This book has been the product of many years of research, and the sequence of the chapters reflects this long period of gestation, as I simply investigated various aspects of the mythic Chinese unicorn as I encountered them. Now it is time to summarize these findings and to propose a general chronological development.

During the Tertiary period, a real unicorn, with a single horn two metres long in the centre of its forehead, roamed the Eurasian continent. Known as the Elasmotherium, it survived in the East Asian Refugia until late Pleistocene times, when it was probably hunted to extinction by early human beings. A few surviving Elasmotherium wandered westward into other parts of Asia and Europe, and may have inspired the totem “unicorn” images on Indus Valley seals. An unconscious memory of the giant unicorn Elasmotherium, perhaps confirmed by the discovery of Dragon’s Bone fossils, survived in the spoken Chinese language which long preceded the written language.

In ancient times, influences flowed mainly from West to East, and during the late Neolithic period of the Xia Dynasty, the Europoid Qiang “goat people,” with their belief in animal judgements, moved into the Central Plain area of north China from the Tibetan Plateau. During the Shang Dynasty Indo-European magi entering China from the west may have introduced the concept of magic. Both may have contributed in some way to the ancient Chinese idea of a magical goat-unicorn of justice. However, the exact time when the myth of the unicorn of justice originated in ancient China is unknown.

In China the concept of a one-horned female goat-like beast which was able to distinguish between the guilty and the innocent in a court of law was embodied in the story of Gao Yao and his unicorn zhi. The zhi pictograph appeared in the oracle bone script of the late Shang Dynasty, proving the actual existence of this sacrificial beast, and the zhi animal is now firmly identified as the Saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis).

The Saola, the rhinoceros and the elephant flourished in China in Shang times, but due to climate change during the Zhou period, they began to migrate southward, eventually reaching Southeast Asia, where they survive today.

In Shang and Zhou times rhinoceros hide was used to make body armour, and rhinoceros horn was used for medicine, for drinking cups, and as an antidote to the zhen bird’s poison. Due to the huge demand for armour during the turbulent Eastern Zhou and Warring States periods, the native rhinoceros population was decimated.

As a result of the evolution of the Chinese language during the Western Zhou Dynasty the two-horned ob pictograph zhi evolved into a bs graph of an animal with a single three-pronged horn. A similar evolution occurred in the lin pictograph, contributing to the later confusion between the two. The zhi character appeared in the bs character fa (justice), thus confirming the existence of the ancient tale of Gao Yao and his unicorn zhi.

During the Bronze Age in China, rumours about the mythic unicorn zhi, and its role as a justice animal, spread westward via the Cinnamon Route to Africa, southern Arabia and Pharonic Egypt.

The earliest surviving two-dimensional image of a goat-unicorn zhi was engraved on a bronze yi of the Warring States period. Its physical appearance closely resembles that of the Saola.

Due to its decimation in Eastern Zhou, the rhinoceros became mythic, and rhino horns, especially the tontianxi, came to be considered magical. Based on the power of their respective horns, images of mythic goat-unicorn zhi were transformed into mythic rhinoceros-unicorns.

Expansion of the Han Empire greatly increased traffic and communication with the West via the land routes of Central Asia and the Maritime Silk Route to India and the Mediterranean area. The tide of influence turned and now began to flow mainly from East to West.

Images of unicorns appeared as door guardians in Han Dynasty tombs, linking the unicorn of justice with death and immortality. Now connected with the divine world of the spirit and the cosmos, the unicorn zhi became a supernatural auspicious animal.

Rhinoceros-unicorn horn acquired additional magical powers, and in the fourth century C.E. Ge Hong wrote his Baopuzi. Rumours of these magical powers began to spread westward.

“Barbarian” tribes conquered northern China and ruled during the Six Dynasties, Sui and Tang Dynasties. Narwhal horn entered China from the northeast arctic seas via Korea at least as early as the Tang Dynasty, and was used like rhino horn for medicine and for carving.

The Chinese adopted the nomadic custom of wearing moleskin belts with belt plaques. Rhinoceros horn became the subject of connoisseurship and a matter of state in the Tang Dynasty, and the designs in the horn were categorized. Information about this Chinese passion reached the Muslim world.

During the Tang Dynasty the continuing belief in the magical powers of the tongtianxi gave birth to the idea of the spirit- rhinoceros-unicorn xiniu gazing at the moon.

The Bulghars established themselves at the confluence of the Volga] and Kama Rivers and received narwhal horn from the arctic seas through trade with the Vikings. The town of Bulghar became a centre of international trade in the tenth century.

During the Liao Dynasty in China narwhal horn acquired the Khitan name guduxi. It was thought to be the horn of a thousand-year-old snake. Gold became more valued and rhinoceros horn was demoted. Rhino horn and narwhal horn became linked together, due to their use as medicine, and as a result, narwhal horn acquired the magical aspects of rhinoceros-unicorn horn.

Knowledge of the magical qualities of the guduxi reached the Muslim world via the Turkic tribes of Central Asia. By the early eleventh century, the Arabs had come to consider rhino horn and khutu-horn identical substances.

During the twelfth century, rumours about the magic of rhinoceros-unicorn-narwhal horn spread to Europe from the Arab world, and images of unicorns with spiral horns began to appear in mediaeval European art.

