Xiwangmu and Millenarianism

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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.

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One response to “Xiwangmu and Millenarianism

  • Felix Tsung-Hsien Lim

    Wang wu or the royal western queen mother is in fact one of the earliest female mother divinites worshipped from the Han chinese settlement from the Sechaun east o west migration into the Asian steeps and Central china plains which was transplanted from their Sumerian Akkidan migration .She was the original mother earth God of fertility , of the sun, mountain, rivers and seas which symbolised the want for a balanced river ecology as in fact most early chinese gods were river sky gods tramsplanted from the India- Greeco Egyptian and hittie Sumerian ugaric influences of sun worship and the celestial heavenly astronomy which predated monotheism in Arabia and the middle east and the Hebrew cannollogy.
    Wang mu became associated with nature worship of flowers, fruits n d trees and flowering plants as well as alchemy and longevity of peach orchard and spring banquets . This is why she is known as te Chinese Anthenea .

    The story of the eight immortals for example in conquering the dragon king who caused a storm was subdued before reaching to Wang wu’s peach orchard feast symbolised the importance of peace and WATER river safety to celestisity .
    This was the fundamental reason why the early Singaporean seafares built their earliest pure Daoist temple or yueh hai Ching for river worship and sea passage safety with the eight immortals and the ursa major Shang di . IT is still located today at Philip street and a self-pace walkable temple for tourist sight-seeing . The bible conveys the god of the isrealites to be venerated in the river as palms 65 writes that the Lord god Jehovah or JAH makes his ways known in the waters, river and the sea and is the god of the river and river god himself .
    Wang mu also still holds the highest position as the royal supreme divine mothr in the Taoist pantheon besides many female mother god forms or maiden angels or devas . She has several heavenly maidens . The famous ones are the immortal nineth maiden or jiu tain xuan nu or mystique queen, Ma gu , the goddess of Spring assocaied with mulberry bushes and silk worms and alchemy for making zinnibar pills used in apothecary and the weaving maiden as the fairly icon for Chinese valentines day.

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