Of the Four Sacred Animals of Asian mythology, the Ky Lan, or Asian unicorn, is the most mysterious.
The Kylan is one the Four Sacred Animals of Asian mythology. Sometimes transited as a “unicorn”, this magical creature actually bears little resemblance to the Western notion of a unicorn, which is portrayed as a white horned horse. Surrounded by mysterious legends, the magical Asian unicorn entered Vietnamese art relatively late.
The Kylan blends characteristics from many different animals. It is to have the feet and horn of a deer, the ears of a dog, the forehead of a camel, the eyes of an eagle, the nose of a lion, the mouth of a cordial, the body of a house, and the tail of a bull.
In some cases, the Kylan is depicted as a musk deer with huge horns; devil’s a tiger’s mouth, a catfish’s moustache, fishlike fins on its body, and a bull’s rail and hooves. In this later horn, the Kylan is usually painted in a mix of bright colors: red, yellow, green, white and black. Another version shows the Kylan with its horns turned backwards towards its mane.
Kylans made of bronze, stone; jade and wood have been found in Chinese palaces and tombs. The Kylan is also depicted in silk and paper paintings. In Asia, this creature is believed to be an auspicious animal that bring luck, joy and longevity. It also represents compassion, benevolence righteousness. The Kylan never steps on grass or on insects and never drinks dirty water.
In China, this creature is said to appear to foretell the birth of a great man. Kylans reportedly appeared before the birth of Confucius and under the rules of king Yao and Shun. It is believed those three years before Confucius’ demise, a Kylan appeared again.
The Kylan is also depicted in yet another form, this time having the head of a dragon and a horse’s body. This version relates to a story about King Yu’s control of the waters of the Huangha (the Yellow River). As such, the Kylan is often pictured running on the water with its head held high and carrying a map.
Like the phoenix, which is another of the Four Sacred Animals, the Kylan represents both genders: male and female. The male Ky part has a horn in the middle of its forehead. The female Lin part is hornless. Later, the two creatures became one and were known as kylan. In the set of the four sacred animals, the Kylan is placed third and represents the laser yin to correspond to the tortoise, which is the lesser yang.
According to some researchers, the Kylan appeared in Vietnam in the Latter Le dynasty (1428 – 1789). Particularly from the time of Le Trung Hung (1533 – 1789) when it was used as a decorative motif in pagodas and temples. Under the Nguyen dynasty (1802 -1945), the Kylan became much more popular and was found almost everywhere, from commoners’ houses to royal palaces.
The Asian unicorn played role in court life from the early days of the rule of the Nguyen Lords (1558 – 1775) in Dang Trong, or the southern region. In 1709, Lord Nguyen Phuoc Chu ordered two gold seals to be made with a Kylan on top. What is interesting about these items is that the Kylans on the “Lasting Region of the Lords of Nguyen of Dai Viet “seal and the” Trusted Power of the World” seal took different shapes.
On the first, the Kylan is shown playing with a ball and has no horn. Its left leg rests on the ball while its right leg is stretched out. This creature has hooves like those of horse and no fins. Its spine resembles that of a dragon.
It has a carp’s tail and a happy face. The other seal shows the Kylan sitting solemnly with its horn standing straight up and folding back. Its mustache looks like that of a dragon and its feet resemble a crocodile’s.
During the Nguyen dynasty, the Kylan had a very important role in royal life. Out of the 85 Nguyen dynasty seals fashioned from gold, jade and other precious materials that have survived until today, the Kylan appears on the silver “Privy Counselor” seals from 1886; the “Dien Tho Palace’s seals from 1916; and the ivory “Official of the King Khai Dinh” seals of 1916. The Asia unicorns are shown in various forms but lack horns.
The Kylans used to decorate building were made of different materials, including wood, stone, and ceramics. They took vivid dorms. Carved wooden Kylans often decorated screens and bell stands. This may related to the belief that a Kylan’s roar resembles a ring bell. The footrest beneath the king’s throne also featured Kylans.
In the former Nguyen dynasty capital of Hue pairs of stone Kylans stand in front of Hien Dai Hong Mon (Great Red Gate at the Minh Mang’s Tomb). The creatures face other, as if standing guard.
These Kylans resemble lions and lack horns and fins their feet have claws like a crocodiles’. Song researchers argue that the Kylan is in fact the Buddhist lion that the Buddha domesticated before sending it to serve the Nanjusri Boddhisattve. This image was turned into the Kylan when it entered Viet Nam. If this theory is correct, the Kylan could have entered Viet Nam from both the Noth and the South.
The Kylans depicted on screens and roof tops are quite lively. They resemble dragon – horses and feature colorful bodies fashioned out of ceramics.
Perhaps the most typical Kylans are the huge bronze ones placed outside the Palace of Supreme Peace, the Ancestors Temple and the tombs of Ming Mang and Thieu Tri in Hue. These creatures show a lot of Chinese influence with small horns, fins on the body, paws and a rooster’s tail. These Kylans were meant to oversee the behavior and loyalty of the court mandarins.
Smaller bronze Kylans were placed inside the palaces and temples. These featured hollow backs and were used as incense burners during rituals.
The Kylan is often paired with other members of the Four Sacred Animals, as on the screen in Tu Duc’s Tomb. On top of Palace of Supreme Peace, a Kylan is shown with a dragon. On top of the Longevity Palace a Kylan Shares apace with a phoenix.
In the royal life, the Kylan also appeared in a dance, tiled: “Mother Kylan Gives Birth” dances. This dance is better known as the unicorn dance or the lion dance. This dance remains popular in Hue. Lion dances are familiar events across much of Asia.
The Kylan, or Asian unicorn, is sometimes referred to as a “young lion”. Its image may be found on village gates, pagoda entrances, communal horse is such a familiar image in Hue that Vietnamese and French artists chose it as the symbol of the Hue Cultural festival.
According to fengshui expert Ly Thai Son, the city of Hue is an important cultural site due to its auspicious position, which resembles “three Kylans playing with a ball.”