Beatrice Groves – The Qilin in The Secrets of Dumbledore?

Beatrice Groves, Research Lecturer and tutor at Trinity College, Oxford, and author of  Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, has written a Hogwarts Professor Guest Post: After the excitement of the new trailer for Fantastic Beasts the Secrets of Dumbledore Dr Groves has identified what may be the new Chinese beast in the latest installment. Join me after the jump to find out what a Qilin is, and what that may portend for the film!

The Qilin: A Fantastical Chinese Beast in The Secrets of Dumbledore?

We have long known that Fantastic Beasts 3 would be set, at least partly, in China. In 2018 The Rowling Library set out the evidence which was subsequently confirmed by images of the film-set. This set, which we’ve also caught glimpses of in the trailer, was clearly inspired by the astonishingly beautiful image of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park (a panoramic view taken from Mount Tianzi Shan) which Rowling had used as her Twitter header (7 Jan 2019):We also had strong reason to suspect that China would be a setting at some point in the franchise as Rowling has only done two TV interviews for it, and both have been in China. And both of these interviews have centred on Chinese beasts. In the first interview (in 2016, two years before Crimes of Grindelwald was released) Rowling spoke of how in Fantastic Beasts 2 ‘there is a Chinese beast that is quite important… it is a Chinese mythological creature… There’s an important beast from China.’[1] Three years later, after Crimes of Grindelwald had opened on 16 Nov 2018 (with the strongest opening day of any Wizarding World film in China) Rowling gave another interview on Chinese TV, going into much more detail:

“In the movie [Crimes of Grindelwald] I include a Chinese creature. I’ve been immersed in a bestiary from China – mythical creatures and so on with their various properties. So, I can’t say too much now, but I’m using something from China in the next movie as well. So, at the moment my head is full of Chinese mythical creatures.

The Zouwu, which came out of genuine Chinese mythology… I was looking for something that was visually unlike anything we’d seen before in the world of Beasts and this particular creature leapt out at me from this very old Chinese bestiary that I was reading in translation, and I loved many of its characteristics.

What I didn’t want to do is a Chinese dragon because that’s your emblem and, beautiful though the idea of the Chinese dragon is, I think that… I don’t want to say too much because I know what’s going to happen in the next story, but I think that there are other interesting places that Chinese mythology can lead us. The dragon is perhaps the most obvious place to go and I didn’t want to do that, so we’ve got a feline creature that is both lovable and frightening, as many of Newt’s favourite beasts are, because he’s attracted to these wild and sometimes quite challenging creatures.”[2]

This interview from 2019, therefore, was the first intimation that Fantastic Beasts 3: Secrets of Dumbledore would have (at least one more) Chinese beast in it – ‘I’m using something from China in the next movie as well.’ After a close analysis of the trailer (which dropped on 13 Dec 2021) Fantastic Beasts Movies Dot Com have come up with what this beast is – a Qilin:

Now, on the last slide is where things get really interesting. Peppered around the edges of this street are long green and gold banners with the same designs as the portkey in the Room of Requirement. In the middle of the circle, however, instead of the temple shown on the portkey, is the word ‘qilin’.

This immediately grabbed my attention because the Qilin had been one of the animals I had been wondering about for the unknown Chinese beast in Fantastic Beasts 3. This was because it seemed to me likely that Rowling had used the Qilin when creating her version of the Zouwu.

The Wikipedia entry on the Zouyu (the animal Rowling renders as Zouwu) opens with the explanation that:

Zouyu appears in a number of later works, where it is described as “righteous” animal, which, similarly to a qilin, only appears during the rule of a benevolent and sincere monarch. It is said to be as fierce-looking as a tiger, but gentle and strictly vegetarian, and described in some books (already in Shuowen Jiezi) as a white tiger with black spots.

