Friday, October 30, 2009

The Golden Qilin (Fujian)

Way up in the heavens, right at the southern gate of the Heavenly Palace, is the Golden Qilin. At times, he opens the gate a crack and slyly takes a look on us down here. When the people are bustling, when the mountains and rivers are particularly serene and beautiful, then he prepares to come down amongst us . . .

They say at the foot of the Wuyi Mountains in Fujian Province, there once lived an old couple--a spry old man of eighty years and his equally peppy wife of seventy. Now this farm couple had never had the joy of little ones tugging at their pant legs and bobbing about at their knees. In their twilight years, they raised fish and birds, watching the fish dart back and forth and enjoying the chirping and peeping of the birds. This is what had to bring them pleasure.

One day, now, out in the field, the wife felt something crawling about in her ear. She scratched and tugged at her ear, and that seemed to take care of the problem for the time being, but not really. The feeling of something inside her ear was still there. Later at night, the sensation became more intense until she couldn't stand it anymore. She got a darning needle and probed her ear with it--not a good idea but the itching and scratching was driving her crazy.

Out of her ear and onto the table hopped a tiny little bug. She looked closely at it; it looked just like a very small silkworm! She picked it up, tossed it into a dustpan, and forgot all about it.

Three days later, she discovered this insect was now outgrowing the dustpan.

Huh, she thought. How about that . . .

So she put the thing into a bamboo cage, like the ones used for chickens. Three days later, it could no longer be contained by the cage. So the very curious woman carried the now much larger insect to the garden. And then, three days after this, the insect had now turned into a man-sized creature, with the body of a full-grown man and the head of a qilin!

Needless to say, both the husband and wife were utterly astounded to find this being in their garden. However, he--the qilin--turned out to be very sweet, kind and devoted to the pair, so they could not bare to send him off. Instead, they decided to let him live with them.

The husband and wife gave him a name--the Golden Qilin.

The Golden Qilin didn't consent to remain as a guest, though. No. He was very strong and offered to put himself to work to earn his keep. He then plowed the field all by himself, without needing an ox. He then, without so much as a bowl of rice in his stomach, turned over all the soil. When he took a "break," he went out into the forest and chopped and gathered firewood. He then hoisted the entire load of wood onto his shoulders and carried it on home!

The old husband and wife loved the Golden Qilin and doted on him, giving him good food to eat and clothes to wear. In turn, he was totally devoted and respectful to them.

"That Golden Qilin!" the neighbors would say. "He is such a good boy!"

Sadly, the happy home life the old couple and the Golden Qilin shared was not to last. Not long afterwards, the old man passed away; before long, his wife did so likewise.

The Golden Qilin was now all on his own. The only people he had ever known and loved were gone.

With no one else left at the farm, he tearfully packed up, left his home, and headed away from the Wuyi Mountains to travel to distant parts.

At this time, the whole empire was in turmoil; invaders had penetrated deep into China and threatened the imperial throne itself. Posters sprang up all over the capital. They read: "The Emperor needs a stalwart and brave warrior and champion to repel the invaders! Whoever can defeat them and rescue the empire shall marry the Emperor's third daughter. He shall become the Emperor's own son-in-law!"

Now it so happened that the Golden Qilin found himself in the imperial capital. All around were gangs of men, standing around, talking about the posters, no doubt dreaming about being victorious in battle and winning the Princess, yet not one stepped forward to volunteer. They were afraid. What if I get killed in battle? they thought. What if I survive but fail to turn back the invaders? Might I not just be serving my own head upon a platter to the emperor?

Hmm . . . , thought the Golden Qilin, to defeat the invaders is to win the hand of the princess. Why not? It is worth the try.

So he immediately headed for the palace, where he presented himself before the emperor. Impressed by his appearance and brute strength, the emperor appointed the Golden Qilin as "Great Barbarian-Punishing Commander-in-Chief." As such, the Golden Qilin was given command of a great force of men and horses.

The Golden Qilin lost no time. For a whole day and night, he double marched his army down to the banks of the river where the enemy force was camped. He then engaged them in battle. The invaders were so surprised and dispirited by the very appearance and fighting skills of the Golden Qilin that they threw down their weapons and armor and fled the field!

The invaders were defeated in this one battle but were not quite ready to return to their own land yet. Their crafty leader hand picked an elite group to attack the Golden Qilin's camp.

