The qilin is a very auspicious mythical creature said live for a thousand years and to be the noblest of all animals and therefore to represent goodness. It is said to have the head of a dragon, the antlers of a stag, the body of a horse and the hooves of an ox. The appearance of a qilin was said to have been the sign of a virtuous ruler. The depiction of a qilin with a book refers to the legend of the birth of Confucius, according to which a qilin arrived bearing books announcing that he was a descendant of the water spirit, and a king without crown in the declining Zhou dynasty.
A jade carving of a qilin bearing books in the Palace Museum Collection, Beijing, is illustrated in Jadeware (III), The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Hong Kong, 1995, p. 114, pl. 94. Compare the carving of the horse with a white jade carving, also in the Palace Museum Collection, Beijing, included in the Art Gallery New South Wales exhibition, Translucent World: Chinese Jade from the Forbidden City, and illustrated in the catalogue, p. 209, pl. 147. Other stylistically very similar jade carvings of qilin include a winged example sold at Christie's Paris, 14 June 2006, lot 150 and a qilin grasping a peony branch sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 27 May 2008, lot 1945. The superior quality of the stone and carving of the present example are worthy of note.
The theme is also represented on a doucai dish in the Palace Museum Collection, Beijing, illustrated in Kangxi, Qianlong, Yongzheng, Hong Kong, 1989, p. 206, no. 35.