‘Xi Wangmu, the shamanic great goddess of China,’ part 1 by Max Dashu

the goddess seated on a wild mountain, holding the ling zhi and a peach, with the three-legged raven

One of the oldest deities of China is Xi Wangmu (Hsi Wang Mu). She lives in the Kunlun mountains in the far west, at the margin of heaven and earth. In a garden hidden by high clouds, her peaches of immortality grow on a colossal Tree, only ripening once every 3000 years. The Tree is a cosmic axis that connects heaven and earth, a ladder traveled by spirits and shamans.

Xi Wang Mu controls the cosmic forces: time and space and the pivotal Great Dipper constellation. With her powers of creation and destruction, she ordains life and death, disease and healing, and determines the life spans of all living beings. The energies of new growth surround her like a cloud. She is attended by hosts of spirits and transcendentals. She presides over the dead and afterlife, and confers divine realization and immortality on spiritual seekers.

The name of the goddess is usually translated as Queen Mother of the West. Mu means “mother,” and Wang,“sovereign.” But Wangmu was not a title for royal women. It means “grandmother,” as in the Book of Changes, Hexagram 35: “One receives these boon blessings from one’s wangmu.” The classical glossary Erya says that wangmuwas used as an honorific for female ancestors. [Goldin, 83] The ancient commentator Guo Pu explained that “one addswang in order to honor them.” Another gloss says it was used to mean “great.” Paul Goldin points out that the Chinese commonly used wang “to denote spirits of any kind,” and numinous power. He makes a convincing case for translating the name of the goddess as “Spirit-Mother of the West.” [Goldin, 83-85]

The oldest reference to Xi Wangmu is an oracle bone inscription from the Shang dynasty, thirty-three centuries ago: “If we make offering to the Eastern Mother and Western Mother there will be approval.” The  inscription pairs her with another female, not the male partner invented for her by medieval writers—and this pairing with a goddess of the East persisted in folk religion. Suzanne Cahill, an authority on Xi Wangmu, places her as one of several ancient “mudivinities” of the directions, “mothers” who are connected to the sun and moon, or to their paths through the heavens. She notes that the widespread tiger images on Shang bronze offerings vessels may have been associated with the western mu deity, an association of tiger and west that goes back to the neolithic. [Cahill, 12-13]

After the oracle bones, no written records of the goddess appear for a thousand years, until the “Inner Chapters” of theZhuang Zi, circa 300 BCE. This early Taoist text casts her as a woman who attained the Tao [Feng, 125]:

Xi Wang Mu attained it and took her seat on Shao Guang mountain.
No one knows her beginning and no one knows her end.

These eternal and infinite qualities remain definitive traits of the goddess throughout Chinese history.

The Shan Hai Jing
Another ancient source for Xi Wangmu is the Shan Hai Jing (“Classic of Mountains and Seas”). Its second chapter says that she lives on Jade Mountain. She resembles a human, but has tigers’ teeth and a leopard’s tail. She wears a head ornament atop her wild hair. [Remi, 100] Some scholars interpret this as a victory crown. [Birrell, 24] Most think it is the sheng headdress shown in the earliest reliefs of the goddess: a horizontal band with circles or flares at either end. [Cahill, 16; Strassberg, 109]

seated goddess wearing the sheng headdress, with knobs at both ends
Xi Wangmu wearing the Sheng Crown

The sheng is usually interpreted as a symbol of the loom. The medieval Di Wang Shih Zhi connects it to “a loom mechanism” the goddess holds. Cahill says that the sheng marks Xi Wangmu as a cosmic weaver who creates and maintains the universe. She also compares its shape to ancient depictions of constellations—circles connected by lines—corresponding to the stellar powers of Xi Wangmu. She “controls immortality and the stars.” Classical sources explain the meanings of sheng as “overcoming” and “height.” [Cahill, 45; 16-18]

This sign was regarded as an auspicious symbol during the Han dynasty, and possibly earlier. People exchanged shengtokens as gifts on stellar holidays, especially the Double Seven festival in which women’s weaving figured prominently. It was celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh month, at the seventh hour, when Xi Wangmu descended among humans. Taoists considered it the most important night of the year, “the perfect night for divine meetings and ascents.” [Cahill, 16, 167-8] It was the year’s midpoint, “when the divine and human worlds touch,” and cosmic energies were in perfect balance. [Despeux / Kohn, 31]

goddess presiding over shamanic dances and other rites
Xi Wangmu seated amidst worshippers, dancing frog, magical raven, nine-tailed fox, and various ritual scenes. Directly beneath her is a possible representaation of the celestial Grindstone.

