Every two-dimensional image of a unicorn is suspect, unless there is some way to prove that the depiction of the single horn was deliberate. Fortunately in China, in addition to the two-dimensional images on stone reliefs found in Eastern Han tombs in the provinces of Shaanxi, Henan and Shandong, three-dimensional images of unicorn zhi have also survived from tombs of this period. Due to their fragility, wooden tomb sculptures of zhi have survived only in the far western province of Gansu, where the climatic conditions are extremely arid.

The most famous of these is the wooden unicorn excavated from a tomb at Wuwei, Gansu province (colour plate 1), which was unearthed close to the entrance of the tomb, thus confirming its role as a door guardian. According to the archaeological report, among thirty-one tombs found at this site, seven contained wooden unicorns. In each instance a single unicorn was found just inside the entrance door of the tomb where it had been placed to guard against evil spirits. Yet there is no evidence to suggest that these tomb sculptures of zhi were paired. Perhaps at this time a single three-dimensional image of a unicorn zhi was believed to embody sufficient power to provide protection from any evil influences which might threaten the soul of the deceased.

Curiously, most three dimensional images of Eastern Han unicorns, whether made of wood, clay or bronze, have appendages which were made separately and then inserted into or attached to the body in some fashion. This method of fabrication may have been inherited from an earlier tradition in south China, for wooden tomb figures from the southern Chu Kingdom during the Warring States period were made in a similar fashion, with arms and legs carved separately and then attached to the bodies. Moreover, it was in this same Chu Kingdom that judges and magistrates wore the three-horned caps called jiezhiguan as their badge of office.

This kind of articulated construction naturally brings to mind the craft of puppetry. There is solid archaeological evidence, in the form of wooden puppets and marionettes excavated from the tombs at Mawandui, Changsha, dated to the mid-second century B.C.E., that puppets were known in China as early as the Western Han Dynasty. However, there are so many Chinese variants of the term for “puppet” (including kuilei), that “it must undoubtedly have been transliterated from a foreign tongue” (Mair 1983, 18-19). In fact, according to Victor Mair, “it is probable that India was the home of the puppet play … and that migrating gypsies were responsible for spreading it over the Eurasian land mass” (ibid., 18 n. 46).

It is intriguing to note that even as late as the twentieth century, wooden marionettes of unicorns were still being made in Myanmar (Burma) using this ancient articulated method of assembly (colour plate 11).

Plate 11. Modern wooden unicorn from Myanmar

This delightful little unicorn, which is approximately 10 centimetres high and has “Made in Burma” clearly stamped on its tummy, was purchased in 1985. It is composed of eleven separate pieces of wood, some fixed and some moveable, with remnants of string pegged into two holes in its neck and back. In addition, the modern artist has painted it with the same basic colours as the Eastern Han zhi from Wuwei, its body covered with white pigment and decorated with floral designs in red and black, with small touches of yellow.

Colour symbolism has always been extremely important to the Chinese, but it varies considerably over time. Thus it is essential to know what period of Chinese history is under discussion when one speaks of the particular symbolism of a colour. According to early Chinese colour theory, each dynasty was assigned a colour in a black-white-crimson cycle. Thus, of the first three historical dynasties, Xia was black, Shang was white, and Zhou was crimson (Bauer, 1976, 78). In Shang and Zhou times, crimson and black were the two colours most highly esteemed because they were the most expensive to use for dyeing silk. Thus the clothes of ancient officials would have been made of white silk decorated mainly with black and crimson, like the elegant clothes still worn today on important ceremonial occasions by high officials in Korea.

These particular colours were also extremely important in ancient times in the West, for they were the colours of the Triple Goddess: the white goddess of birth and growth, the red goddess of love and battle, and the black goddess of death and divination (Graves, [1948] 1972, 70). They are also mentioned in what is apparently the earliest Western description of unicorns by Ctesias, a Greek physician at the Persian court in the late fifth century B.C.E.: “Their bodies are white, and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn on the forehead which is about a foot and a half in length…. The base of the horn is pure white, the upper part is sharp and of vivid crimson; and the remainder, or middle portion, is black” (Ctesias, as quoted in Megged, 1992, 6). In this passage, the use of the expression “vivid crimson” would seem to indicate a Chinese source, since dansha (cinnabar), a naturally occurring form of mercuric sulfide, produces a unique and unmistakably brilliant red colour.

Treasured lacquer vessels and other painted objects which have survived in tombs of the Western Zhou Dynasty also confirm the use of this particular colour scheme, for they are decorated with black and crimson patterns inlaid with sparkling white shells (colour plate 12).

Plate 12. Drawing of a lacquer vessel inlaid with shells, Western Zhou Dynasty

At present I am unaware of any chemical analysis of these ancient colours. However, it is likely that the white pigment was made of ground seashells or calcified limestone (calcium oxide = lime), the crimson of cinnabar, and the black of carbon. According to Chinese belief, the mythic unicorn zhi served the famous magistrate Gao Yao and dispensed impartial justice in the courts of law. Therefore it is singularly appropriate that its images should have been painted with the official and most costly colours of ancient China.

In China, beginning in the Zhou Dynasty, the universe was thought to be composed of five phases: water, fire, wood, metal and earth. During this same time, various older ideas coalesced into the theory of yinyang. But it was not until the Warring States period that these theories were combined to produce a comprehensive theory of relationships (colour plate 13).

Plate 13. Five Phases/Yinyang diagram

This Five Phases/ Yinyang Theory reached a climax during the Han Dynasty, when people came to believe that it governed every aspect of Chinese society. Due to the strength of the belief in colour symbolism in China, one is tempted to try to associate the colours black and crimson with the ancient concepts of yin and yang. But this symbolism cannot be confirmed prior to the Han Dynasty.

As a result of this Han theory, the colour black became symbolic of yin equalling female, water, the moon, the north, winter, retirement and quietude, etc., while the colour crimson symbolized yang as male, fire, the sun, the south, summer, activity and happiness, etc. However, it is of fundamental importance for anyone raised in the West to remember that there were no moral judgements inherent in these relationships. One was not superior to the other. They simply formed two halves of a single whole and maintained balance and harmony in the cosmos.

The colour white has always been a symbol of incorruptibility, purity, immortality and mourning in China, because it is the colour of human bones. In ancient China, as elsewhere in ancient Asia, corpses were placed outside villages to be consumed by wild animals. Later, when the bones had been picked clean, they were collected and buried. This custom is still practised today in northeast China. “If the bones are not picked absolutely clean by the time the relatives return to collect them this indicates that the dead person committed some crime or sin and this causes the relatives great anxiety and grief” (Hsü, 1996, 615). Thus, clean white bones symbolize purity of heart, and the hope for rebirth. This ancient Asian burial custom of exposing the corpse may have given rise to the expression “bones of the truth,” as well as the tradition of using the colour white for the body of the mythic unicorn of justice.

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