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Sanai Tuhui Qilin

All cultures have their own mythological hoofed beasts. The Etruscans had their minotaur, European mythology has its unicorn, in Hebrew mythology there is the re’em and in Egyptian lore there is the cerberus. In China there is the Qílín [pronounced Chhi-lin].

Antique silver and furniture have long been made standing on hoofed feet; it’s a logical and highly practical choice that adds a touch of the exotic to any object.

As with all mythological creatures, they come loaded with allegorical implications; the Chinese are probably the masters of allegorical and auspicious figures. Nothing in Chinese decorative art is what it might seem at first glance and it is this that helps make Chinese art all the richer for it. To a silversmith, any mythological animal is a god-send in as much as artistic license can be allowed to go wild since by definition it cannot be life-like and there is no ultimate point of reference.

The Chinese Qílín is a quite unique mythical animal, having two horns, a coy carp-scaled deer’s body, dragon’s head, hooves and a bear’s bushy tail. It signifies benevolence, longevity, grandeur, felicity, illustrious offspring and wise administration.  The Qílín sometimes replaces the tiger as one of the Four Heraldic Animals [aka The Intelligents]. The Qílín has the ability to fly and is often depicted within clouds.

Tradition has it that “real Qílín” were last seen shortly before the death of Confucius. As a result, the Qílín was instated as the highest symbol of rank by the Kãngxĩ Emperor, replacing the lion on military rank badges. It remained such until the fall of the empire in 1911.

Since Qílín are believed to live for 2000 years, they are used to refer to people over the age of 60 in the context of “very old”. This is usually the intended meaning when Qílín appear in decorative motifs.

Qilin Cigarette Case

Qílín are rarely depicted as the focal point in Chinese Export Silver decorative motifs. This repoussé work Chinese Export Silver cigarette case [left] is therefore quite unusual. But just as hooves are often used as actual feet for Western decorative silver objects [as well as furniture], Qílín hooves are often to be found on Chinese Export Silver objects, in particular on what are known generally as “spill vases”.

CES Cigar lighter

Traditionally a Western object, a spill vase was usually kept on the mantel piece and was filled with rolled paper tapers or very thin wood sticks, called spill. Spill was used to transfer fire from the fireplace to candles, lamps a clay pipe or a cigar. In China, they became a rather gentrified and very Chinese accoutrement for opium smoking, whereas dragon and qilin inspired objects were often used as cigar lighters as we see above right.

Below, we have three examples of Chinese Export Silver spill vases all by Wang Hing, all circa 1880-1900 and all standing proudly on Qílín hooves.

Wang Hing Spill Vases

Here [below] we have a very fine English George II circular sterling salver by Robert Lucas of London, 1730. The salver stands on four imposing eight-lobed, cast, hoof feet in typical  Georgian neo-classical decorative style.

Robert Lucas 1730 tray


Chinese Export Silver that is overtly in the high Chinese style, will rarely incorporate classical Western elements. Most objects will tend to stand upon a plain tapered plinth. When raised feet are used, apart from Western ball feet, splayed bamboo stems and Qílín hooves are basically the de rigueur means of support.

Bamboo and the Qílín share a common thread of possible meaning, namely upstanding, upright and dependable.

Wang Hing Spill vases 2Here we have another four examples of Wang Hing spill vases, this time supported on splayed bamboo. Interestingly, the combination of bamboo and prunus in Chinese decorative art is known as zhú méi shuãngxĭ or the “double happiness of bamboo and plum”, representing a married couple – quite difficult, perhaps, to reconcile that with a possible opium accoutrement!

Wang Hing Spill Vases 3

Pictured below we have a rather fine Chinese Export Silver bonbon basket dish of quatrefoil form by the Shanghai maker Luen Wo. Made circa 1885, this small dish manages to combine so many Chinese decorative motifs that all have their own individual significances as well as combinational implications – bamboo handles, reticulated embossed panels of dragons and prunus blossom all standing on 4 splayed hooved Qílín feet.

 Luen Wo Bonbon Dish

The Qilin, bizarrely, became a confusing figure in China when the famous Ming GiraffeMing admiral Zheng  brought a giraffe to the then Chinese emperor as a gift from a voyage to Bengal where he managed to acquire it, having previously been given as an unwanted gift from an East African ruler. With a degree of “fast talk” he managed to persuade the Yongle Emperor it was actually a real live Qilin!  He was a favourite of the emperor, after all! Ever since, the image of a Qilin and giraffe have remained mixed in historical and cultural records and remained historically and culturally relevant because the giraffe and Qilin became linked by the common word used to name them. However, to this day in the Imperial Garden of the Forbidden City, two large bronze Qilin stand guard to the First Heaven Gate. Strangely, though, these Qilin seem to have acquired clawed feet, as opposed to the ubiquitous hooves. One can only guess this is artistic license at play or an adoption of the Imperial five-clawed dragon rule to the Qilin.

The Qilin is found ‘roaming” in the folklore culture of many South East Asian countries, In Japan it is known as the Kirin, in Korea it is the Girin and in Vietnam it is the Ky Lan. In Cantonese it is known as the Keileon.

Fierce as the Qílín may appear to us today, it is in fact very calm; it’s a vegetarian after all! Although sometimes depicted with flames emanating from its body, they are stylised and meant to emphasise its magical abilities. One of the most sublime symbolic meanings of the Qílín is “halcyon days” – a very happy or successful period in the past. A highly logical choice, then, to have a silver object resting upon such stable and evocative feet.

Modern day Qilin



Adrien von Ferscht is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for China Research


worthpoint_w_coin_header_logo copyThis article was written for WorthPoint and can be seen on this link:


Adrien von Ferscht’s website is the largest online information resource for Chinese Export Silver:

His Catalogue of Chinese Export Silver Makers’ Marks [1785-1940] is the largest collector’s guide for Chinese Export Silver available, with information on 155 makers and 133 pages of in-depth history. It is updated every 6-8 months and is only available as a download file. The single purchase price acquires the Catalogue plus all subsequent editions free of charge. Adrien also encourages people to share images and ask questions. The Catalogue is available at:


Acknowledgments to Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills

Unless otherwise stated, all images are from the archive which is managed
by Christopher Hunter at


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