The Shan Hai Jing goes on to say of the tigress-like Xi Wangmu: “She is controller of the Grindstone and the Five Shards constellations of the heavens.” [Cahill, 16] The Grindstone is where the axial Tree connects to heaven, the “womb point” from which creation is churned out. [Mitchell cite] In other translations of this passage, she presides over “the calamities of heaven and the five punishments.” [Strassberg, 109] For Guo Pu, this line referred to potent constellations. [Remi, 102] The goddess has destructive power—she causes epidemics, for example—but she also averts them and cures diseases. [Asian Mythology]

The passage above also says that the tiger-woman on Jade Mountain “excels at whistling.” Other translators render this line as “is fond of roaring” or “is good at screaming.” The character in question, xiào, does not translate easily. It is associated with “a clear, prolonged sound” that issues from the throats of sages and shamans. (It may have resembled Tuvan throat singing.) Xiào was compared to the cry of a phoenix, a long sigh, and a zither. Its melodic sound conveyed much more than mere words, and had the power to rouse winds and call spirits. Taoist scriptures also refer to the xiào, and in the Songs of Chu it appears “as a shamanistic ritual for calling back the soul of the deceased.” [Yun, online]

The twelfth chapter of the Shan Hai Jing returns to the goddess, seated on She Wu mountain: “Xi Wangmu rests on a stool and wears an ornament on her head. She holds a staff. In the south, there are three birds from which Xi Wangmu takes her nourishment. They are found to the north of the Kunlun mountains.” [Remi, 481] The three azure birds that bring fruits to the goddess belong to her host of shamanic spirits and emissaries that turn up in art and literature.

tigress-woman seated on mountainside as three phoenix-like birds fly toward her

An 18th-century woodcut depicts the goddess in her old shamanic form, with tiger’s teeth and bamboo staff, sitting on a mountaintop with various chimeric animals. From an edition of the Shan Hai Jing.

This description places Xi Wangmu on the mountain She Wu—“Snake Shaman.” Wu is the Chinese name for female shamans. Its written character depicts two dancers around a central pillar—the same cosmic ladder that recurs in the iconography of Xi Wangmu. The Songs of Chu, a primary source on ancient Chinese shamanism, describes Kunlun mountain as a column connecting heaven and earth, endlessly deep and high. [Cahill, 47] It is the road of shamanic journeys between the worlds.

Xi Wangmu has shamanic attributes in the Shan Hai Jing. She is depicted as a tigress, an animal connected to shamans in China and over much of Asia. As early as 2400 bce, Indus Valley seals depict tiger-women and women dancing with tigers. In the early Shang dynasty, Yü bronzes of the early Shang dynasty show a tigress clasping children in her paws—possibly a clan ancestress, or a shamanic initiator—and tigers flank the head of a child being born on a colossal fangding. The taotie sign represents a tiger on innumerable Shang and Zhou offering vessels—and on masks. [On the taotie as tiger, Rawson, 244]

Mathieu Remi observes of the tigress form of Xi Wangmu, “There are good reasons for thinking that here we have a description of a shaman in trance.” He points to Chinese scholars who compare her staff to the staff of sorcerers. [Remi, 100, 481] Cahill draws the same conclusion, calling attention to modern parallels: “The stool, headdress, and staff—still part of the shaman’s paraphernalia in Taiwan today—reflect her shamanistic side.” [Cahill, 19]

three birds swoop toward a tiger-woman seated on a mountainside, attended by a three-legged raven, chilin and other animals.

