The Qinlin Legend: Dancing a Town to the World Stage

Feature_1Zheng He (1371-1433), the great navigator from Ming Dynasty fame, set out on his expeditionary voyage throughout Asia and Africa partly intending to re-establish China’s might and solicit tribute after a dynasty transition. Each one was followed by a stream of ambassadors bearing lavish gifts for the emperor. Among the most welcomed by the Emperor, and the Chinese countrymen, was a giraffe. Assumed to be the mythical qílín, an auspicious animal said to appear only in times of great peace and prosperity, it was assumed that ruì, meaning serenity or prosperity, would follow. The Emperor mistook the giraffe as a real Qilin, and a good omen for his rule. Zheng traveled again to East Africa during his fourth trip purposed with bringing back more “Qilins” to please the Emperor.

The Qilin, also known as the Chinese unicorn despite the fact that it often appears with more than one horn, ranks first in Chinese legends among the four most important mythical animals—the other three are the Phoenix, Dragon and Turtle.

Though the giraffe-Qilin mix up has been clarified, the deification of Qilin in the hearts and minds of the people has led to a folk art form that lasting over five centuries. Even now, when times of depression and disaster emerge, the Qilin dance will be organized.

Whereas differing variations of the dance spread across the country, it was Dongguan’s version that performed at the 2008 Beijing Olympic’s. This dance was created in the eastern town of Zhangmutou by its Hakka inhabitants, has had its name proclaimed as part of a National Intangible Cultural Heritage and is sharing Dongguan’s cultural splendor to the world.

Totem of the Hakka

As the music plays, with cymbals, gong and drums making thrilling sounds, Cai Yucai, 52, and his disciples wearing bright-colored Qilin costumes amuse the audience in Zhangmutou Town with their rendition of the Qilin dance. In Dongguan, Cai is the most well-known inheritor of the art form.

In the dance, usually two people act like a lively Qilin. One is waving the head and the other waves the body and tail. When the music is brisk, the audience sees a waking Qilin leave its cave in the moonlight, striding along its journey taking a rest in plentiful grasses. It dances delightedly while savoring the pasture as it grazes, but suddenly, an undesirable sound breaks the peaceful scene. It must be some evil spirit. The drums play rapidly; the agitated creature stretches about with vigilance twitches. Its eyes swerve around, walking heavily as it roars like thunder to drive away the wicked force.

In celebration several children run up to the mythical beast, rubbing its legs and kissing its face. This mighty guardian of humans with its furious appearance can be as tender and loving as a kitty licking its hair and shaking its body. The audience bursts out a big applause for the lifelike puppetry.


Cai Yucai, in this photo, demonstrates similarities between the Qilin Dance and Chinese kung fu.

Hakka people invite the Qilin for blessings during important events such as holidays, wedding, house-warming and business openings. This tradition still endures its vitality in today’s Zhangmutou. “We organize our own Qilin team with each family name. Like my family name is Cai; our team is joined by all young people with the surname Cai,” Cai said. There are 17 teams in Zhangmutou now and they are accompanied by ample performance opportunities. During holiday seasons, with firecrackers burning, those teams will knock on the door of a local’s family to bring celebration, and they will probably be rewarded with lucky money.

In China, many places that honor the qilin have developed an art form mimicking the creature in dance, each with their own characteristics, and since it is widely worshipped in Hakka families, it’s natural that it would be a feature of Hakka culture. Thousands of years ago, due to war and unrest, those people, mostly originating from Central China, immigrated to other parts of the country, but still preserved their living style, culture and dialect. The Chinese name for the people now scattered around the world, translated literally as “Guest Home,” explicitly expresses the Hakka people’s immigrant status.

Zhangmutou is the only pure Hakka town in Dongguan. Over five centuries ago, they settled down around the Pearl River in Guangdong and sowed the seeds of Hakka culture. The Qilin dance is its feast ritual, and it is always welcomed by locals, especially upon grand occasions such as Chinese New Year or the Lantern Festival. And though the dance mimics a divine animal that only exists in myth, it has taken root in the heart of Zhangmutou’s people, contributing greatly to their spiritual dogma. “Qilin is the totem of the Hakka people. No matter how far away we go, we will not forget our root and sacred god,” Cai said.

Art Fused with Fist

Doing the Qilin Dance should not be considered an easy job. In Zhangmutou, each team has developed its own unique skill and style, but they share one thing in common—the transformation of martial arts. “Doing the Qilin Dance is exactly like kung fu. Even now, the dance is limited to guys because we want to train our men to be strong,” Cai said.

