Queen Mother of the West and Her Peaches of Immortality
Xiwangmu (西王母), whose name means ‘Queen Mother of the West’ is a goddess in the Taoist pantheon, and worshipped in Chinese folk religion. Xiwangmu is considered to be one of the most prominent female deities in early Chinese mythology, and her importance continued in later times as well.
Due to her significance in Chinese folk religion, Xiwangwu appears in many myths and legends. In some of these legends, certain historical figures are said to have had the opportunity to encounter Xiwangmu. In addition, there are many artistic representations of Xiwangwu, and she is often portrayed in paintings and sculptures. Xiwangwu is still worshipped by the Chinese today, and has even been incorporated into popular culture.
Although Xiwangmu is originally a Chinese goddess, she is also worshipped in other East Asian countries. In Japan, for instance, she is called Seiobo, whilst in Korea, she is referred to as Seowangmo. Even in Chinese mythology, Xiwangmu is known by a number of titles. One of the most popular of these is Jinmu Yuanjun (金母元君), which means ‘Primordial Lady Golden Mother’. Colloquially, Xiwangmu is known as Wangmu Niangniang (王母娘娘), which means Aunt Queen Mother.
Seiobo, the Queen Mother of the West, in Japanese art. (Xianshan / Public domain)
The Mother, the Monster: Earliest Mentions
The earliest mention of Xiwangmu is found in the Shanhaijing (山海經), meaning ‘Classic of Mountains and Seas’. This work may be regarded to be an early geography of China, and tradition states that it was written during the semi-mythical Xia Dynasty. Modern scholars, on the other hand, believe that the Shanhaijing was compiled over a long period of time, i.e. from the Warring States period until the early Han Dynasty.
Xiwangmu is mentioned in the second section of the Shanhaijing, the ‘Xishan Jing’ (西山經), meaning ‘Classic of the Western Mountains’, in which she is said to reside on Yushan (玉山), meaning ‘Jade Mountain’. The Shanghaijing presents Xiwangmu as a powerful and terrifying figure, and she resembles a monster more than a goddess. Although Xiwangmu is portrayed as having a human body, she is also sad to have a leopard’s tail, and the fangs of a tiger. In addition, she wears a crown over her wild and tangled hair. Xiwangmu is also said to preside over the ‘catastrophes of the sky’, and the ‘five destructive forces’, hence making her a dangerous and inauspicious character. Xiwangmu is believed to have the power to cause natural disasters, including floods, famine and plagues.
In another section of the Shanhaijing, the ‘Dahuang Xi Jing’ (大荒西經), meaning ‘Classic of the Great Wilderness: The West’ (Section 16), Xiwangmu is said to live on the mythical Kunlun Mountain (not to be confused with the Kunlun Mountains on the Tibetan Plateau), between the Red River and Black River.
In yet another section, the ‘Hainei Bei Jing’ (海內北經), meaning ‘Classic of the Regions within the Seas: The North’ (Section 12), Xiwangmu is described as sitting on a raised stool, and holding a staff in her hand. She is attended by three green birds who gather food for her. At this point of time, Xiwangmu’s male counterpart and husband was Dongwanggong (東王公), meaning ‘King Father of the East’, who ruled in the East. Xiwangmu, however, was more popular than her husband, and overshadowed him.
Depiction of the goddess Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West. (Dr. Meierhofer / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Transformation to an Immortal
As time went by, Xiwangmu is said to have repented, and was therefore transformed from a ferocious monster into an immortal deity. The beastly attributes of Xiwangmu were discarded, and she is now presented as wholly human. In one instance, she is described as having whitish hair, indicating that she is an elderly woman. Although Xiwangmu retained her powers, she is now a benevolent force, rather than malevolent one.
According to some versions of the myth, Xiwangmu became the consort of the Jade Emperor, one of the most important gods in Chinese folk religion. This is testament to the power and importance that she retained after her conversion from monster to goddess. As the wife of the Jade Emperor, Xiwangmu is said to have been the mother of many deities, the three most important being Zhusheng Niangniang, Yanguang Niangniang, and Zhinu.
