Description of the following work from the Moorish Science Monitor, Vol 7, #1 (Winter 1994):

IV. Hemp Worship In The M.O.C. And Mao Shan Taoism: Introduction by Bro. Hakim Bey. The goddess Ma Ku, or “Miss Hemp”, her role in the Imaginal yoga of the Mao Shan school of Taoism — marijuana mysticism, initiation thru magical books, icons, visions, dreams — includes poets & texts from Taoist literature on Ma Ku, plus an authentic image for visualization or worship. illustrated pamphlet, $5

Hemp Worship In The M.O.C. And Mao Shan Taoism By Hakim Bey

While hemp has been widely used as a support in the spiritual path, it has very seldom been personified and worshipped. Islamdom, where the support-paradigm is widespread, would naturally eschew anthropomorphization if not ritualization. The “Assassins” and the Moroccan Hedawiyya provide a rich folkloric and even ritualistic matrix for cannabis-mysticism, but not even the most heretical dervish ever divinized the herb. In North India and Afghanistan the only “ritual” I observed was the pipe-invocation “Ya Lal Shabazz Qalandar!” dedicated to the patron saint of the loose-knit confraternity of hemp-using Qalandariyya. There may exist a specific Hindu deity of hemp, but generally it is assigned to Shiva and his family as a support to tantric meditation, not as a separate it personality”. The late Ganesh Baba, my informant in these matters, never mentioned any actual cult of hemp per se and confined himself to the simple chillam-prayers and mantras used by all the Shaivite saddhus (Bom bom Bolay, etc.). The Rastafarians justify herb use with Biblical references, and perform an interesting informal ritual in which a circle of smokers take turns at improvised scriptural interpretation. But they don’t worship ganja itself. In the M.O.C. hemp is regarded as a “sacrament” in the same way that the Native American church and the Neo-American church (which greatly influenced us in this respect) regard peyote. In Native American religions there exist cults of Mescalito, and of mushroom deities, but I have never come a cross a god or goddess of hemp in the New World.

In fact so far in my reading I have found only one certifiably genuine personification of cannabis as a deity: — Ma Ku, “Miss Hemp” or the “Hemp Lady,” in Mao Shan Taoism. Hemp appears in very early Chinese pharmacopeias, and its psychotropic effects were certainly known to the Taoists. According to M. Saso, the Mao Shan “Highest Clarity School” scriptures were revealed under the influence of a “hemp-laced incense,” which may refer to the archaic Siberian technique of the smoke filled tent. Mao Shan (which is now said to be “extinct”) emphasized neither the “philosophical” Taoism of the Tao Te Ching and Chuang Tzu, nor the “communal” Taoism of the Yellow Turbans and the Chang Family, but developed a highly individualized magical practice based on Imaginal Yoga. The Mao Shan or Shang Ch’ing (“Highest Clarity”) adept aimed at meditation based on “aimless wandering” in a world of imagination that was shared by all initiates and codified in elaborate fantasy-geographies of mountains, grottoes, undersea cities, distant island utopias, the Hollow Earth, the cloud-palaces of the skies, and outer space. As alchemists, the Mao Shan adepts made free use of various drugs to enhance their visualizations, speaking of mysterious “mushrooms”, herbs, and mineral preparations. Research into the psychotropic basis for this pharmaceutical obsession has scarcely begun. Even Needham (in his huge work on Chinese science) never asks the obvious question: “Mushrooms? Which species of mushrooms?”

Except for Saso’s passing remark about “hemp-laced incense” I’ve never come across any reference to cannabis-use in Taoism, although for all I know Chinese literature may be pullulating with such information, all waiting to be translated. But some inferential evidence for hemp-use in Mao Shan Taoism certainly does exist, since the Highest Clarity School in fact worshipped cannabis, or at least personified it as one of the countless myriads of Imaginal, angelic, daemonic figures which populated the dream-world of Mao Shan. The few references to Ma Ku in orientalist works always associate her with the dilation of time-sense, a psychotropic effect noted by all cannabis users, and certainly a good sign that the Mao Shan adepts were ingesting hemp, not making rope! (A similar analysis could be applied to Rabelais’ chapter on hemp in the context of his general valorization of imagination and intoxication.) Miss Hemp’s bird-like claws (variously interpreted as hands and feet) suggest at least a typological connection with the Green Parrot who symbolizes hemp in the bhangnama texts of Western and Central Asia — and in fact Schafer notes Central Asian and even “Persian” influences on Mao Shan literature. (The delightful Taoist Drinking Songs [see “Further Reading “] includes works by “Moslem Taoists” — and the great Li Po was said to have Persian connections — his wine symbolism may actually relate to Persian or Turkic Sufi models.)

