The year 3 BCE was a time of severe drought, rebellion, and crisis for the Western Han Dynasty, which ultimately collapsed and gave way to what is called the Eastern Han. In that year, a messianic peasant cult worshiping Xi Wang Mu, the Queen Mother of the West, spread throughout the empire.
Xi Wang Mu is an ancient goddess of the western direction, which in Chinese cosmology is associated with tigers, autumn, the color white, the element metal, and death. Xi Wang Mu is especially associated with immortality. She reigns over an otherwordly paradise in the Kun Lun mountains of the far west, where she grows an orchard of the peach trees of immortality. According to Suzanne Cahill’s Transcendence & Divine Passion: The Queen Mother of the West in Medieval China, Mount Kun Lun “was considered a world mountain. It was a Chinese version of a type of religious geography that appears all over the ancient world: the axis mundi, or column joining heaven and earth, where humans and deities could ascend and descend. It was a place where the primal link between this world and heaven was not yet broken, a Garden of Eden where gods and men cold still communicate freely” (20). This unmediated contact between the divine and the human is a crucial feature of millenarianism, which understands divine forces as manifesting and spreading their influence upon the earth in order to bring about a return to the conditions of the Golden Age.
Xi Wang Mu is also associated with shamanism. Cahill writes that the goddess is often portrayed with “special headdress, leopard’s tail, and tiger’s teeth” which “are reminiscent of costumes worn by Chinese shamans” (17). Furthermore, Shang Dynasty (1766-112 BCE) oracle bone divination suggests a connection with the royal house: “If we make offering to the Eastern Mother and Western Mother, there will be approval” (12). Finally, in the Classic of Mountains and Seas, she is portrayed as both a creator in her role as a weaver and a destroyer in her aspect as a tiger (23). The promise of immortality was the primary religious motivation for the rapid proliferation of the Xi Wang Mu cult in 3 BCE, but her ancient associations with shamanism, rulership, and creation-destruction were clearly present as well.
Court historians rarely wrote about peasant religion, except when they could be interpreted as omens of dynastic crisis. The “Monograph on Strange Phenomenona,” a history of omens written much later than the actual events, provides an account of what happened:
The population was running around in a state of alarm, each person carrying a manikin of straw or hemp. People exchanged these emblems with one another […] thousands met in this way on the roadsides, some with disheveled hair or going barefoot. Some of them broke down the barriers of gates by night; some clambered over walls to make their way into houses; some harnessed teams of horses to carriages and rode at full gallop, setting up relay stations so as to convey the tokens. They passed through 26 commanderies and kingdoms until they reached the capital city.”
That summer […] in the village settlements, the lanes, and paths across the fields, they held services and set up gaming boards for a lucky throw; and they sang and danced in worship of Xi Wang Mu. They also passed around a written message, saying, “The Mother tells the people that those who wear this talisman will not die; let those who do not believe her words look beneath the pivot of their gates, and there will be white hairs there to show that this is true.” (qtd. in Cahill 21-22)
In this description, we see evidence of the movement’s disregard for private property and its disruption of everyday life, its rapid spread through the transmission of tokens, and its core belief: collective immortality for those who wear the talisman, “white hairs” (i.e. old age and death) for those that do not.
One particularly interesting aspect of this movement was its collectivization of religious specialization. Cahill notes that much of “people moving in a collective trance, with disheveled hair and bare feet, dancing and playing games of chance, all suggest shamanistic behavior” (23). However, whereas a shaman usually fulfills a specialized initiatory role within a community, the movement of 3 BCE collectivized this mode of interaction with the spirit world. The role of “games of chance” and the “gaming boards for a lucky throw” is particularly interesting, given the associated concepts of luck, fortune, and fate.
Cahill also notes that “Han historians also identify the goddess with stars and with yin forces, two concerns of Shang ch’ing Taoism in later times” (23). The stars echo the themes of luck and fate discussed above. Yin, often associated with femininity, is more broadly understood as the shadowy, dark, cool, wet, and passive principle. Nonetheless, Han historians viewed the Xi Wang Mu movement of 3 BCE as a symptom of a “rise in the power of yin,” specifically citing the influence of the Empress Fu at court (21). In other words, they explicitly identified the movement as a part of a larger cosmic shift constituting a threat to patriarchy.
Most strains of anarchism have a collective orientation (some a little too much so, to the detriment of spontaneous revolt), but insurrectionary anarchism understands the individual-to-collective tendency of millenarianism particularly well. In the words of Sasha K, insurrectionary anarchism “begins with the desire of individuals to break out of constrained and controlled circumstances, the desire to reappropriate the capacity to create one’s own life as one sees fit” and then seeks to generalize this revolt. The generalization of either insurrectionary or shamanic practice does not obliterate the importance of the individual insurgent or practitioner, but multiplies it in response to the necessity imposed by hierarchical social conditions. For “individuality can only flourish where equality of access to the conditions of existence is the social reality.”
There is another aspect to the collectivism of millenarian movements as well. The “collective of the faithful,” a voluntary association of religious devotees, does not include everyone, but the massive disruption to the harvest and economy was generalized and did effect everyone. The movement “interfered with planting and harvesting—the peasants’ occupation in the traditional Chinese economic order—for a whole year” (22), the feudal equivalent of a general strike. Furthermore, when Xiwangmu’s worshipers were “questioned about their unlawful assembly, they claimed they were preparing for a royal advent.” Of all the examples I will discuss, the Xiwangmu cult was the least violent, but it was no less revolutionary for that. As Cahill writes, “The Queen Mother’s cult has political implications: just as her approval and gifts can support the rule of an ancient sage-king, her worship by rebellious subjects can threaten the ruling dynasty’s hold on the mandate of heaven.” The mandate of heaven was a concept justifying the rule of the dynasty, but, crucially, was understood as something that would be taken away from corrupt and failing dynasties. Droughts, floods, natural disasters, and social unrest were all seen as signs that the mandate of heaven had been withdrawn. The worshipers of Xi Wang Mu were clearly acting as if the dynasty had already fallen. And their movement was in and of itself an omen of that fall.