My personal quest for the origin and significance of the mythic Chinese unicorn began in 1993 at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), when I was researching something else entirely. Having recently catalogued and published the ROM’s great mythic stone lions in Homage to Heaven, Homage to Earth (1992), I became intrigued by the ancient tradition of placing images of pairs of mythic guardian lions at the entrances to important public buildings in China, and decided to try and find its source. But as I went further and further back in time I ran out of images of lions, for lions were only introduced into China during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E. – 220 C.E.) Yet I had still not found the origin of the mythic guardian beast tradition, and I was completely baffled.
Then, that summer, I rented a little cottage on the coast of Maine and took with me the usual assortment of light (i.e., tacky) summer reading. Lying quietly in the sun and reading an old novel about China, the name of which now escapes me, I suddenly sat bolt upright. For in that book was a reference to a one-horned beast, in other words, a unicorn, which dispensed justice in a court of law. Upon my return to the museum, I consulted my old friend and colleague James Hsü and asked him if there was a tradition of a unicorn in ancient China. He said “Of course! It is the zhi!” Thus began this extraordinary journey through time and space to discover the origin and significance of the mythic Chinese unicorn.
James C. H. Hsü was born and educated in Taiwan, and is one of the world’s great experts in Chinese epigraphy. He is currently Professor in the Chinese Literature Department of National Taiwan University, Taipei. However, for almost thirty years, we worked together in the Far Eastern Department of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and I assisted him in polishing the English translation of his book, The Written Word in Ancient China (1996). Thus we are lao pengyou (old friends) and this was an absolutely essential element in our collaboration. Because James was trained as a Confucian scholar, he knew nothing about the unicorn traditions in the West. But he can read ancient Chinese almost as easily as your morning newspaper.
So I asked him if he would be willing to do the translations of the ancient Chinese texts I needed. He agreed, but only on the condition that we go back to the original sources and retranslate everything in order to eliminate any errors. Thus we spent many hours, days, and weeks, over many years, having heated discussions and trying to capture in English the true meaning of the ancient Chinese texts. This was a fascinating experience but also emotionally exhausting, because James is the most stubborn man I know, and often he would shout at me “You know nothing about ancient Chinese!” Then, I would acknowledge this fact, give him a hug, and we would plow on. Thus, all the translations from ancient Chinese texts (except where otherwise noted) have been done by James C. H. Hsü, and although I take full responsibility for the ideas expressed herein, this book would not have been remotely possible without his generous assistance.
The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) is most unusual in that it encompasses both the fields of art and archaeology and the life sciences. However, at the ROM we were only permitted to do research directly related to the collections during working hours, and as a result my work on my Chinese unicorn project was limited to lunch hours, nights and weekends, and thus progressed rather slowly. On the other hand, I was fortunate in having unlimited access to ROM scientists who were experts in their fields. This was crucial for my interdisciplinary approach, and I would like to thank them all for their patience and guidance. Above all I would like to express my thanks to Jordan Paper, Professor Emeritus, Humanities (East Asian & Religious Studies Programs) at York University (Toronto) who, from the very beginning, firmly believed in the value of my unicorn research and gave me wonderful advice and encouragement.
In the mid 1990s, when publishing on the World Wide Web was in its infancy, the ROM was beginning to create its website. So I approached Julia Matthews, then Head of the ROM Library, and asked her if she would be interested in publishing my unicorn research electronically. She graciously agreed, and thanks to the skills of her assistant Irene Wu, who had to manually translate everything into Hypertext Mark-up Language, the first four Lexia (digital chapters) of my research paper “The Mythic Chinese Unicorn Zhi” made their debut on the Web in 1996. My site was immediately rated as “Essential” reading by the Internet Publications Bureau of the School of Pacific and Asian Studies of The Australian National University in Canberra. During subsequent years, whenever time permitted, additional Lexia were added, and in 2003 my unicorn website was chosen for inclusion in SOSIG (The Social Science Information Gateway), which is based in the United Kingdom.
During the years when my unicorn site was alive and well on the Web I received numerous comments and suggestions from scholars, students, and others around the world interested in various aspects of the unicorn myth, and I would like to thank them all for their stimulating questions. These lively electronic conversations were a great delight, and in some cases helped to clarify and refine my own thoughts about the unicorn. Then suddenly, towards the end of 2003, “The Mythic Chinese Unicorn Zhi” was eliminated from the ROM Website. Subsequently I learned that it had been removed because research on the ROM Website was now to be subject to peer review by the Committee for Art & Archaeology Publications. Since, as is normal scholarly practice, I had already submitted each lexia for peer review prior to its appearance on the Web, I was utterly amazed by this decision. Then, in March of 2004, the Committee informed me that it had decided that my unicorn paper was unsuitable for the ROM Website, and that was that. My Dao was blocked.
At this point, since I was not prepared to let my unicorn research disappear into the ether, I took early retirement from the Royal Ontario Museum after forty years of service, left the dust of the world behind, and retreated to my little house on Toronto Island. During the following years I rewrote the story of the mythic Chinese unicorn, incorporating many new ideas and adding several more chapters, and then began to look around for someone willing to publish such an unusual and wide-ranging topic. I had been aware for some time of the importance of the Sino-Platonic Papers series edited by Victor Mair of the University of
Pennsylvania, so I wrote asking if he would consider having a look at my manuscript. He agreed, and in the Spring of 2005 I sent him my first draft. To my utter delight he responded with great enthusiasm, for he had long been curious about the origin and identity of the unicorn in China. He offered many excellent ideas for improvement, and suggested particularly that I investigate the role of the caprids in ancient China and the important Qiang-Tibetan concept of animal judgements. I am grateful beyond words for his guidance, his brilliant editing skills and his diligence in guiding the Chinese unicorn through the long process of publication.
This is the story of the mythic Chinese unicorn, but wherever possible I have tried to suggest connections with other unicorn myths. Making judicious use of all available evidence, historical, epigraphical, archaeological, art historical, and scientific, this book attempts to explain how the myth of the unicorn began in China, and then spread into other parts of Asia and Europe. For information about Western unicorn myths I have relied mainly on three brilliant works in English: Odell Shepard’s The Lore of the Unicorn ( 1982), Richard Ettinghausen’s The Unicorn (1950), and Matti Megged’s The Animal That Never Was (1992). However, in each case, some of their arguments and conclusions are flawed due to their lack of access to the Chinese sources presented here, and by their mistaken assumption that the qilin was the Chinese unicorn.