Mao Shan has only very recently become accessible to English readers through the works of the “New Sinology” — although its influence has long been experienced in such later Taoist-flavored texts as Monkey. In many ways Mao Shan is the most attractive school of Taosim, the most magical, poetic, and downright strange. The revolutionary tradition of the Yellow Turbans seems highly relevant in our Moorish context, and the sheer hedonic anarchy of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove is perhaps my personal favorite — but Mao Shan appears to be the classic case and purest example of a cult of Imaginal Yoga, and of the use of reverie, hallucination, lucid dreaming, intoxication, and eroticism, in all the annals of the History of Religions. One ritual transcribed by Kohn (Taoist Experience, 267-271) reveals that even masturbation fantasy has a role in the Shang-Ch’ing spiritual path, alongside the loftiest and most ascetic praxis of inner alchemy. In other words, every resource of the imagination is utilized, without disdain for the “impure”, or for the humble daydream and “mere” fantasy.

Mao Shan may be “extinct” in China, but it has been reborn in books. Reading Schafer and Robinet [see “Further Reading” below] can provide a powerful experience of the book as initiation-machine — as a key to the experience of imaginal initiation. Not only were Schafer and Robinet “possessed” by Taoist personalities, which reveal themselves in the style of their texts, but they also transmitted content which is directly salvific and initiatic. Why this should be so is made clear in Robinet’s brilliant discourse on the magical origin of the Shang Ch’ing texts. But the experience seems intuitively obvious:-Mao Shan lives in these books and in anyone who reads them intensively enough. The Shang Ch’ing scriptures themselves guarantee a degree of spiritual attainment (or “blessing” or “benefit”, etc.) simply from reading through a ritual once — although of course memorization and repetition are advised for true meditational efficacy. In effect, however, Mao Shan proposes a mystique of the text which may amount to an initiatic function. In the Imaginal World one meets an imaginal person. In one sense this person could be considered a psychological projection. But in fact — as every practitioner knows through experience, which takes precedence over any theory of “mere” subjectivity — the Imaginal World possesses a certain autonomy. Whether we attribute this autonomy to “archetypes,” or to the folkloric consensus of imagery, or to magic, or to the universal symbolic experience of the body, or simply to cultural drift, the experience remains –mysterious and ineffable but “real” enough for all practical purposes. We’re not concerned with the metaphysical/ontological status of this experience, but rather with its “existential” evidence, and above allwith its efficacy.

Elsewhere I’ve discussed the “problem of authority” in the context of the Islamic spiritual path [see Sacred Drift, chapter IV, and also Sijil #3 of the Fatimid Order]. The M.O.C. belongs to a wide range of contemporary “free Religions” which have rejected the traditional model of “spiritual authority” — the, guru-prinzip — the magisterial, canonical, and absolutist model of master-disciple rule of submission. We have not, however, discarded the Concept of “initiation”. Therefore we find ourselves extremely interested in structures and methods of initiation which can be located off the map of authoritarian spirituality. Oneiric techniques such as intentional dreaming (istikhara), induced vision, shamanic trance, or even the deliberate use of certain books, constitute methods which have been deployed to “access” the Imaginal World in order to circumvent or short circuit the master/disciple relation. In short: — in the imaginal world one meets an imaginal person who bestows an imaginal initiation. In Islamdom, the Owaysi “Order” provides a textbook example; in the Occident we might mention Swedenborg; and in China, the Mao Shan Shang Ch’ing School of Taoism.