That night, under the cover of darkness, the enemy commander led his men himself towards the camp.

"Commander! Commander!" a messenger said, appearing before the Golden Qilin's tent. "An enemy host is swiftly approaching the camp from the south!"

"Alert the men," said the Golden Qilin.

He then had all the men leave a gap in the southern part of the camp. The men next all hid along the inner perimeter of the camp, forming a giant horseshoe formation.

The enemy force reached the southern edge of the camp. The invaders found no one to defend the gate and entered unopposed.

They all looked around. The camp seem deserted. Had it been abandoned?

Then, the Golden Qilin let out a cry and had his men open up their attack. From all directions, including the far southern edge now, the emperor's men fell upon the invaders with their swords.
The Golden Qilin rode up and personally cut down the enemy commander. As for the rest of the enemy soldiers, they all fell and died were they had stood.

The Golden Qilin, the Great Barbarian-Punishing Commander-in-Chief, had won his second great victory in as many days!

The very next day, the Golden Qilin and his men met the remnants of the invading force in one final battle and scattered them, sending the panicked survivors back to where they had come from. The invasion over, the Golden Qilin led his men triumphantly back to the capital.

The emperor received the Golden Qilin at court and heard first-hand the news of the two great victories. The southern boundary was now secure; the enemy had left; the empire was safe! The emperor looked at the Golden Qilin, this strange, not-quite-animal but certainly not-quite-human . . . thing. He thought about the promise he had made to the Golden Qilin, the promise to let the Golden Qilin marry the the third princess upon a victory. He knew it was a promise he could not keep.

"Golden Qilin," said the emperor, "it is my honor to award you three thousand ounces of silver."

"Am I to wed the Third Imperial Princess, Your Imperial Highness?" asked the Golden Qilin.

"That is another matter. You may marry if you wish. "

"I appreciate the monetary award, Highness, but I am not interested in the money. I wish to marry the princess. You had made me a promise. Does an emperor not need to keep his promise?"

There was silence. Then the emperor thought of something.

"Golden Qilin," said the emperor, "truth be told, my daughter is repulsed by the sight of you. Then, last night, something happened. The Tai Bai Jin Xing contacted me in my sleep through a dream. He said you could enter a golden vessel and stay there for a period of time. In 7,749 days you should then be able to assume a human shape. On that occasion, you and my daughter could be wed. Could anything be more wonderful than that?"

The Golden Qilin was a simple being, plain spoken and without any pretensions. He heard what the emperor said, nodded his head and agreed that the princess's engagement to the Tai Bai Jin Xing, the god of Venus, was for the best. In his heart, he loved the princess, for, after all, he had prepared to marry her and so he wanted what was best for her. He actually sympathized with her, understanding that she might not want to marry so hideous a creature as he himself.

So, yes, he said, he would enter this golden vessel, this distiller, and there wait for the 7, 749 if that would make his appearance more acceptable to the third princess.

The emperor snapped his fingers and had his men lug in a large golden distiller, the vessel, and told the Golden Qilin to enter it, which he did. The mouth of the vessel was then sealed. The emperor next ordered a palace eunuch to watch over the vessel night and day and to forbid anyone from entering it or for the Golden Qilin from leaving it.

And so there he sat, waiting for the 7,749 days to pass so that he could be married to his beloved.

Soon the third princess heard about what her father had done. She was incensed, for she had rightly guessed that the emperor wanted the Golden Qilin out of sight and out of mind. Moreover, her father wouldn't mind if the Golden Qilin suffocated or starved in the process.

The princess snuck into the chamber that kept the golden vessel. Sure enough, sitting before it, arms crossed and wide awake, was the eunuch, guarding the vessel with his very life. The princess realized there was nothing she could do at the moment, so she retreated back to her quarters.

What could she do?

Meanwhile, time passed quickly. In fact, a month and a half had now passed. If he is not out soon, thought the princess, he shall be suffocated.

Truth be told, the Golden Qilin was not close to death because of suffocation. He was in a miserable state, though, weak from a lack of water. Not a drop of water had been given to him since his being sealed up in the golden vessel. If the emperor wanted to kill him, it would be very easy to do so now.

The third princess rounded up all her ladies-in-waiting. Together they tiptoed to the chamber in the wee hours of the morning. They hid and observed the eunuch guarding the vessel.

