Xiwangmu as a subject in Japanese paintings

Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West, is one of China’s most popular goddesses, and one of the oldest. She featured in the Daoist classic by Zhuangzi, part of which was written in the fourth century BC, though she achieved her greatest prominence in later times. She symbolises long life and is the patron goddess of women. The Chinese-imported goddess is less well-known in Japan, but may have been more ubiquitous in ancient times in Japan as localized funerary tomb figures. Statues of Xiwangmu have been found in tombs of the Kofun Period. Given her associations with immortality and her garden and peach tree of immortality, her popularity as a figure of the Underworld is not surprising.

Mori Tetsuzan, Xiwangmu, a hanging scroll painting Japan Edo period, AD 1804

Mori Tetsuzan, Xiwangmu, a hanging scroll painting
Japan
Edo period, AD 1804

Xiwangmu (Japanese: Seiōbō), the Queen Mother of the West, was a Chinese immortal. She was supposed to live in a paradise within the Kunlun Mountains, in an enchanted palace with beautiful pagodas and a magical garden. Among her plants she cultivated trees which every 3000 years flowered and bore peaches of immortality. She is depicted here holding one of these precious fruit, and wearing a phoenix ornament in her hair.

Artists of the Maruyama school often chose Xiwangmu, or other Chinese beauties, for their paintings. In this work by Tetsuzan, she is elegant and attractive, with plump and charming features. Tetsuzan (1775-1841) was the nephew and pupil of Mori Sosen (1747-1821), who had been one of the ten best pupils of Maruyama ōkyo (1733-95). Tetsuzan specialized in bijinga (pictures of beautiful women). He studied the methods of both the Maruyama and Mori schools; this work is an example of the former. The bright colours and soft folds of the robes, as well as Xiwangmu’s poise and gentle expression, are characteristic of Tetsuzan’s work.

The signature reads ‘Kinoe ne haru motome ni ōjite sha; Tetsuzan’ (Painted by Tetsuzan at special request, spring, 1804), and the seals read ‘Shushin no in’ (‘Seal of Shushin’) and ‘Shishin’.

I. Hirayama and T. Kobayashi (eds.), Hizō Nihon bijutsu taikan-2, vol. 3 (Tokyo, Kodansha, 1993)

Hanabusa Itchō, Xiwangmu, Butterflies around Bamboo and Chrysanthemums and Butterfly over Cotton Roses, a triptych of hanging scroll paintings Japan Early Kyōhō era (AD 1716-36) A triptych from the Kanō schoo

Hanabusa Itchō, Xiwangmu, Butterflies around Bamboo and Chrysanthemums and Butterfly over Cotton Roses, a triptych of hanging scroll paintings
Japan
Early Kyōhō era (AD 1716-36)
A triptych from the Kanō schoo

Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West, approaches through the sky riding on a cloud. She can be identified by her phoenix hair ornament, by the phoenix design on her robe, and particularly by the branch of peaches she holds in her left hand. Xiwangmu’s ‘peaches of immortality’ were supposed to grow in the gardens of her realm high in the Kunlun Mountains to the west of China. She appears first in writings dating to the Western Han dynasty (206 BC – AD 9).

The paintings are done in the academic manner of the Kanō school, most likely to hang in a nobleman or merchant’s house. They have a formality and an elegance unusual for Itchō’s work, which was generally light-hearted. Itchō (1652-1724) was exiled from 1698 to 1709 to the island of Izu Miyake-jima, possibly for insulting the shōgun’s favourite concubine. This set of paintings dates from after his return, when he adopted the name Itchō.

The script used in the signature on the Xiwangmu scroll is reisho (ancient square characters), while gyōsho(semi-cursive script) is used on the other two, to show the difference in ranking. The signatures read ‘Hanabusa Itchō zu’ and ‘Hanabusa Itchō sho’ (‘painted by Hanabusa Itchō’). The seals are ‘Shinkō no in’ (‘Seal of Shinkō’) on the two butterfly scrolls, and a phrase inkanbun (pseudo-Chinese) on the Xiwangmu scroll which translates as, ‘There is taste in the spaces between mountains, clouds, springs, and rocks.’

I. Hirayama and T. Kobayashi (eds.), Hizō Nihon bijutsu taikan-2, vol. 3 (Tokyo, Kodansha, 1993)

Source: British Museum

 

For a theory on the possible origins of Queen of Sheba, see Queen of Sheba (Saba) — from Mt. Meroe and her gold mines in Ethiopia to Yemen to Xiwangmu’s Tibetan-Chinese Mt. Kunlun?

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s