Imaginal initiation is not simply auto-initiation. Even the shaman powerful enough to command the totem-spirits to bestow initiation is still initiated by those spirits. [See A. Lewittsky’s brilliant analysis of shamanic autonomy in The College of Sociology, ed. D. Hollier.] Initiation is a relation between two persons, or “persons”, one who bestows while the other receives the “opening.” In acquiring a mentor in the Imaginal World, however, the element of false consciousness — which poisons the relation between master and disciple in the traditional authoritarian model — can be evaded. As with any form of initiation, “proof’ of its “validity” can arise only from praxis: — am I happier, more liberated, less hurtful to ones I love, more creative, less resentful, etc., etc?, Or have I simply collected another exquisite diploma from a moribund and oppressive institution, another pathetic compensation for my failure to be human? After all, mysticism (‘erfan) reserves the whole question of eschatology. Whether or not heaven and hell “exist” after death, the important question is whether or not they exist in life. Sexual repression, self-hatred, pointless ascesis and deep depression, have characterized the inner lives of most authoritarian mystics I’ve encountered, whether of the “orthodox and traditional” variety or the New Age brand. (I mean in the Occident; the Oriental situation differs inasmuch as pockets of traditional life still survive in the East.) True, this is a subjective judgment, and I can think of many exceptions. But I’ll stick by it as a valid generalization.

In any case, our path follows a different route. Are we happy, liberated, etc., etc? Perhaps it’s very dangerous here on the path of magic — and certainly far more difficult than the way of contented bliss of the true believer. My own testimony would count for nothing in this context (though it’s slightly more positive than negative!) because imaginal initiation is precisely an experience which can be evaluated only by the individual who undergoes it. Without value judgments, then, these texts of imaginal initiation are presented: and without vain promises, simply for the experimental use of those who have chosen this way, for whatever reason and whatever- ultimate purpose.

Within the M.O.C. I would like to, propose the establishment of a Mao Shan study group, perhaps leading to the formation of a Shang Ch’ing “degree” or Order within the Hidden Adept Chamber. To that end I recommend the “sacramental” reading of these texts on Ma Ku, “Miss Hemp.” (And I’ve included a list of Further Readings, with some annotations, for anyone who wants to pursue the subject.) An image of Ma Ku is included for use in informal “puja” — worship with candles, incense, etc. — which might be useful to any cannabis-devotee, whether or not any expedition into the Imaginal World is planned, to seek out a meeting with Miss Hemp Herself.

Further Reading

Sources of the texts:

  • The Taoist Experience: An Anthology, ed. Livia Kohn, (Albany, SUNY) 1993. Kohn’s best work so far, a dazzling collection of translated texts including many from the Shang Ch’ing and related tendencies.
  • Mirages on the Sea of Time: The Taoist Poetry of Ts’ao T’ang by Edward H. Schafer (Berkeley, University of California), 1985. A masterpiece of Mao Shan sensibility and erudition.

Other Works Mentioned in the Essay:

  • The Wine of, Endless Life: Taoist Drinking Songs from the Yuan Dynasty, translated by Jerome P. Seaton, (White Pine Press, 76 Center Street, Fredonia, NY 14063), 1991; $9.00. Not only an excellent lively translation but also an initiatic text of wine mysticism. (See especially the two Moselm/Taoist poets, Ali Hsiying and Kuan Yun-Shih, pp. 46).
  • Taoist Meditation: The Mao-Shan Tradition of Great Purity by Isabelle Robinet (Trans. J. F. Pas and N. J. Girardot), (Albany, SUNY) 1993. This book is so brilliant it’s almost nauseating –reading it gave me vertigo. This book reeks of the Imprimatur of the Spirits.
  • Blue Dragon -White Tiger: Taoist Rites of Passage (Taoist Center, Washington DC, 1990) by Michael J. Saso. Contains the remark about “Hemp-laced incense.” See also his wonderful Taoist Teachings of Master Chuang.