Cai remembers that over forty years ago, when he was a ten-year-old boy, he fell in love with the Qilin Dance. It was prevalent in this town even though hunger and poverty struck the whole country at that time. When Cai was immersed in the dancing, he was praised by his grandfather, who was also a master for Qilin dance as well as the fifth generation inheritor in his own family. The practice of kung fu is the basic foundation of the dance. Before Cai started, he practiced punches and acrobatic skills first and needed to memorize some precise formula so as to do it correctly. He even stood bent in the sun for hours increasing physical strength.

“A Qilin dancer can fend off some normal attackers easily,” Cai said.

The more Cai became involved, the more actions of the dance he found were transformed from the kung fu he had learned. “A Qilin dancer can fend off some normal attackers easily,” Cai said. “But knowing kung fu isn’t what the Qilin Dance is about, because overall the performance is a folk art.” The dancers need to perform in tempo to the rhythm. Moreover, some acting and singing skills are necessary because some scenes can last for over thirty minutes or one hour. The performers need to convey a story. The dance steps, scripts and background music handed down from ancestry are so well-created that it won’t bore the audience. For example, a famous script starring Qilin and Confucius enjoys a great popularity. The story tells that when Confucius was born, a Qilin held a book in its mouth as a gift for the infant, and Qilin ushered Confucius during his study and teachings until he became a great philosopher. Many scripts cater to the common people’s belief in Qilin’s extraordinary powers.

The Qilin Dance has shared many similarities with the Lion Dance, also a popular form of folk art, for instance displaying an animal in all moods (pleasure, anger, sorrow, joy), bringing celebrations for holidays or telling a story between an animal and human. But the Qilin depict a benevolent herbivore animal, so there are some exclusive moves such as climbing the trees, dancing on the grass and strolling in the garden. The Qilin’s claws are not sharpened for hunting, and its body is supposed to be thinner, so it should hop faster and lighter. Unlike the lion, the Qilin is not an actual animal, but a mysterious guardian for human beings, so the scripts of the Qilin Dances are from the imagination with some of them taking place at night—the Qilin is on patrol for mankind.

In order to prove originality and artistry, Cai will show his ability to pull of special techniques, including the “Crow Flaps Its Wings” (Wūyā shàn yì) where he uses his teeth to grip the head of the 3 kilogram Qilin costume and then stretches out with the backside and jumps up and down like a flying bird. Or another popular move, the “Qilin Plucks the Green” (Qílín yǐn qīng), depicting a Qilin jumping up to pluck a vegetable which represents good life and fortune. There are also some other actions such as licking its hooves, leaping into the air and lying prostrate. Those fast movements with a sudden burst of energy display a lively, strong, agile and playful Qilin. The Qilin’s mood changes along with the rhythm of the music. When the music calms down, the audience will enjoy a Qilin that can be as quiet as a pet.

HERE! asked Cai if there was gender of Qilin and he said yes. He showed how to tell the gender by judging the differences in the color of their tale—the male tail is bigger and longer. And when the reporter asked Cai to show the courtship acts, it made Cai ponder, for there was never any. “It is a blank space that maybe I can consider to fill,” Cai answered.


Liu Jinxing paints by hand a mask to be used in upcoming festivities. The many colors of the Qilin head represent myths that claim the mystical creature is made up of four different animals.

In 2011, the State Council announced the third list of the national intangible cultural heritage of China. Three kinds of cultural heritage of Dongguan were included into it, and Qilin dance was one of them. This news thrilled Zhangmutou as well as rest of Dongguan.

Auspicious animal dancing has long been the folk traditions in China. Among so many competitors, what makes the Zhangmutou Qilin dance a strong one to head into the list? Cai concludes, it is because of its combination of uniqueness.

“Compared to the popular lion dance or dragon dance, Qilin dance is rarer in the public, and still very few people have an enough understanding of it.” Cai stated that the rarity means more awareness is needed. Cai also said that the dance is aestheticly pleasing for audiences. Its scripts are consistent with many repertoires, such as leaving the cave, circular movement of the head, searching for the green, strolling in the garden, kicking a good start and so forth. Every action of the performers is well practiced. The performers cooperate to provide the audience with visual and auditory sensations in a celebratory atmosphere. “What’s more, as the Qilin is not an actual animal, so many actions are out of the imagination of the forbearers, which made it more original and compelling.” Previously, a scene can last over one hour, if there was no interesting story inside, it could have drained the audience’s patience and support and maybe it wouldn’t last until today.