Chapter 16 of the Shan Hai Jing returns to Xi Wangmu in the western wilderness. It describes “the mountain of Wangmu” in the country of the Wo people, who eat phoenix eggs. Whoever drinks the sweet dew of this place will be able to attain every desire. On the great mountain Kunlun is a spirit with a human face and a tiger’s body and tail. (Both are white, the color of the West and the goddess.) Finally, Xiwangmu is again described with tiger teeth and tail, with new details: she “lives in a cave,” on a mountain that “contains a thousand things.” [Remi, 575-78]

The Daren fu of Sima Xiangru concurs that Xi Wangmu lives in a grotto. In his account, the white-haired goddess is served by a three-footed crow and is unimaginably long-lived. [Remi, 481-2, 588] The ancient Huainan Zi contains the first written reference to Xi Wangmu granting the elixir of immortality. She bestows it on the Archer Yi, but his wife Chang E takes it and floats up to the moon where she becomes a toad (and the moon goddess). [Lullo, 270, 285] Xi Wangmu also grants longevity in the Songs of Chu. Seekers ask her for the divine nectar, or drink it, in many artistic depictions.

Kunlun
The marvellous Kunlun mountain lies somewhere far in the west, beyond the desert of Flowing Sands. It was often said to be in the Tian Shan (“heaven mountain”) range of central Asia, and the source of the Yellow River. But Kunlun is a mysterious place outside of time, without pain or death, where all pleasures and arts flourished: joyous music, dancing, poetry, and divine feasts.[Cahill, 19-20, 77]

Kunlun means “high and precarious,” according to the Shizhou Ji, because “its base is narrow and its top wide.” [Despeux / Kohn, 28] It is also called the Highgate or Triple Mountain. The Shan Hai Jing names it Jade Mountain, after a primary symbol of yin essence. In the Zhuang Zi, Xi Wangmu sits atop Shao Guang, which represents the western skies. Elsewhere she sits on Tortoise Mountain, the support of the world pillar, or on Dragon Mountain. In the Tang period, people said that the goddess lived on Hua, the western marchmount of the west in Shaanxi, where an ancient shrine of hers stood. [Cahill, 76, 14-20, 60]

woodcut of the nine-tailed foxThe sacred mountain is inhabited by fantastic beings and shamanistic emissaries. Among them are the three-footed crow, the nine-tailed fox, a dancing frog, and the moon-hare who pounds magical elixirs in a mortar. There are phoenixes and chimeric chi-lin, jade maidens and azure lads, and spirits riding on white stags. A third century scroll describes Xi Wangmu herself as kin to magical animals in her western wilderness: “With tigers and leopards I form a pride; Together with crows and magpies I share the same dwelling place.” [Cahill, 51-3]

Medieval poets and artists show the goddess riding on a phoenix or crane, or on a five colored dragon. Many sources mention three azure birds who bring berries and other foods to Xi Wangmu in her mountain pavilion, or fly before her as she descends to give audience to mortals. The poet Li Bo referred to the three wild blue birds who circle around Jade Mountain as “the essence-guarding birds.” They fulfil the will of the goddess. Several poets described these birds as “wheeling and soaring.” [Cahill, 99; 92; 51-3; 159]

The Jade Maidens (Yü Nü) are companions of the goddess on Kunlun. They are dancers and musicians who playjade maidens gather in a wilderness garden as the goddess flies in on a phoenixchimes, flutes, mouth organ, and jade sounding stones. In medieval murals at Yongle temple, they bear magical ling zhifungi on platters. In the “Jade Girls’ Song,” poet Wei Ying-wu describes their flight: “Flocks of transcendents wing up to the divine Mother.” [Cahill, 99-100]

Jade Maidens appear as long-sleeved dancers in the shamanicSongs of Chu and some Han poems. The Shuo wen jie zi  defines them as “invocators [zhu] …women who can perform services to the shapeless and make the spirits come down by dancing.” [Rawson, 427] Centuries later, a Qing dynasty painting shows a woman dancing before Xi Wang Mu and her court, moving vigorously and whirling her long sleeves. [Schipper, 2000: 36] Chinese art is full of these ecstatic dancing women.