This pretty much exhausts what I’ve been able to find (other than scattered references) on Mao Shan. I would recommend starting any study with the Chuang Tzu (in both the Watson and Graham translations), the source of all “aimless wandering.” Graham’s translation of the Lieh Tzu is also vital. Over 100 translations of the Tao Te Ching exist — read two or three (at least) of the more scholarly ones. N. J. Girardot’s Myth and Meaning in Early Taosim: The Theme of Chaos, (hun-tun), (Berkeley, University of California Press), 1983, now out in paperback, was a real break-through in the New Sinology and revaluation of Taoism — also very entertaining. Facets of Taoism, ed. By H. Welch and Anna Seidel (New Haven, Yale University Press), 1979, also broke plenty of new ground and remains very valuable. Livia Kohn is usually worth reading — and gives excellent bibliographies – while T. Cleary is usually not worth reading, and doesn’t even give footnotes. Avoid all New Age Tao of Some Damn Thing or Another books. If you need an introduction, read Waley’s Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China, or even Blofeld’s charming book on pre-War Taoist hermits.

Ma Ku, “Miss Hemp”
(original from pamphlet was a simple line drawing illustration)


Zengxiang liexian zhuan (Illustrated Immortals’ Biographies) ..

The Hemp Lady

The Hemp Lady [Magu] was the younger sister of the immortal Wang Fangping. Under Emperor Huan of the Han dynasty, Wang descended from heaven to visit the family of Cai Jing.

He told him: “You have the ability to go beyond the world. This is why I have come today to teach you. However, your energy is low and your flesh is strong. Therefore you cannot ascend bodily into heaven, but rather have to prepare yourself for deliverance from the corpse.”

Wang duly gave him essential instructions and left again.

Later Jing developed a fever that seemed to burn his entire body. After three days his flesh began to dissolve so that his bones were sticking out. Lying down in his bedroom, he covered himself with a blanket, when he vanished all of a sudden. His relatives looked in and found only a shell under the blanket, somewhat like the skin of a cicada.

Over ten years later he unexpectedly returned to his family. He told them: “On the seventh day of the seventh month, Lord Wang will grace our house with his presence. We should prepare several hundred pitchers of wine to feast him.”

On the appointed day Wang indeed arrived, floating down from heaven. He was sitting in a carriage drawn by five dragons. Preceding and following him were attendants carrying banners and flags, as if he was a five-star general. As soon as he had landed, the
entourage vanished.

Jing and his family duly paid their formal respects to the visitor. After that, Wang sent off someone to invite his sister, the Hemp Lady. When she arrived, all found her a young girl of about eighteen years. She wore her hair tied into a topknot on the top of her head, but some stands were left untied and flowed down well to her waist. She wore a robe of brocade and a wide embroidered skirt, with colors so bright and radiant they dazzled the eye.

When everybody had taken their seats, a fantastic banquet on dishes of gold and jade was served, including such delicacies as unicorn meat.

At the time Jing’s wife had just given birth. When the Hemp Lady saw her, she immediately said: “Ah! Please stop and don’t come near me!” Then she asked for a bit of rice, which she spread all over the floor. As soon as it hit the ground, every grain turned
into cinnabar.

Wang laughed when he saw this. “Oh, my dear sister,” he said, “you still play the games of a child!”

“Well, after all,” the Hemp Lady responded, “since we’ve last seen each other the Eastern Sea has only changed three times into mulberry fields. And now the waters around Penglai are already growing shallow again!”

“Indeed,” Wang agreed. “All the sages are saying that the sea is turning to dust again soon!”

The Hemp Lady had hands that looked like the claws of a bird. Seeing them, Cai thought to himself, “If one had an itch on the back, wouldn’t it be nice to be scratched by these claws!”

Wang immediately read his thoughts and was furious. He turned to whip his host, scolding him: “The Hemp Lady is a divine personage! How could you even think of her claws scratching your back?

Soon after, Wang left and the Hemp Lady too took her leave.

She comes!—the GODDESS!—through the
whispering air,
Bright as the morn, descends her blushing car;
Each circling wheel a wreath of flowers
And gem’d with flowers the silken harness
The golden bits with flowery studs are deck’d
And knots of flowers the crimson reins connect.
And now on earth the silver axis rings,
And the shell sinks upon its slender springs;
Light from her airy seat the Goddess bounds,
And steps celestial press the pansied grounds.

