Xi Wang Mu

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XI WANG MU , whose name is usually rendered as "queen mother of the west," appeared in the earliest stages of Chinese mythology and was a focus of intense religious devotion during the first few centuries of the present era. It is possible that she is mentioned in the oracle bone inscriptions of about 1500 bce, but she appears with more certainty in the Zhuangzi (fourth century bce) and later writings. Xi Wang Mu is described as one who had "attained the Dao," but nothing is known of her beginning or her end; she was said to dwell in the never-never land of the far west. In some sources she is described as a being of hybrid form. Usually her realm is pictured at the summit of a mountain called Kunlun, but there are also references to a cave residence. She is said to possess certain magical powers and to live in material splendor, surrounded by rare jewels. She may be accompanied by spirits, also of hybrid form, and Kunlun is sometimes described as a being protected by encircling waters, or as beyond human reach.

The queen was also credited with various cosmic powers. She may have controlled certain constellations, and she may have been able to maintain or to disrupt the rhythms that kept the universe in operation. She is also believed to have held the secret of the elixir of immortality, which she made available to suppliants in the form of a potion.

These characteristics feature in several versions of a Chinese myth relating a meeting between partners. According to one version, in order to keep the cosmic rhythms in motion it was necessary for two stars (who were otherwise separated by the Milky Way) to meet annually at a crucial point during the summer. The same theme is seen in accounts of meetings held during the summer between the Queen Mother of the West and various earthly monarchs. Sometimes the queen is described as receiving a king in her own abode; sometimes she travels to earth in all her glory to meet a king or emperor in his realm. The purpose of these ceremonial meetings was to enable the human partner to obtain the drug of immortality. In another version the queen is partnered by a mythical consort known as the King Father of the East.

According to several accounts, a soteriological movement that centered on the invocation of the queen swept through wide areas of northern China in 3 bce. Descriptions of this movement refer to such practices as the exchange of tokens or talismans, the performance of religious services, and singing or dancing, as well as a certain amount of permissive or unrestrained behavior. The purpose of these gatherings was to prepare for the arrival of the queen and to convey or to acquire the promise of deathlessness. But it was not until the middle of the first century ce that the queen began increasingly to be associated with immortality.

Early Chinese notions of an afterlife had envisaged a "paradise of the east" situated in islands such as Penglai. In addition to the attempts made by talismanic means to guide the souls of the deceased to paradise by way of those islands, considerable effort was stimulated by a completely different notion, one that sprang from intellectual rather than religious motives. It was hoped that the provision of symbolic objects of a different sort, notably a particular type of bronze mirror, would set a deceased person within the most favorable cosmic circumstances. By this means a correspondence would be forged between the individual's personal circumstances of life and death and the eternal cyclical movements of heaven and earth. But from perhaps the middle of the second century bce emphasis was being directed to the acquisition of immortality through the agency of the Queen Mother of the West, in one of two ways. Either she might be induced to provide the elixir that would ensure continuity of life on earth, or the soul might journey to the land where the queen presided, a realm populated by mythical beings who took part in a superhuman existence.

The custom of burying talismans to ensure the happiness of the deceased was established in China long before the first century ce, but from this time on the Queen Mother of the West appears repeatedly in funerary iconography. Her attributes, as shown on stone reliefs, frescoes (rarely), and bronze mirrors, include a characteristic headdress or crown and sometimes a throne, composed of part dragon and part tiger, on which she is seated in majesty. She is accompanied by one or more hares who are engaged in compounding the elixir, a three-legged bird (sometimes three separate birds), and a nine-tailed fox, all of whom have special duties and properties. She may be attended by an armed guardian. Sometimes suppliants are shown beside the queen, praying for the drug or drinking a dose in a cup. In a few instances she is portrayed at the top of a pillar that is virtually inaccessible to man; rarely, her partner is shown beside her, similarly enthroned.

In time the symbolic power of this type of iconography weakened, so that the details that originally possessed talismanic significance were reduced to decorative motifs and reproduced inaccurately. At the same time it is likely that the queen's religious significance and her popularity began to decline as Buddhist influence began to grow in China, beginning perhaps in the third century ce. Traces of Buddhist characteristics can be seen in versions of the myth of the queen that appeared from the third century ce. This shift in emphasis culminates in the well-known account of a banquet given by the queen during which Monkey steals the peaches of immortality from her table. Monkey's subsequent punishment and adventures are all placed within a Buddhist context.

See Also

Afterlife, article on Chinese Concepts; Chinese Religion, article on Mythic Themes.


For further discussion, see chapter 4, "The Queen Mother of the West," of my book Ways to Paradise: The Chinese Quest for Immortality (London, 1979).

Michael Loewe (1987)