During the reign of the Yongle Emperor (early 15th century), his relative from Kaifeng sent him a captured zouyu, and another zouyu was sighted in Shandong. The zouyu sightings were mentioned by contemporaneous authors as good omens, along with the Yellow River running clear and the delivery of a qilin (i.e., an African giraffe) by a Bengal delegation that arrived to China aboard Zheng He‘s fleet.

Qilins, strikingly, turn up twice in the fairly short wikipedia description of the Zouyu – so I had a look at what Wikipedia had to say about them too, and they turned out to be fascinating if somewhat difficult to pin down. This is an edited extract with some particularly interesting bits in bold:

The qilin ([tɕʰǐ.lǐn]; Chinese: 麒麟), or kirin in Japanese, is a mythical hooved chimerical creature known in Chinese and other East Asian cultures, said to appear with the imminent arrival or passing of a sage or illustrious ruler.[1] Qilin is a specific type of the lin mythological family of one-horned beasts.

In legend, the qilin became a stylized representation of the giraffe in the Ming dynasty.[5][6]The identification of the qilin with giraffes began after Zheng He‘s voyage to East Africa (landing, among other places, in modern-day Somalia). The Ming Dynasty bought giraffes from the Somali merchants along with zebras, incense, and various other exotic animals.[7]Zheng He’s fleet brought back two giraffes to Nanjing, and they were referred to as “qilins”.[8] The Emperor proclaimed the giraffes magical creatures, whose capture signaled the greatness of his power.

The identification between the qilin and the giraffe is supported by some attributes of the qilin, including its vegetarianism and quiet nature. Its reputed ability to “walk on grass without disturbing it” may be related to the giraffe’s long, thin legs. Also the qilin is described as having antlers like a deer and scales like a dragon or fish; since the giraffe has horn-like “ossicones” on its head and a tessellated coat pattern that looks like scales it is easy to draw an analogy between the two creatures. The identification of qilin with giraffes has had lasting influence: even today, the same word is used for the mythical animal and the giraffe in both Korean and Japanese.[9]

Qilin generally have Chinese dragon-like features. Most notably their heads, eyes with thick eyelashes, manes that always flow upward and beards. The body is fully or partially scaled and often shaped like an ox, deer, or horse. They are always shown with cloven hooves. In modern times, the depictions of qilin have often fused with the Western concept of unicorns.

The Chinese dragon has antlers, so it is most common to see qilin with antlers. Dragons in China are also most commonly depicted as golden, therefore the most common depictions of qilin are also golden, but are not limited to just gold, and can be any color of the rainbow, multicolored, and various colors of fur or hide.

The qilin are depicted throughout a wide range of Chinese art also with parts of their bodies on fire.

According to Taoist mythology, although they can look fearsome, qilin only punish the wicked, thus there are several variations of court trials and judgements based on qilin divinely knowing whether a defendant was good or evil, and guilty or innocent, in ancient lore and stories.

In Buddhist influenced depictions, they will refuse to walk upon grass for fear of harming a single blade, and thus are often depicted walking upon the clouds or the water. As they are divine and peaceful creatures, their diets do not include flesh. They take great care when they walk to never tread on a living creature, and appear only in areas ruled by a wise and benevolent leader, which can include a household. They can become fierce if a pure person is threatened by a malicious one, spouting flames from their mouths and exercising other fearsome powers that vary from story to story.

Legends tell that qilin have appeared in the garden of the legendary Yellow Emperor and in the capital of Emperor Yao. Both events bore testimony to the benevolent nature of the rulers. It has been told in legends that the birth of the great sage Confucius was foretold by the arrival of a qilin.[1]

Qilin (麒麟) is often translated into English as “unicorn” as it can sometimes be depicted as having a single horn,… It is because of the whimsical, supernatural, mythical, mystical, and religious similarities in antiquity to the Western unicorns that the Chinese government minted coins in silver and gold several times depicting both the qilin and the Western Unicorn together.

Kirin is the Japanese form of “qilin”, which has also come to be used in the modern Japanese word for a giraffe. Japanese art tends to depict the kirin as more deer-like than in Chinese art.