Tang poets describe Xi Wangmu herself performing such dances in her rainbow dress and feathered robe with its winged sleeves. In The Declarations of the Realized Ones she dances while singing about the Great Wellspring; the Lady of the Three Primordials replies in kind. [Cahill, 165-6, 187]

The Jade Maidens act as messengers of the goddess and teachers of Taoist mystics. They impart mystic revelations and present divine foods to those blessed to attend the banquet of the goddess. But the Book of the Yellow Court warns spiritual seekers against “the temptation to make love to the Jade Maidens of Hidden Time.” [Schipper 1993:144]

Sometimes Yü Nü appears as a single divinity, in connection with other goddesses. In Chinese Buddhism, she is the dragon king’s daughter, and presented to the bodhisattva Guan Yin. Or she is born from an appeal to Tian Hou (“Empress of Heaven”), a title posthumously bestowed on the coastal saint Ma Zi (who was syncretized with the goddess of the East). [Stevens, 167]

The immortals journey to Kunlun to be with Xi Wangmu. The character for immortal (xian) reads as “mountain person,” and alternately as “dancing person.” [Schipper: 2000:36] The goddess lives in a “stone apartment” within her sacred mountain grotto—from which spring the underground “grotto heavens” of medieval Taoism. It is the paradise of the dead; a tomb inscription near Chongqing calls it a “stone chamber which prolongs life.” [Wu, 83]

Xi Wang Mu is an eternal being who guides vast cosmic cycles. In her mysterious realm, the passage of time is imperceptible: “A thousand years are just a small crack, like a cricket’s chirp.” A visitor turns his head for a second, and eons have passed. When king Mu returns from his visit to her paradise, the coats of his horses turn white. [Cahill, 47; 84; 114-15; 129] The goddess of the West confers elixirs of immortality, even as she receives the dead and presides over their realm.

Notes

Cahill, Suzanne E. Transcendence and Divine Passion: the Queen Mother of the West in Medieval China. Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 1993

Schipper, Kristofer, The Taoist Body, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993

Little, Stephen, and Shawn Eichman, Taoism and the Arts of China, ed. Stephen Little, Chicago: Art Institute, 2000

Wu Hung, “Mapping Early Taoist Art” in Little, 2000

Schipper, Kristofer, “Taoism: the Story of the Way” in Little, 2000

Goldin, Paul R. “On the Meaning of the Name Xi Wangmu, Spirit-Mother of the West,” in Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 122, No. 1, Jan.-Mar. 2002

Liu, Yang, “Origins of Daoist Iconography,” in Ars Orientalis, Vol 31. Smithsonian and University of Michigan, 2001

Remi Mathieu, Etude sur la mythologies et l’ethnologie de la Chine ancienne: Traduction annotée du Shanhai Jing, Vol. I, Paris: Institut des hautes etudes chinoises, 1983

Strassberg, Richard, A Chinese Bestiary: Strange Creatures from the Guideways Through Mountains and Seas. ••••

Birrell, Anne, The Classic of Mountains and Seas, ••••

Feng, Gia-fu and Jane English, Chuang Tsu: Inner Chapters, New York: Knopf, 1974

Sun Ji, “Wei-Jin shidai de ‘xiao’,” in Yang Hong and Sun Ji, Xunchang de jingzhi-Wenwu yu gudai shenghuo. Liaoning: Jiaoyu Chubanshe, 1996 [Thanks to Yun of the China History Forum for translating key passages.]

Despeux, Catherine, and Kohn, Livia, Women in Daoism. Cambridge MA: Three Pines Press, 2003

Rawson, Jessica, “Tomb of the king of Nanyue,” in The Golden Age of Chinese Archaeology, ed. Xiaoneng Yang, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999

Stevens, Keith, Chinese Gods, London: Collins & Brown, 1997

ter Haarm, B. J. Witchcraft and Scapegoating in Chinese History. Leiden: Brill, 2006

Mann, Susan. Precious Records: Women in China’s Long Eighteenth Century. Stanford University Press, 1997

Stockard, Janice. Daughters of the Canton Delta: Marriage Patterns and Economic Strategies in South China, Stanford University Press, 1992

Copyleft by Max Dashu. May be reproduced with attribution, if excerpts are not changed.

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