Max Dashu’s Suppressed Histories Archives contain an interesting essay on the goddess Xiwangmu, the Queen (or Spirit) Mother of the West. The whole essay is informative, but one part of it has always been particularly intriguing, and that is the popular movement dedicated to her worship that achieved its greatest extent in the year 3 BCE.
This movement had characteristics similar to those of millenarian movements, including the overturning of social conventions and breakdown of normal routines. Strictly speaking, millenarianism refers to a belief in an impending cataclysmic change, as in the Christian conception of the Millennium and the Second Coming/Day of Judgement. The following quotes refer to “transmitting the edict” and “passing the message,” but since they don’t specify what the message was, I don’t know yet whether the message was a millenarian one or not. However, the apparent sense of urgency within the movement leads me to suspect that it may have had undertones of “the end of the world” in some sense: when farmers abandon their fields and start walking hundreds of miles, they don’t usually expect a harvest.
The interesting thing about millenarian movements, of course, is that when they become widespread they themselves cause the social upheaval that they predict. I will examine other millenarian movements in Chinese history, such as the Yellow Turban Rebellion, in future posts. For now, enjoy the following:
The Han Shu and other ancient histories indicate that the common people saw Xi Wangmu as a savior, protector, and healer in a time of severe drought and political disorder. A popular movement devoted to the goddess arose and spread rapidly. It reached its height in 3 BCE, as described as the Monograph on Strange Phenomena: “It happened that people were disturbed and running around, passing a stalk of grain or flax from one to another, and calling it ‘the tally for transmitting the edict.’” [Lullo, 278]
The common people marched westward through various provinces, toward the Han capital. Many were barefoot and wild-haired (like their untamed goddess). People shouted and drummed and carried torches to the rooftops. Some crossed barrier gates and climbed over city walls by night, others rode swift carriages in relays “to pass on the message.” They gathered in village lanes and fields to make offerings. “They sang and danced in worship of the Queen Mother of the West.” [Lullo, 278-9]
People passed around written talismans believed to protect from disease and death. Some played games of chance associated with the immortals. [Cahill, 21-3] There were torches, drums, shouting. Farming and normal routines broke down. This goddess movement alarmed the gentry, and the Confucian historian presented it in a negative light. He warned the danger of rising yin: females and the peasantry stepping outside their place. The people were moving west—opposite the direction of the great rivers—“which is like revolting against the court.” The writer tried to stir alarm with a story about a girl carrying a bow who entered the capital and walked through the inner palaces. […] [Lullo, 279-80]
Source: Dashu provides a list of sources, but probably through an oversight Lullo was not credited. I haven’t found a copy of the essay to verify that it was the same one Dashu was quoting from, but based on the page numbers and the topic it seems to be from the following:
Lullo, Sheri A. “Female Divinities in Han Dynasty Representation.” Gender and Archaeology Series 8. Eds. Katheryn M. Linduff and Yan Sun. Walnut Creek: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. 259-287.
Image Credit: Woodcut from an 18th century edition of the Shan Hai Jing. Via Suppressed Histories Archives.