Like the other folk art, the Qilin Dance is a form of praying for good. The opening ceremony of the Qilin is of significance. A special term for this act is “Open the Lightness” (Kāiguāng). The eyes of the Qilin will be covered by red cloth. The minute that the red cloth is pulled down, it needs to see green leaves in front, and then this fierce animal will be tamed, but evil will be expelled. A Qilin before kaiguang should not run into a pregnant woman, or else the woman might give birth to a child with four beasts combined in one body. Cai said that those anecdotes about the Qilin Dance contributes to its profundity.

Another important uniqueness of the Qilin Dance, Cai stresses, is the production of the costumes. Now few capable of making Zhangmutou Qilin costumes remain, with only one person in this town, throwing this art on the verge of danger. This person is Liu Jinxing, a 60-year-old man living the Zhangluo District. Liu introduced that the whole process is quite complicated, which includes bamboo cutting, framework binding, pasting, grinding, drying, dyeing and painting. The Qilin is said to be four beasts in one, and this character is visualized in its costumes.

“The most important part of the Qilin costume is its eyes. I am the first person to develop a special technique to make its eyes twinkle. I should have a patent for it,” Liu said. The Qilin costumes made by Liu are very lifelike and exquisite, and he won a second prize in a provincial Qilin making contest in 2012. One Qilin can be sold at least for 2,000 RMB. Liu emphasized that he had used material of the best quality. For example, the spring and accessories for the production were bought in Shenzhen after a long endeavor until he finally found them. Those Qilin teams are the biggest buyer for Qilin costumes.

Now Liu has got an apprentice Ye Yuhang. Ye learns this art with a volunteer attitude. He read in the newspaper about that the current situation of the production of Qilin costumes. He was so taken that he appealed to Liu for apprenticeship. Liu said that he carried on in this dying industry because of his obsession with the beauty of the Qilin. Therefore a young apprentice cannot persist unless he shared the same feeling. Ye said that he would love to learn this art without any payment, and Ye’s resolve won the trust of Liu. Now Ye has to learn it for a half day while working in a nearby factory.


A parade in Zhangmutou is led by a Qilin float, which is followed by an entire procession of Qilin Dancers.

The Qilin Dance has become the brand of Zhangmutou, even Dongguan, as it was granted the title as the “Hometown of Qilin” by the Chinese Folk Literature and Art Society in 2004.

“In Zhangmutou, you can see the enthusiasm in young guys performing the dances. The government sensed the potential of the cultural industry a decade ago. So they set up a strategy of cultural branding,” Cai said. Even though the Qilin Dance has developed into many genres throughout China, the reason why the Zhangmutou version stands out among its counterparts is largely due to the foresight of the local government. Zhangmutou has made some changes for Qilin Dancing so as to adapt to stage choreography, for instance shortening the one-hour dance to five or ten minutes by employing tens of Qilin dancers to perform a quick but impressive show. With the support from the government, Qilin Dance training facilities were set up in 2012. This training base is located in the ancestral hall of the family name Liu, and it was later listed as the first provincial Qilin Dance training base in Guangdong.

Cai, due to his great effort in passing and spreading the influence of the dance, was also recognized as the captain of this art. In 1984, 22-year-old Cai staged his first performance. Since then, he has won numerous prizes in various contests, including first prize respectively in the Guangdong Qilin Dance Contest in 2001 and in China Qilin Dance Contests in 2003. He is the seventh inheritor of this art in his family with his two sons are the eighth. In the old times, the secrets of some key performances were held exclusive, but Cai breaks the rule. Since 1996, Cai has been nurturing Qilin disciples all across town, even providing selfless guidance for any Qilin dance teams from other parts of the country. Now Cai was hired by the Zhangmutou Cultural Center as a tutor. In 2012, Cai was recognized as the only official inheritor of Qilin dance by Guangdong Provincial Government.

Zhangmutou presented the Qilin Dance on the world stage. In Beijing 2008 Olympics Games, the Zhangmutou team, as the only delegate of Dongguan, was granted the opportunity to present its performance in Tiananmen Square in the 2008 Beijing City Olympic Cultural Square Festival. Later on, Zhangmutou’s Qilin dance charmed its way into the 2010 Shanghai World Expo and the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games, showcasing Dongguan’s importance in a national cultural construct.

The Qilin Dance also served as the tie to unite Hakka people across the world. In 2002, the Qilin Team, led by Cai, went to perform in Canada for the World Hakka Qilin Dance in 2002. Those Hakka people on the other side of the world had a good time and got connected by cultural ties.

With the upcoming of Chinese New Year of the horse, Cai and his disciples are creating some new moves to entertain the audience. “Horses are also an animal favored by many people. We will try to make the Qilin interact with horses to bring more fun for the viewers,” Cai said, looking forward to the coming of Lunar New Year.