In Chinese mythology, the Qilin appears only at the impending arrival or passing of a sage or a great ruler. The animal is a good omen thought to predict prosperity and peace.
Here the winged creature is a composite animal, covered with scales and with four cloven hoofs. It can also have a horn and so is sometimes equated with the unicorn.
The Qilin, or Kirin, first appears in written Chinese in texts of the 5th century BCE. A popular decorative motif, the fantastic animal appears in sculpture, painting, and textiles from this time on. During the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), the Qilin was associated with a stylized representation of a giraffe!
In the early 15th century, the Chinese set sail on great exploration adventures around the known world. India and western Africa were visited and trade was established. In 1414, while visiting Somalia, a giraffe was presented to the Chinese Admiral Zheng He (1371-1433) by merchants from Malinda, which is now part of Kenya. When Zheng He returned to China, the giraffe was a complete sensation. The strange animal was thought to be a Qilin and was proudly put on display by the emperor. Records indicate that over the next few years, along with a zebra and an oryx, several more giraffes were imported to China.
This sculpture is featured in the Museum’s special exhibition, Afterlife: Asian Art from the Weldon Collection, on view through January 28, 2018.