The Pax Mongolica of the thirteenth century allowed for more direct communication of knowledge about the magical and medicinal properties of rhinoceros-unicorn-narwhal horn to the West. As a result, these beliefs became attached to narwhal horn in Europe, thus elevating it to the status of the unicorn’s horn.


Thousands of years have passed and yet the myth of the unicorn continues to flourish in the hearts and minds of people all over the world. Timeless and elusive, its origin and true nature long remained obscured, and in spite of innumerable quests for this knowledge, the mystic unicorn remained an enigma. Now these mysteries have been solved, for it was in ancient China that the universal myth of the unicorn of justice was born. In our current age of disbelief, it is difficult for us to imagine the awe-inspiring power wielded by ancient mythic beasts such as the unicorn zhi.

Today we simply no longer know what a myth is; for it is no mere aesthetically pleasing mode of representing something to one’s self, but a piece of the most lively actuality that mines every corner of the waking consciousness and shakes the innermost structure of being…. [Myths] were about one all the time. They were glimpsed without being seen. They were believed in with a faith that felt the very thought of proof as a desecration…. In the old days men did not ‘enjoy myth.’ Behind it stood Death.

(Oswald Spengler, as quoted in May, 1991, 217)

Nowadays we tend to casually dismiss such myths, calling them old fairy tales. Yet in ancient times mythic beasts embodied the power of life and death. The female-goat-unicorn zhi — because of its extraordinary ability to identify and butt the guilty with its horn and to spare the innocent— was from the time of its birth in China more than three thousand years ago, the archetypal symbol of justice and mercy. On the one hand, the unicorn zhi was considered to be a wonderful talisman, capable of averting evil and bestowing good fortune. But it was also greatly feared. For evildoers have always feared the terrible power of legal justice.

Impartial, and yet at the same time implacable, Gao Yao’s zhi, with its single adamantine horn, represented the legal power of the governing authority in Bronze Age China. As the pre-eminent symbol of fa or legal justice, the unicorn zhi was to remain forever associated with the judicial system in imperial China. In fact, the longevity of this association is truly astonishing. Thus, in the last years of the Ming Dynasty Li Yu (ca.1615-1671), in his play Yi peng xue (A Handful of Snow), puts these words in the mouth of his character Lu Bing, an investigating magistrate.

In my unicorn robes billowing coloured silk, gold seal hanging from my elbow.
I don’t admire even a giant of letters.
Coldly holding to the rigour of the law, I accept no bribes.
Mercy like spring rain and justice like fall frost all come from my hands.

(Translation by Tina Lu, in Mair 2005a, 517)

In China, up until the beginning of the twentieth century, the presence of a magistrate in a court of law (Williams 1882, 504), or in a theatrical performance, was still identified by the unicorn zhi painted on the doors or walls of his judicial office. In addition, officials connected with the Censorate or the Provincial Courts of Law during the Ming and Qing Dynasties of the fourteenth to twentieth centuries, wore embroidered images of rhinoceros-unicorns on the square buzi on the fronts and backs of their official robes. In the West, the unicorn of justice still appears to this very day in the coats of arms displayed upon the wall above the judge’s bench in our Provincial Courts of Law.

Due to its incorruptible nature, symbolized by its white body, and its uncanny ability to distinguish between good and evil, the goat-unicorn zhi represented the ideal of perfect justice for all. This ideal, so longed for, and yet so elusive, lies at the heart of the universal myth of the unicorn, and accounts for its extraordinary vitality and longevity. As a mythic spirit animal, the zhi inhabits the mystical realm of endless possibility and hope for a better world. Not surprisingly, images of unicorns have been especially treasured by women, and others who suffer under the burden of great injustice. In fact, it would appear that people have an innate understanding of the true meaning and significance of the unicorn, for its images often become more prevalent in times of war or other social upheaval when the need for justice and mercy is greatest. This wonderful mythic beast seems to have a miraculous capability for perpetual resurrection in different places and at different times, and the little unicorn from Myanmar is simply one small example of this universal phenomenon.

The depth and breadth of belief in the unicorn is truly extraordinary. Timeless and ineffable, it effortlessly transforms itself to accord with widely varying cultures and beliefs. It is, in essence, the greatest shape-shifter of all time. And it is precisely because of its supernatural ability to metamorphose into any other shape at will, that the true nature of the unicorn remained hidden for so long and confounded any attempt to capture it. Because truth and justice are endlessly elusive, so too is the mythic unicorn zhi. Yet whatever form it assumes, and whatever name it is called, be it zhi, or karkadann, or einhorn, or licorne, the unicorn always embodies the fundamental meaning of true justice and mercy. The longing for the mythic unicorn is simply a longing for justice in an unjust world. Therefore, if you doubt the existence of the unicorn, then you doubt the existence of perfect justice, and this is too unbearable to contemplate. As Rollo May has said: “Myths are essential to this process of keeping our souls alive and bringing us new meaning in a difficult and often meaningless world” (May, 1991, 20).

Author’s Note

In November 2013 The Mythic Chinese Unicorn by Jeannie Thomas Parker was published in print form. If you wish to purchase a copy please go to

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