Depiction of the Chinese deity, the Jade Emperor who was the husband of Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West. (Public domain)
The first was a fertility goddess whose aid was sought by couples wanting to have children, whilst the second was the protector of the blind. The third is immortalized in one of the best-known Chinese folk tales, ‘The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl’, in which she falls in love with a mortal cowherd, and is punished for this transgression.
A Goddess’ Realm
In many accounts, Xiwangmu is reputed to live on the Kunlun Mountain. One representation of the goddess’ realm is seen in an earthenware lamp from the 1 st / 2 nd century AD, kept today in the Yale University Art Gallery. Xiwangmu is the central figure of this artefact, and is shown seated on a throne. The goddess’ throne is flanked by the moon and the sun, which represent the two cosmic forces, ‘yin’ and ‘yang’, and she is attended by three of her followers – a rabbit pounding the elixir of immortality, a three-legged bird, and a nine-tailed fox.
Below the goddess are two supplicants with staffs kneeling before an open door. It has been suggested that the door represents the entrance to the realm of immortality, which the goddess presided over. On top of the goddess is a drum on the back of a feline creature topped by a canopy-parasol, and flanked by a pair of mounted drummers, one on each side. Below the drummers are a pair of cup-bearing attendants on the back of tigers. This assemblage is supported by a bear-like creature, who is standing on a giant tortoise, the latter reflecting the belief that the Kunlun Mountain rests on the back of tortoise.
The Peach Banquet
Xiwangmu is closely associated with the secrets of immortality, in particular, the Peaches of Immortality. In Chinese mythology, these peaches are known also as Pantao (蟠桃), meaning ‘Flat Peach’, and are reputed to grow in Xiwangmu’s garden. According to one version of the story, the peach trees bear fruit once every 3000 years, and a sumptuous banquet would be hosted by the goddess to celebrate the joyous occasion.
Such a banquet is also believed to be held on Xiwangmu’s birthday. In some artistic representations of Xiwangmu, the goddess’ attendant is shown holding peaches. Additionally, the Peach Banquet is a popular subject amongst Chinese artists.
A Qing Dynasty porcelain depicting Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West, and her attendant holding peaches. (Vassil / Public domain)
The most famous story regarding Xiwangmu’s banquet is found in the Journey to the West, one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. In this tale, one of the novel’s main character, Sun Wukong, known also as the Monkey King, was appointed as by the Jade Emperor as the ‘Protector of the Peaches’. On the first day of work, Sun Wukong learned that there were 3600 peach trees in the orchard. These were divided into three groups, each bestowing on those who ate them certain miraculous properties,
“The ones growing at the front have tiny blossoms and small fruits, and they ripen every three thousand years. Anyone who eats them becomes an Immortal and understands the Way, and his body becomes both light and strong. The twelve hundred in the middle have multiple blossoms and sweet fruits, and ripen every six thousand years; whoever eats them can fly and enjoy eternal youth. The back twelve hundred are streaked with purple and have pale yellow stones. They ripen once every nine thousand years, and anyone who eats them becomes as eternal as Heaven and Earth, as long−lived as the Sun and Moon”
The Queen Mother of the West’s Peach Banquet. (Public domain)
In the next few days, not only did the mischievous Sun Wukong neglect his duties, he also stole the most valuable peaches, i.e. the ones that ripen once every 9000 years. Sun Wukong’s misdemeanor was realized when Xiwangmu sent her attendants to the orchard to collect peaches for a banquet. At that time, Sun Wukong had shrunk himself, and was sleeping under a leaf, having had his fill of peaches.
Xiwangmu’s attendants began picking the peaches, but when they came to the trees at the back, they realized that there were no ripe peaches left, except one, and went to pluck it. The peach, in fact, was Sun Wukong, who had shape-shifted into the fruit. The Monkey King, thinking they were thieves, shouted angrily at them, and questioned them, thereby learning about Xiwangmu’s banquet.
