Confucius and the Unicorn

     As the early, enlightened Yellow Emperors gave way to lesser men, the Ch'i-lin was seen increasingly rarely in the palace gardens, until finally they ceased to appear at all. By the sixth century BC, China was nominally ruled by the Chu dynasty, but had effectively disintegrated into a number of mutually hostile states. The Ch'i-lin was but a distant memory.

     At this time there lived at Tai Shan, in the province of Lu, a pious woman. Her only sorrow was that she and her husband had no son, for which she prayed constantly and fervently to heaven. When after a long while her prayers were still unanswered, she determined to make a pilgrimage to a holy shrine in the mountains. On the way a Ch'i-lin appeared to her, knelt and dropped from its mouth a piece of jade bearing the inscription: 'The son of the mountain crystal, the essence of water, will perpetuate the fallen kingdom of Chu and be a King without a crown.'

     In due course the woman bore a son called Kung Fu Tse, better known to us as Confucius, for whom the title 'King without a crown' could hardly be more apt. Through his teachings, Confucius probably shaped the course of Chi4ese thought and history more than any Emperor, without ever holding high office himself.

     Some seventy years later, while engaged in writing his Spring and Autumn Annals, a philosophical history of his home state, Confucius heard news from a disciple of a strange beast that had been killed nearby A party of noblemen led by Duke Ngai of Lu had surprised the beast by firing the undergrowth while out hunting. Some say the creature ran into a chariot and was killed by accident; others said that the hunters were merely too quick with their spears. Either way the animal lay dead and abandoned at a crossroads. Accompanying his disciple there, Confucius recognized the creature at once and cried: 'It is a Ch'i-lin. The Ch'i-lin, benevolent beast, appears and dies. My Tao is exhausted.' Ending his Annals prematurely with an account of this incident, Confucius is then said to have laid down his pen and never written another word. However, it is possible that he wrote this poem after seeing the Ch'i-lin.

'In the age of Tang and Yu the Unicorn and the Phoenix walked abroad.
Now when it is not their time they come
And what do they seek?
The Unicorn, the Unicorn, my heart is sad.

     Four hundred or so years later a Ch'i-lin again showed itself to an Emperor of China, Wu Ti of the Han dynasty After spotting a pure white Ch'i-lin in the grounds of his palace, Wu Ti added a special gallery to the building in hope of its return. Sadly, it was to prove the last time any true Unicorn gave its blessing to a ruler of China.