Unicorn Coins

Horned Creature of Good Fortune

Between the years 1994 and 1997, the China Mint produced a series of unicorn coins featuring depcitions of Chinese unicorns, or Qilin, on the obverse face and images of European unicorns on the reverse face of each coin. The Eastern unicorn and the Western unicorn do share some common features and it is easy to see why the two have become conflated between Eastern and Western mythology. Both creatures are mystical and associated with nobility, each possessing distinctive horns on their heads.

This is where the surface similarities of the two beings end. The Qilin (pronounced “ki-lin”) is a fearsome-looking beast with the head and maw of a dragon, the torso and antlers a of a deer, the tail of a bull and the scales of a fish or snake. The Qilin is thought to be one of the four great beasts or one of the Four Guardians of Heaven. It is also thought to be a harbinger of great events or great leaders in history. In one such example, the Qilin is said to have appeared at the birth of Confucius. The Qilin has maintained this connection with royalty and important events through the centuries in China. The Qilin is also seen as a sign of fertility and thought to be especially helpful to couples trying to conceive. Those who have statues of the Qilin in their household view the creature as a bringer of luck, protection and fortune. Though its appearance is fierce, the Qilin is a fair judge of good and evil said to be a gentle and noble animal.

Conversely the Western unicorn is a symbol of purity and virginity. The Qilin was thought to reside in the heavens only appearing at important events and periods in history. The Western unicorn, however, was considered to be a live animal and was often hunted for the magical properties of it's horn. The horn was said to cure all illnesses and counteract the effects of poisons. Often medieval lords with paranoid or hypochondriac tendencies would pay incredible amounts of money to purchase the “unicorn horn,” quite likely the horn of a narwhal.

The first unicorn coin series, released in 1994, included both gold and silver coins. The images are the same on all coins except the one kilogram gold coin. The reverse face of the coin shows a Western unicorn perched on a bed of flowers, and the obverse face shows a small boy, donning the garb of nobility, atop the Qilin. The Qilin is often portrayed with a child rider as the Qilin is thought to bear children to infertile couples. The group contains a bimetallic coin created of 1/4 oz gold core with a 1/8 oz silver rim. The bimetallic coin stands out in the series as it features an image of the Summer Palace on the obverse face, as opposed to the Qilin with the child rider.

The unicorn coins released in 1995 include gold, silver and a bimetallic coin, like the set created in 1994. In addition, there is a 1/2 oz platinum coin minted in Australia. The bimetallic coin of this series shows the Summer Palace on the obverse face of the coin while the rest of the coins show a Qilin on the obverse face. The reverse face of all of the coins in the 1995 set show a Western unicorn and its foal.

In the 1996 set of coins, there are three different designs of coin. The first design shows a single unicorn on the reverse face, the second shows a Western unicorn head on the reverse face, and the third shows a young woman and a Western unicorn. The young woman is likely a virgin, as virgins were said to attract the attention of lonely unicorns. The unicorns were said to appear to female virgins and place their heads in the lap of the young woman. Unicorn “hunters” often used young women as “bait” for unicorns because of this legend. This grouping contains gold, silver, and platinum coins.

The unicorn coins released in 1997 are far fewer in number and include two silver coins, one gold coin, and one platinum coin. On the obverse face of each of these coins is a pair of Qilin unicorns, quite likely a mother and its foal. The depiction of the mother and her foal is another nod to the Qilin’s traditional association with increased fertility. The reverse face shows the traditional European unicorn galloping across the coin.