The Botanic Garden, Part I, Canto I, 59-68

[From Mirages on the Sea of Time: The Taoist Poetry of Ts’ao T’ang by Edward H. Schafer]

Miss Hemp

THERE ARE LINKS between the happy isles and the unhappy mainland: established routes, and personages who travel them regularly. When in China these wayfarers appear as almost ordinary human beings—but in their sea-palaces they have more glorious bodies. The names of some of these visitors are important, both in ancient legend and in the medieval vision of P’eng-lai. Of these the most important is Miss Hemp (Ma Ku). Ts’ao T’ang wrote a poem about one of her periodic visits to the mortal world. The occasion was a rendezvous with her old friend, the divine Wang Yüan, at the house of a certain Ts’ai Ching who is himself destined for transcendence:

A pleasant wind blows in the trees—apricot flowers are odorous;
Under the flowers—a realized person: he says his name is
Dragons and serpents in Great Seal graphs attend his brush
and billets;
Starry dippers in small skies cover his gown and skirt.
He left South Culmen at leisure — the hour of his return will
be late:
He points to East Stygia with a smile, drinking long — exalted.
He requires that Miss Hemp be called on to join him in a
drinking bout;
They send someone to purchase wine, off in Yü-hang.

A line-for line paraphrase follows:

1 Wind is numinous: a spirit is present; apricot blossoms are erotic.
2 The divinity makes his appearance.
3 He is an accomplished writer of spells in the grand style.
4 Like those of any sorcerer, his robes are decorated with the images of powerful astrological configurations.
5 He arrives late, having protracted his leisure at the cosmic source of rejuvenation in the hot focus of yang.
6 He is quaffing elixirs now at the house of Ts’ai Ching. He gestures towards the Eastern Sea—where his mystic lady-love dwells.
7 He commands that she be sent for; he is ready.
8 But for such a reunion only the best wine will do—the wine that the Royal Mother of the West requires, obtainable only in Hangchou.

The unadorned version of Ma Ku’s story, which underlies this and many other poems like it, has been often reported. It may be retold briefly here. The fortunate Ts’ai Ching lived in the Wu region—that is, in the modern province of Chekiang. The demigod Wang Yüan appeared at his house with a splendid retinue, and announced the imminent arrival of the mysterious Miss Hemp. When she appeared radiantly out of the clouds, Miss Hemp wore the aspect of a lovely damsel of eighteen or nineteen. Her hair was partly done up in a chignon, the rest left free to hang down to her waist. She was dressed in an unearthly fabric that shone with a dazzling polychrome light. She was handsomely received, and her delicate palate honored with a meal of fragrant flowers. Now comes the crux of the tale: The lady says to Wang Yüan, “Since I last attended on you, the Eastern Sea has thrice become mulberry fields, Recently I was in P’eng-lai. Then the water was shallower than in previous days: it must be that the period is about half over. Surely it has not become hilly ground once more?” Yüan informs the goddess that the sea has indeed dried up: clearly she has been too engrossed in exalted affairs to notice how advanced the dessication was.

Ts’ao T’ang has focused on the romantic aspects of the impending interview, and says nothing of the dramatic transformation of the Watchet Sea into a sandy desert. But that part of the story receives ample attention from him elsewhere in his writings, as we shall see. For the moment, let us take a closer look at Miss Hemp.

Miss Hemp’s particular physical attributes, shown especially in the stunning beauty that is common to these Taoist nymphs, show marked resemblance to those of her female colleagues. Like the Lady of Highest Prime she is described as a lovely girl of eighteen or nineteen, and her coiffure is the same. The two divine women are virtually interchangeable, but Miss Hemp has an attribute all her own—birdlike claws, in which she is akin to a harpy or siren, although she lacks the malevolence of either.

It is not obvious what kind of bird has contributed to Miss Hemp’s peerless physique, but there is some evidence that she is a crane-woman, With that uniquely Taoist bird she shares not only the clawed feet but also the repeated voyages across the Eastern Sea—the route of the regular migrations of the sacred red-crowned crane between China and its breeding grounds in Manchuria, Miss Hemp’s transits are also seasonal—but they follow the immensely long seasonal cycles of the immortal world. In one of his east-oriented quatrains Ts’ao T’ang lends some confirmation to the hypothesis of her gruine nature:

Told to forsake the Watchet Sea—could not do it;
But reliance on simurgh or crane followed instantly!
The new matron of the Ts’ai household, by no means offended
by [their gifts’] paucity:
Accepts them—and gaing three to five pints of true pearls. (90)

