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.
《穆天子传》载： 周穆王西游至昆仑山，遇西王母，宴穆王于瑶池。临 别，西王母作歌： “将(望)子毋死，尚能复来。”穆王亦作歌回答，约定 三年后重来。又载穆王南游，遇大风雪，百姓受冻，曾作《黄竹之歌》 以哀 民。并传穆王有八匹骏马，日行3万里。晚唐好几个皇帝迷信神仙之道，服食丹药，妄求长生，以至服金丹中毒死去。本篇糅合上述传说加以生发，虚构出神仙西王母等候穆王重来而不见的场景，以讽刺皇帝求仙之虚妄。
从来讽刺求仙，多从神仙不可遇着眼。这首诗却透过一层，从即遇神仙 亦复何益这一点来构思立意。穆王遇仙，瑶池欢宴，按说可享长生之福了， 却终不免一死;不但如此，连神仙自己对“穆王何事不重来”竟也茫然无 知。如此神仙，如此求仙，岂非彻底虚妄！
According to the Biography of the Son of Mu, King Mu of Zhou traveled west to Kunlun Mountain, met the Queen Mother of the West, and feasted King Mu in Yaochi. Before parting, the Queen Mother of the West sang, “I hope my son will not die, but still come back.” King Mu also answered in song, agreeing to come back three years later. He also carried King Mu to the south, where he encountered a heavy snow storm and the people were frozen. He once wrote the Song of Yellow Bamboo to mourn the people. It was also said that King Mu had eight horses, which traveled 30000 miles a day. In the late Tang Dynasty, several emperors believed in the way of immortals. They took pills in an attempt to live a long life, and even died of poisoning after taking gold pills. This chapter combines the above legends to create a scene where the fairy Queen Mother of the West was waiting for King Mu to return and disappeared, to satirize the emperor’s vanity of seeking immortality.
This poem was conceived according to the legend that the Queen Mother of the West met King Mu of Zhou. The author seized on the fact that the Queen Mother of the West hoped that King Mu would “come back” and that King Mu also promised to come back, and made up a story that the Queen Mother of the West hoped that King Mu would return: the Queen Mother of the West pushed open the carved and decorated window and looked to the east, but there was no trace of King Mu, and only heard the voice of “Yellow Bamboo Song” moving the earth. The first sentence is the beautiful scenery of the fairyland, and the second sentence is the sad scene of the world, forming a strong contrast.
This contrast also contains two meanings: first, it is a metaphor that the singer is dead, and only his singing voice remains in the world. Although the fairyland is beautiful, it is impossible to get away, implying a satire on the quest for immortality; The first is to use the poetic flavor of the “Yellow Bamboo Song” to suggest that the people are starving and suffering from cold, while the rulers are pursuing immortality, hoping to enjoy it forever, implying a reprimand for the rulers’ pursuit of immortality.
The last two sentences of the poem are about the psychological activities of the Queen Mother of the West when she did not see King Mu: the eight steeds that King Mu rode were flying at a high speed, and could travel 30000 miles a day. If he wanted to come, it would be as easy as a palm, but why didn’t he come as promised? The Queen Mother of the West kindly invited King Mu to come again. King Mu promised to come again, and it was convenient for him to come. He arrived in a moment after riding the eight steeds, but King Mu did not come after all, not to mention that King Mu was dead and his death was self-evident. However, the Queen Mother of the West was still waiting eagerly by opening the window. This shows that the Queen Mother of the West hoped that King Mu of Zhou would not die, but this hope finally failed. Even if the immortals were like the Queen Mother of the West, they could not save King Mu from his death, then the so-called immortality techniques in the world would be even more unreliable. They did not believe in the vanity of seeking immortality, but saw themselves in vain.
He always satirizes and seeks immortals. This poem, on the other hand, is designed from the perspective of why it is beneficial to meet immortals. When King Mu meets an immortal, Yaochi feasts. He is supposed to enjoy the blessing of longevity, but he will inevitably die; Not only that, but even the immortals themselves were at a loss and ignorant of “Why does King Mu not come back again?”. Such an immortal, such a quest for immortals, is not completely false!
Ji Yun commented on the poem, saying, “The words are all about meaning, but the words are all about interrogation, so they are all about meaning” (Li Yishan’s Commentary on Poetry Collections). It is precisely because the last two sentences do not give a positive rebuke, so this poem is implicit and implicit in the clear and hearty, and it has a lasting aftertaste. Ye Xie said that “Li Shangyin’s seven unique poems are deep and tactfully worded, which can be empty for hundreds of generations” (The Original Poem).