In the Post-Qin Chinese hierarchy of mythological animals, the qilin is ranked as the third most powerful creature (after the dragon and phoenix), but in Japan, the kirin occupies the top spot. This is following the style of the ancient Chinese, as qilin was ranked higher than the dragon or phoenix before the Qin dynasty.

When I read this entry back in 2018 what I noticed in particular was that the Qilin shared a moral aspect with the Zouyu (it is likewise a righteous animal whose appearance proved the existence of a just ruler or monarch) and that Rowling appeared to have researched the Qilin, for she had used something taken something from the description of the Qilin – ‘The qilin are depicted throughout a wide range of Chinese art also with parts of their bodies on fire’ – and used it for her Zouwu. I have not found any information about the Zouyu being fiery in this way – and certainly this information is not in the Chinese bestiary which we know that she used (the 4th century BCE Strange creatures from the guideways through mountains and seas). It seems likely therefore that this aspect of Rowling’s Zouwu – its mane shot through with fire –was an idea that was inspired by reading about the Qilin, an animal with moral similarities with the Zouwu.

I was, therefore, already wondering if the Qilin might turn up in Fantastic Beasts 3 – so was delighted by this identification in the trailer. And now that we know they are going to appear in Secrets of Dumbledore the Wikipedia article above makes particularly interesting rereading. It says they are commonly depicted as golden – which fits with both the image we see on the flag, and the images of the strange animals on the portkey. It also fits with the alchemical symbolism John and I have discussed in Fantastic Beasts before.

Given the importance of politics and power in the Fantastic Beasts franchise (we left Grindelwald poised for a power grab at the end of Fantastic Beasts 2) the innate goodness of the Qilin, which can yet be used in nefarious political ways, looks highly interesting. The attribute which looks most likely to have influenced Rowling is that from Taoist mythology: ‘qilin only punish the wicked, thus there are several variations of court trials and judgements based on qilin divinely knowing whether a defendant was good or evil, and guilty or innocent, in ancient lore and stories.’ (This, incidentally, is how trial by combat worked in medieval Europe, the underlying assumption in the use of duels in judicial contexts to discover guilt or innocence was that God would make sure that the guilty party was killed).

The related mythology of the Qilin in which they would only appear ‘in areas ruled by a wise and benevolent leader’ is clearly amenable to manipulation, as the Wikipedia entry claims took place in the Ming dynasty:

In legend, the qilin became a stylized representation of the giraffe in the Ming dynastyThe identification of the qilin with giraffes began after Zheng He‘s voyage to East Africa (landing, among other places, in modern-day Somalia). The Ming Dynasty bought giraffes from the Somali merchants along with zebras, incense, and various other exotic animals.[7]Zheng He’s fleet brought back two giraffes to Nanjing, and they were referred to as “qilins”. The Emperor proclaimed the giraffes magical creatures, whose capture signalled the greatness of his power.

The Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry on the Qilin, however, (suitably for such a difficult-to-pin-down beast) is strikingly different. It adds some new information about the name, accepts the identification with the unicorn rejected in the Wikipedia article, adds a fascinating detail about jade tablets and has an entirely different reading of the giraffe episode:

qilin, Wade-Giles ch’i-lin, in Chinese mythology, the unicorn whose rare appearance often coincides with the imminent birth or death of a sage or illustrious ruler. (The name is a combination of the two characters qi “male,” and lin, “female.”) A qilin has a single horn on its forehead, a yellow belly, a multicoloured back, the body of a deer, and the tail of an ox. Gentle of disposition, it never walks on verdant grass or eats living vegetation.

The first qilin is said to have appeared in the garden of the legendary Huangdi (Yellow Emperor) in 2697 BCE. Some three centuries later a pair of qilin were reported in the capital of Emperor Yao. Both events bore testimony to the benevolent nature of the rulers.