The scenario here appears to be as follows: A personage out in the mystic isles has been invited to attend a reception at Ts’ai Ching’s household—it can hardly be anyone but Blue Lad, divine ruler of the eastern seas. But he is detained by other business. However, he transmits rare treasures from his aqueous realm by sacred bird-messenger as a gift for the young wife of Ts’ai Ching’s brother, who has just borne a son. In the original story the pearls are the gift of Miss Hemp, who magically transmutes grains of cereal into pearls for her host’s nephew. In Ts’ao T’ang’s poetic version she is only the agent of a distinguished resident of P’eng-lai—she is the crane who transports them across the waves, The ancient crane-road has achieved a glorious fulfillment as the road of the divine bird-woman.

Nonetheless, in surviving literature the venust Miss Hemp exists chiefly as a stock figure to remind us of the periodic slow draining of the Watchet Sea and its refilling. She is almost a personification of cosmic time, measuring off the thousands of years that pass between each flooding.[Note added here in PLW’s hand – “hemp & Time perception”] We ourselves are inclined to compare these slow changes to the shifting of waters over continents, corresponding to the melting of the polar ice-caps, which alternates with ice ages during which these incalculable amounts of water are tied up in widespread glaciers, while the shallow seas drain away from the great plains—as they did in Kansas and Texas. Indeed even in medieval China some note was taken of paleontological fact apparently related to the rise and fall of coastal waters. Yen Chen-ch’ing, the eighth-century writer on many Taoist themes, in an account of his visit to an “altar of the transcendents”—specifically the stage for Taoist rituals on Miss Hemp’s mountain in what is now Kiangsi Province—retells the old tale of the divine lady and the oscillation of sea level. Then he goes on to describe the rocks in the vicinity of her altar: “in the stone there are still the shells of sea-snails and oysters, possibly transformed in the Mulberry Plantations.” It appeared to him that not only had the sea bottom been, exposed, but it had also been mysteriously uplifted.

Indeed, a personal cult of Miss Hemp flourished in T’ang times, associating her with rocks, mountains, mysterious grottoes. On the level of popular religion her name was given to a cliff at Mount T’ien T’ai, the holy mountain of Chekiang: the Precipice of Miss Hemp (Ma Ku Yen) was believed to be the very place where she condescended to visit the home of Ts’ai Ching, and in Sung times there was still an old statue of her standing in a grotto there. But in the arcana of Highest Clarity her petrological associations were even more refined: The twenty-eighth of the thirty-six “lesser” grotto-heavens, called “Heaven of the Cinnabar Aurora” (Tan hsia t’ien), was believed to lie beneath the mountain in Kiangsi that bears her name, on which the commemorative stele with an inscription composed by Yen Chen-ch’ing was placed, Sovereign in this underworld was the divine Wang Yiian. Moreover, the cavernous tunnel leading to it, the “Grotto of the Cinnabar Aurora,” the tenth of the Fortunate Lands (fu ti), was recognized as the sanctum where Ts’ai Ching had achieved the Tao, and over which he, in his new body, presided. It was reported that on rainy nights the haunting music of bells and lithophones could be heard there. Nearby, in the offing of Mount T’ien T’ai, was the second of the thirty-six lesser heavens, the Grotto-Heaven of Tumbleweed Mystery (P’eng hsiian tung t’ien), perhaps the antechamber to the passage taken by Miss Hemp on some/of her many journeys between P’eng-lai and the mainland.

In T’ang poetry, the pelagic cycle of wet and dry is represented as a tidelike ebb and flow, corresponding to very slow changes in the endless lives of the perfected beings of Taoism. These are analogous to the ordinary seasonal changes experienced by mortal men. The cosmic spring brings the onset of the energetic, fertilizing yang energy that, at its height, completely eliminates the waters of the ocean—the visible emblem of yin, the moist, receptive principle. This slow, dreamlike dessication culminates with the millennial flourishing of the mulberries on the ocean shore and even on its now revealed bed, as well as the flowering of the peach trees that represent eternal life. Then, when the wheel of time completes another half-turn, the cosmic autumn and winter take control of the supernal world, while the inky flood of yin once more dominates the pelagic basins. The phrase “mulberry plantations” accordingly takes on a melancholy sense of mortality and transience: the great cyclic catastrophes are temporal flickers that bring little more than a sense of unease to the beings who dwell beyond the stars, but outlast by far the mayfly duration of human life.

