Legend says that Confucius' mother saw a qilin when she was pregnant. Not long after that, she gave birth to Confucius. It is the origin of the proverb:
Heaven bestows a qilin son 天降麟兒.
What exactly is the qilin? Does this animal exist?
Several descriptions are found in ancient books:
(1) 禮記 - Qilin, phoenix, tortoise and dragon are the four spiritual creatures 靈獸.
(2) 爾雅釋獸 - qilin: deer body, ox tail, one horn.
This is from the chapter about animals from an encyclopedia compiled during the early Han Dynasty.
(3) 說文解字 - 麒 is a benevolent animal. It has the body of a deer, tail of an ox and one horn. 麟 is a female 麒. Later annotation explains that this animal has weapon but never attacks and therefore it is benevolent. It does not tread on insects and does not trample the grass. Therefore it is an animal of fortune. It appears when the world enjoys peace and prosperity or when a sage is to come.
說文解字 is probably the earliest dictionary compiled in the Han Dynasty.
(4) 明史 - qilin: fore legs measure 9 feet 尺, hind legs 6 feet, neck 16 feet, with two short horns, ox tail and deer body.
This is from the official Ming Dynasty History about foreign countries.
The description before Ming Dynasty was quite different from that in the Ming Dynasty when Zheng He 鄭和 brought two giraffes back from Africa. The emperor was pleased and said that they were the qilin that symbolized the prosperity of his empire.Today bronze or porcelain qilin are used in Feng Shui practices to bring protection to people and to get rid of sha qi.