Myths are sacred tales that explain the world and our experience within it. They contain our hopes, our dreams. Immortality is one dream, and giving up immortality the unanswered question in Li Shangyin’s poem, Jade Lake.
As our Mother of Jade Lake opens her beautiful window,
The Yellow Bamboo sounds its pitiful song.
If eight steeds can gallop to the ends of the earth,
King Mu, why did you never come back?
yáo chí ā mǔ qǐ chuāng kāi
huáng zhú gē shēng dòng dì āi
bā jùn rì xíng sān wàn lǐ
mù wáng hé shì bù chóng lái
King Mu and the Queen Mother of the West
Stories of a goddess and a mortal falling in love are common in both Western and Eastern cultures. One of China’s most popular myth stories concerns the historical figure of King Mu of Zhou (穆王, mù wáng) and the mythical Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu, 西王母).
Depending on how one accounts for time, King Mu of the Zhou dynasty reigned from 976–922 BC or 956–918 BC. During his 55-year reign he conducted military campaigns of varying success in both the west and the east. He is said to have lived to the age of 105.
The original mythical tale of King Mu and Queen Mother was written around 296 BCE and rediscovered in 281 CE. Li Shangyin, retells the story poetically in four rhyming verses.
King Mu, wishing to achieve immortality, traveled by horse to visit the Queen Mother of the West. She lives by Jade Lake high in the mythical mountain of Kunlun. I her garden are the Immortal Pears. They have a love affair, and she passes on the secret of immortal life, but, as in James Hilton’s Shangri-La, the secret must remain on Mount Kunlun.
King Mu returns to his earthly kingdom and dies like any other mortal. But why, asks Li, does he never come back?
In Taoism, she is the goddess of life, fertility and immortality. Li Shangyin calls her 瑤池阿母, Yáochí ā mǔ, Our Mother at Jade Lake.
As the earth weeps
Li Shangyin (c. 813–858) lived in the declining years of the Tang dynasty when drought and famine were common occurances. While green bamboo is a symbol of prosperity, yellow bamboo is one of poverty. And yellow bamboo waving back and forth in the wind, would create a mournful song, like the wailing of the suffering peasants.
Wang Mu has eight horses (八, Bā, eight, because it sounds like Fá which means “prosperous” or “lucky”). In the original tale, King Wu is accompanied by seven attendants, making eight riders.
Notes on Translation
Blue Jade is a talisman of peace and serenity. Jade Lake. 瑤 Yáo, jade and 池 Chí, literally lake, sometimes translated as “pool.” Chí is a homophone with 氣, Chi, meaning life force.
三萬里 sān wàn lǐ. The translation is actually 30,000 li. I have used the more poetic 10,000 leagues, which is roughly similar. This is roughly equivalent to traveling around the earth’s circumference.
Today, most Chinese identify Tiānchí lake (天池, Heavenly Lake ), in Tianshan, Xinjiang region, as the Queen Mother’s Jade Lake. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to China’s Uyghur population. In Li Shangyin’s lifetime the Uyghur Khanate was extensive.
The Zhou dynasty (1050–771 BC) was significant for contributing Confucianism, Taoism and the written script that evolved into today’s recognized form.