Sun Wukong also learned that he might not have been invited to the banquet, and left the orchard to find out. On the way, however, he encountered the Barefoot Immortal, and came up with a trick to attend the banquet. Having sent the immortal away, Sun Wukong took his form, and attended the banquet. The Monkey King arrived at the banquet before the other deities, got himself drunk, and wrecked the banquet. Only at this point did Sun Wukong realize that when the other gods arrive, they would be furious with him. Therefore, he hastily fled the scene. What Sun Wukong did after this is another story.
Chinese Emperors and Their Search for Immortality
Although the Peaches of Immortality are believed to be reserved for the immortals alone, legend has it that Xiwangmu bestowed some of these divine fruits to certain Chinese emperors. For instance, a story about Emperor Wu of Han and Xiwangmu is related by Zhang Hua, a writer during the Western Jin period. According to this tale, Emperor Wu was on a quest for immortality, when Xiwangmu sent an embassy presenting white deer to him.
Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West, visiting Emperor Wu of Han. (Ding Guanpeng / Wang Fanyue / Public domain)
On the night of the seventh day of the seventh month, Xiwangmu herself visited the emperor. Incidentally, this date, known also as the Qixi Festival (meaning ‘Evening of Sevens’), is believed to be the only time in the year that Zhinu, one of Xiwangmu’s daughters, is allowed to meet with her mortal lover. In any case, when Xiwangmu visited the emperor, she took out seven peaches, and gave five of them to him.
Emperor Wu ate the peaches, and expressed his desire to plant the stones. At this, Xiwangmu laughed, explaining that it took 3000 years for the peaches to grow. In the former tale, it is not stated if Xiwangmu’s peaches bestowed onto Emperor Wu immortality. In a later adaptation of Zhang Hua’s story, however, Xiwangmu is said to have provided the emperor with a set of instructions, which would grant him immortality, if he were to follow them faithfully. As may be expected, the emperor fails to follow the goddess’ instructions, and therefore inevitably dies.
The secrets of immortality were not the only gift presented by Xiwangmu to the Chinese emperors. In some accounts, the goddess is said to have presented the emperors with the Mandate of Heaven, which legitimized the rule of the emperor. For example, Emperor Shun, the last of the legendary Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, is said to have received the Mandate of Heaven from Xiwangmu. As another example, Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of imperial China, is said to have had the opportunity to meet Xiwangmu, but wasted it. As a result, he did not receive the Mandate of Heaven, and his dynasty was destroyed not a few years after his death.
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Great Importance and Popularity Among the Masses
Throughout Chinese history, Xiwangmu retained her importance as a major deity in the Taoist pantheon. As early as the late Tang Dynasty, Taoist literature shows that the status of Xiwangmu is second only to the Three Pure Ones, the highest gods of the Taoist pantheon. In addition, Xiwangmu was an extremely popular deity amongst the common people.
She is believed to wield power over health, longevity, and fertility, and her blessings are often sought by the people. In some instances, people prayed to Xiwangmu for rain and good harvest. It may be mentioned that these areas of everyday life are normally associated with other deities. The fact that people were praying to Xiwangmu for these things shows that she was both a powerful and important goddess.
The worship of Xiwangmu continues even today, and the goddess has even been absorbed by popular culture. For instance, she is a character in several video games, and mentioned in literature. An example of the former is Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom, in which she appears as a hero, whilst an example of the latter is Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, the last section of which being entitled ‘Queen Mother of the Western Skies’. This is evidence that Xiwangmu is still regarded to be relevant in today’s society, not only in a religious context, i.e. as a goddess, but also in a cultural one, i.e. as a representative of Chinese culture.
Top image: Representative image for Queen Mother of the West. Source: wichansumalee / Adobe Stock
By: Wu Mingren
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