammal endemic to the Tibetan Plateau…. Recent morphological work has shown that the chiru is most closely allied to the caprids…. For this reason, I call the animal chiru rather than Tibetan antelope. No subspecies of chiru have been designated.…. With their rather chunky bodies and slender legs, chirus are reminiscent of antelopes…. The male’s most conspicuous antelope-like feature is the long, slender, black horns, which rise almost vertically from the head.…. The horns are laterally compressed and have about 15-20 ridges along the front for two-thirds of their length…. (The females) are hornless, unlike other female caprids. (Schaller 1998, 42-43)

Thus, like the Saola, the chiru is a goat-like beast. The horns of the male are long and straight, and when viewed from the side, as is the case with the Saola, the two horns could appear as one. Thus, when viewed from a distance, it might look as if there were “unicorns” grazing among herds of chiru. In the summer, the males are fawn with light grey patches and a white belly. But by late October they have changed to their rut-colours—black face, front of front legs, back of back legs curling up to trace the outline of a white rump patch, and in this winter pelage the males bare a strong resemblance to the Saola.

Therefore, an hypothesis can be formulated as follows: In ancient times the Qiang “goat-people” moved into Tibet from Central Asia carrying with them their custom of “animal ordeals.” There they hunted the chiru both for its meat and for its wonderful fine wool which is now known as “Shahtoosh” (King of Wool). By the Shang Dynasty (if not before) the Qiang had appeared on the Chinese horizon as enemies, and by the Western Zhou Dynasty they had entered the heartland of China as allies. In China they encountered (and perhaps in some way contributed to) the ancient Chinese myth of the unicorn zhi of justice. Because of this knowledge, and due to the fact that the goat-like chiru so strongly resembled the Saola, it later became the animal on which the idea of a Tibetan unicorn was based. But what evidence is there to support such an hypothesis?

There are essentially three factors to be considered, the first of which is geographical.

According to Chris Lavers, of the University of Nottingham, the chiru “is the only large mammal endemic to the Tibetan Plateau, i.e., it occurs nowhere else in the world. Because of the tectonic history of that part of the world, and the climatic history of China…. I suspect that the chiru has never been part of the fauna of China anywhere except on the Plateau.” (Lavers, pers. comm. 2001). Because of this geographical fact, it would have been impossible for the chiru to have been the sacrificial animal upon which the Chinese ob pictograph zhi was based, for it never inhabited the Chinese Central Plain.

The second factor is cultural. According to Dawa Tsering, Coordinator of the World Wildlife Fund Tibet Program, there is not, nor has there ever been, a belief in a unicorn in Tibetan culture. It is true that the Tibetans call the female yak and the female wild yak zhi, but there is no word in the Tibetan language for the creature the Chinese call the zhi. Thus, to her knowledge, there is no relation between the Chinese character zhi and the Tibetan chiru. (Tsering, pers. comm. 2007). It is absolutely clear, therefore, that the idea of a Tibetan unicorn is a purely Western invention.

The third factor is art historical. The vast Tibetan Plateau is contiguous with the present-day Chinese province of Gansu where some of the earliest images of unicorn zhi have been found (plate 1). Yet there are no images of unicorns in Tibet which predate the incorporation of the Qiang tribes into the Chinese empire during the Han Dynasty. Based on these three factors, it can be stated with firm authority that the myth of the unicorn originated in China, and was based on the Saola and not the chiru.

It is possible that rumours about the existence of the chiru, and even some individual horns, reached the West through trade in antiquity and helped to form the basis of the later Western belief in a Tibetan unicorn. It may also be that the Qiang tribes played some kind of a role in this diffusion, since they themselves, having Europoid characteristics, must have originally come from the West. At the moment, however, little is known of their ancient migratory patterns. It is true that some images of unicorns which appear in Western bestiaries bear a strong resemblance to the chiru, and that the distinct ridges on the chiru’s horn may have influenced the mediaeval European belief in the “rings” on the unicorn’s horn. But these Western ideas do not in any way negate the fact that the myth of the unicorn of justice originated in China.

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