The advent of a great sage was made known when a qilin appeared to the pregnant mother of Confucius (6th century BCE). The qilin thereupon coughed up an inscribed jade tablet that foretold the future greatness of the unborn child. The death of Confucius was foreshadowed when a qilin was injured by a charioteer.

In 1414 a live giraffe was brought to China for the first time and presented as a qilin to the Ming emperor Yongle. The tough old warrior, seeing through the intended flattery, curtly remarked that he certainly was no sage and the animal was certainly no qilin.

Reading between the lines here it is possible that the giraffe story is a version of the story of King Canute and the waves in Britain – a story which has gone down in English idiom as Canute claiming to be so powerful, he could turn back the waves, whereas in reality Canute was defying flatterers by proving that he could do no such thing.

But similarly one wonders if the tale about Yongle emperor is in fact flattering him by claiming he was unsusceptible to flattery – as Shakespeare puts it so brilliantly ‘But when I tell him he hates flatterers,/ He says he does, being then most flattered’. The story of the rejected flattery paints the emperor as wise and good while nonetheless drawing attention to the appearance of this auspicious beast during his reign. Maybe the giraffe episode does not prove, as the Encyclopaedia Britannica claims, that Yongle was immune to flatterers so much as that he was a master of presentation. Note that this is the same emperor who (as we read at the beginning of this blog) had the auspicious Zouyu appearing during his reign, an event likewise read by contemporaries as a good omen. Two examples of auspicious animals appearing during this reign sounds like we might be looking at something the Ming Emperors were quite happy to encourage. And it is interesting that they are both animals linked to Fantastic Beasts.

Whichever is the true explanation of the appearance of the Qilin, it seems obvious that it would have appealed to Rowling. There is so much narrative potential in an animal which confers moral authority and makes true judgements. None of the other animals have been as innately linked to the story as the Qilin, and it seems an excellent choice for bringing together the ‘beasts’ and ‘Dumbledore/Grindelwald backstory’ strands of the film. Just like the Ming Emperor, Grindelwald might be able to use the Qilin for conferring kudos while claiming he is doing no such thing. It is a system of smoke and mirrors that would suit him down to the ground.


[2] February 20th, 2019; CCTV6 CHINA MOVIE OFFICIAL CHANNEL;



  1. Wonderful as always, Prof Groves!

    I was struck by the parenthetic aside in the encyclopedia entry that ‘(The name is a combination of the two characters qi “male,” and lin, “female.”)’ Is this an alchemical note, i.e., the resolution of contraries akin to the hermaphroditic Rebus or the yin-yang sign of the Tao?

    It must indeed be an auspicious and powerful ‘fantastic beast’ if it is named for the very stuff of existence, the appearance of God’s transcendence and immanence in perfect balance. Appropriate for the week of Western Christmas!

  2. Thank you John!

    Yes, I was struck by that too. The wikipedia article phrases it differently – but seems to suggest that the Qilin name incorporates the males and females of its species in a unique way! ‘It is said that the female is called the lin (麟), the male is called the qi (麒) and “qilin” is a designation for the whole species. However, “lin” alone often carries the same generic meaning.’
    Your analysis would make sense of why it is such an important beast – top of both Japan’s mythological hierarchy, and of the Chinese hierarchy (prior to the Qin dynasty).

  3. Wayne Stauffer says

    Interesting to me…I leave it to others more knowledgeable than I to interpret more…a creature simultaneously both male and female appearing after Rowling’s controversial remarks on the transgender phenomenon…

  4. I researched the meaning of the chinese ideograms, and according to the online dictionary, 麒 qi makes reference to a “mythical male unicorn” whereas 麟 lin is a female unicorn.

    As referred in the wikipedia article, kirin was also brought to Japan (where I am currently living) and there is a very famous beer brand that’s called exactly that, “Kirin”. In this link you can find an image of the kirin, as imagined by the beer company:

    It is going to be interesting to see whether the “jugement by qilin” mentioned in the wikipedia is related somehow with the scene where they are in front of what looks like a temple and banners everywhere.

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