He was nodding off, at this, the hardest time of all to stay awake! I'll just close . . . my eyes . . . for a few . . . seconds, he thought. What . . . harm . . . could . . . that . . . do . . . ?

He was asleep! Quickly, the princess and her attendants pounced upon the golden vessel, dug their nails into the seal and finally pried it right off the vessel.

They looked in. What did they see? A very thirsty and very hungry but also very handsome young man!

The princess herself helped the Golden Qilin out of the vessel. They embraced and knew they had been meant for each other.

The next morning the third princess appeared at court before her father, the emperor. There, holding his hand, she presented the Golden Qilin, now a fine-looking youth.

"Father, . . . may . . . I . . . present . . . the . . . Golden . . . Qilin?"


Call it pride, call it shock, call it embarrassment or call it saving face. The emperor could have taken both their heads but instead banished them. The third princess and the Golden Qilin were to be sent "to the mountains," the imperial edict read, "never to reappear upon the plains."

And so the young couple left the imperial capital and headed for the Wuyi Mountains of what is today Fujian Province. There, the Golden Qilin felled some trees and built a hut for the princess and himself. From then on, he was a farmer, hoeing the soil, sowing seeds, planting, harvesting. The third princess spun, knitted and embroidered. They were never without what they needed to live, and they certainly were never without each other ever again. For the rest of their days on earth, they lived happily and continually in love.


from Huang Rongcan, Fujian minjian chuanqi, pp. 95-98. (See 7/22/07 for full citation.)

Many details of this story are reminiscent of Indo-European folktales. Namely, characters mindlessly engage in physically impossible tasks--i.e., standing vigil without attempting to sleep or entering an airtight chamber in an attempt to stay for more than 7,000 days. Moreover, the eunuch, once the Golden Qilin is sprung from his vessel prison, disappears from the story. No more is mentioned of him, no "heads-up" is given the emperor about his daughter's liberating the Golden Qilin; instead, the emperor is allowed to discover the details of the Golden Qilin's transformation the day after. In Indo-European folktales and in Chinese folktales that are cognates of them, there are consequences that are met (i.e., banishment) and those that are seemingly ignored (i.e., the eunuch's dereliction of duty). The Golden Qilin's later deification and ascent to the heavens are also left unexplained. My comments are not criticism; rather, I am just noting what the great Indo-European folktale scholar Max Luethi had previously observed in such folktales. The original text does not show any introduction of the Golden Qilin to the third princess. The only time they meet seems to be near the end, during the rescue. The text doesn't seem to justify the hero's deep love for the hitherto unseen princess in the scene where the emperor tells him that he, the Golden Qilin, will have to climb into the golden vessel for many thousands of days to make himself more presentable to the woman he loves. The original text also surprisingly has the princess and Golden Qilin kiss upon his rescue from the golden vessel, a detail I chose to leave out.

The traditional qilin is the Chinese unicorn, a mythical creature symbolic of great joy, longevity, and fecundity. It's appearance ushers in a period of harmonic and benevolent rule. So gentle is it that it will not tread upon living grass. It is said to have the body of a deer, the tale of an ox, the hooves of a horse and "forehead of a wolf" (see "Unicorn" in Outlines of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives by C. A. S. Williams; the complete citation can be found in the post for 7/22/07). It is usually depicted with a scaled body and one horn, though qilins with more than one horn sometimes appear in popular prints as well.

Tai Bai ("the Great White One") and Jin Xing ("the gold star") are one in the same: Venus. His father is Bai Di, the White Emperor, one of the Five Heavenly Emperors of Taoism, who reigns in the Western skies. Tai Bai Jin Xing also makes an appearance in the famous Chinese novel Journey to the West.

For a similar tale type, see "Winter Melon Boy" on 2/12/09; both are very similar to the Japanese folktale "Momotaro."

Motifs: T50.2, "King (emperor) does not want daughter to marry"; T97, "Father opposed to daughter's marriage"; L161, "Lowly hero marries princess."


  1. A great story, well told! Just one point: it would have been nice, as someone not familiar with the term, to have know from the start what a 'qilin' is - as it was, I was imagining the character going around with the head of an insect.

  2. Hi, Cy
    thanks for your comment. You made a good point, and also thanks for showing interest!

    All the best, Fred