Western Press Gets North Korean “Unicorn” Completely Wrong

Qing Dynasty QilinNorth Korea found itself in the news last week for nothing that had to do with politics. Following a press release [full text appears below] from KNCA, the North Korean state news agency, western news reported about a North Korean archeological find that involved, they said, no less than a unicorn.

Western news, not surprisingly, had a field day. However, in latching on to the word ‘unicorn’, the actual story became wildly skewed. The mythological creature that figures into Korean folklore is the Kirin, a chimerical creature with (usually) the mane of a lion, the torso of a deer, the hooves of a horse, and an ox’s tail. It is well-known throughout east asian cultures, longest and strongest in China, where it is pronounced Qilin (麒麟). As for the horns, the qilin has two, not one, and the horns do not stick out, but rather lie flat against the animal’s head. Further described in wisegeek:

A qilin will only appear in an area which is controlled by a just, wise, and benevolent leader, and qilins are closely linked with sages and other wise people. According to the stories, qilins are very gentle, friendly animals, but they can become violent when they need to protect someone. In the course of protecting the righteous, a qilin may breathe fire, gore someone with its horn, or trample someone, making the qilin a useful friend to have at your back in a fight.

It seems perfectly logical that a Korean king would appropriate the Qilin as his own symbol, and get the associated gravitas. Two thousand years later a modern beer company did exactly that…

[Jump to more about the Qilin / Kirin, including more art]

Wisegeek does indeed translate Qilin as a “unicorn” (as do others), but this is misleading, and had anyone in the media spent about ten minutes due diligence searching, they would have come across this sentence at the end of the first paragraph of the wikipedia entry for Qilin:

It is sometimes misleadingly called the “Chinese unicorn” due to conflation with the unicorn by Westerners

In neither art nor legend, nothing about the so-called “Chinese Unicorn” resembles the straight-horned, silver-blooded, elusive white horse of western mythology that post-Victorian fairy stories sweetened, and the television generation relegated to a cartoon fit for the preschool crowd. The Qilin is often depicted with what looks like fire all over its body, and depending upon the age of the art, may appear more deer-like than horse-like. It is similar to the western unicorn only in that it is a mythological beast that appears in the ancient and long-standing legends of the Korean and neighboring cultures. Regardless, and without trumpeting anything else positive about the KNCA, nowhere in their press release was it stated, inferred or insinuated that unicorns existed, now or ever.

This bowl, one of over 80 items in the British Museum featuring a kirin motif, was donated by Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks, a 19th Century British collector, and is part of the Asia Department.
Made of pottery. Width: 15.24 centimetres. Image © Trustees of the British Museum

It would have been easy enough to predict the Western media mock-fest over a North Korean cultural press release involving a unicorn — such jump to judgment is embarrassingly de rigueur for our 24-hr news cycle with its itchy share-this blogging finger. As of three days after the press release, the story has spread like wildfire, and seemingly no one has moved past the too-easy poke fun point to report what actually happened: an archeological find uncovered carvings to support rich and widely-documented folklore. Some words carved in a sacred place sometime during the Koryo Kingdom (918-1392) that celebrated a legend from the third century B.C. The North Koreans did not declare that they had discovered where unicorns lived, or that unicorns were real, and are probably feeling blind-sided following the last four days of being hung out to dry on the global stage.

Every culture has folklore, and some is richly documented. The Ancient Egyptians built elaborate monuments to all kinds of magical creatures, the Sphinx for example, and the present-day Egyptians rightly consider these ruins to be national treasures. No one believes that the press mention or government recognition of the Sphinx means that Egyptians or the Egyptian government is saying that be-winged lions with female human faces are real. No one thinks that the Irish truly believe in leprechauns just because they are trotted out as a national treasure every March.

Tsuruzawa Tangei (D.1769) Kirin beneath pine tree Signed Hogen Tangei hitsu, sealed Moriyoshi Two-panel screen; ink, color, gold and gold leaf on paper 59¼ x 68¾in. (150.5 x 174.6cm.) Exhibited Osaka Municipal Museum of Art, 1996. Auctioned: Christie’s, New York (2005)

Language barriers can cause all kinds of embarrassing problems. And it’s easy to mock political enemies. However, let’s all take a step back and give our fellow humans a benefit of the doubt and consider that perhaps there was a cultural translation error. I see nothing weird or or mock-worthy about an ancient Korean temple/royal site referencing an ancient mythological creature widespread throughout east Asian cultures. So why eviscerate the North Koreans? People are people wherever you go — we all live atop rich folklore. Without it culture is layerless and far less intriguing.

 

MORE ABOUT THE KIRIN / QILIN / CHINESE UNICORN:

  • The Qilin is an ancient Chinese mythical creature long associated with Chinese emperors, said to appear with the imminent arrival or passing of a wise sage or an illustrious ruler, and is said to have marked the arrival of Confucius.
  • Kirin were one of the four divine creatures (사영수,四靈獸) along with the dragon, phoenix and turtle.
  • Qilin/Kirin is said to be able to walk on grass without disturbing it.
  • Kirin were extensively used in Korean royal and Buddhist arts.
  • The Qilin/Kirin is depicted as a peaceful vegetarian; its violence is righteous, flaring only in defense of the worthy.
  • In the Twelve Kingdoms anime series, based on the fantasy novels by Fuyumi Ono, the monarch of each kingdom is chosen by a Kirin, who then becomes his (or her) principal counselor.

MODERN DAY ART DEPICTING THE KIRIN / QILIN / CHINESE UNICORN:

  • A few from deviantART artists (click on image for artist and medium information)

  • And from Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood, artist Tomokazu Matsuyama created this piece: Kirin, in 2006. Matsuyama and his kirin were spotlighted in this article. (Acrylic on Canvas, 60″ x 60″)

 

THE ACTUAL PRESS RELEASE:

Lair of King Tongmyong’s Unicorn Reconfirmed in DPRK

Pyongyang, November 29 (KCNA) — Archaeologists of the History Institute of the DPRK Academy of Social Sciences have recently reconfirmed a lair of the unicorn rode by King Tongmyong, founder of the Koguryo Kingdom (B.C. 277-A.D. 668).

The lair is located 200 meters from the Yongmyong Temple in Moran Hill in Pyongyang City. A rectangular rock carved with words “Unicorn Lair” stands in front of the lair. The carved words are believed to date back to the period of Koryo Kingdom (918-1392). Jo Hui Sung, director of the Institute, told KCNA: “Korea’s history books deal with the unicorn, considered to be ridden by King Tongmyong, and its lair. The Sogyong (Pyongyang) chapter of the old book ‘Koryo History’ (geographical book), said: Ulmil Pavilion is on the top of Mt. Kumsu, with Yongmyong Temple, one of Pyongyang’s eight scenic spots, beneath it. The temple served as a relief palace for King Tongmyong, in which there is the lair of his unicorn. The old book ‘Sinjungdonggukyojisungnam’ (Revised Handbook of Korean Geography) complied in the 16th century wrote that there is a lair west of Pubyok Pavilion in Mt. Kumsu. The discovery of the unicorn lair, associated with legend about King Tongmyong, proves that Pyongyang was a capital city of Ancient Korea as well as Koguryo Kingdom.”

· End of Press Release ·