A number of Ts’ao T’ang’s fantasies touch on these matters. Here is one such:

Water fills the Mulberry Fields—the white sun sinks;
Frozen clouds and dry graupel wet the double-layered shade.
A visitor returning to Liaotung crosses leisurely over them;
A reason to talk about the Yao years, when the snow was even
deeper. (65)

This is a story of the crane-route over the Eastern Sea to Manchuria. The world is in the grip of winter; yin emanations, dark and damp, dominate the great ocean. The migrant holy bird—perhaps the celebrated were-crane Ting Ling-wei—flies back to his summer home, signaling the approach of spring and the augmentation of the influence of yang, not yet detectable by men. From his high vantage, the venerable creature sees the sun sink into the frozen mountains of the west, and the sea in the east still dominated by the dark vapors of winter. Gloom and chill still prevail everywhere. But for him, this is merely a matter for gossip. When he arrives home he will report his observations to his comrades, and they will chat about the great snows of prehistory, such as those of the golden age of the hero Yao, when winters were even more bitter than now — but there was always a vernal aftermath and the renewal of life.

In the next two poems, Ts’ao T’ang takes note of a disagreeable aspect of eternal life: the fortunate adept must endure the sight of his friends, who failed to dedicate their earthly careers to the cultivation of the potentiality for permanence, as they wither and blow away in what to him is but a moment.

Ch’ang-fang, a natural nobleman, knew how to fly and flutter;
In the midst of pentachromatic clouds he shuts a gate on him-
He watches the Mulberry Fields off there—due to become a
He does not know how many persons will have survived
when he goes back. (52).

Pi Ch’ang-fang was a master of space and time who had learned that craft from the master of all masters, the Sire of the Pot (Hu Kung). This great Taoist art worked in two
complementary ways. The adept could, at will, pass into an ordinary gourd, which was in fact a vast world populated by divine beings. Contrariwise, he could reduce a large territory to the size of a postage stamp, examine it in its entirety, and then inflate it to its original extent. Ch’ang-fang was also gifted with the art of flight, which enabled him to visit secret lodgings hidden within the multicolored mists and glows of outer space. From such high vantages he could watch the millennial flooding of the Eastern Sea—no tedious affair since human time was greatly accelerated for him—while meditating solemnly on the many generations of men that had passed into nothingness during his brief holiday among the nebulae.

The same dismal facet of endless existence is treated differently in the following quatrain:

Shu-ch’ing gazes all around at springtime under the Nine
Among men he sees not one of the old friends of yesterday.
Uncanny! He finds the waters below P’eng-lai
Half turned to sandy soil, half turned to dust. (44)

The protagonist is Wei Shu-ch’ing, who achieved immortality in remote antiquity by the ingestion of mica. Later, clad in a dress of feathers and a crown of stars, he appeared to Liu Ch’e (posthumously Wu Ti), the great ruler of Han, declaring himself to be the tutelary spirit of a mountain. In this poem he appears in more splendid medieval guise —a welcome guest at the glittering palace of P’eng-lai. He is revealed peering through all the worlds, unable to trace the whereabouts of his erstwhile companions. He is astonished (perhaps this is forgivable if we imagine him to have attained transcendence only recently) to find that the seas around P’eng-lai have completely dried up. What seemed to him a short visit to the fairy island had been an eon in the world of men.

In the next poem we have an almost classical cluster of images associated with the seaways to the east:

Over the sea, peach flowers have opened on a thousand trees;
Once Miss Hemp has gone away, none knows when she will
come again.
That old crane from Liaotung must be torpid and lazy:
They told him to explore the Mulberry Plantation—but then
he did not return. (46)

Which is to say: The millennial opening of the peach blossoms of the holy seamount heralds the onset of cosmic spring; Miss Hemp will surely remain there for a long time, savoring scent and spectacle. An aged crane, preparing to return to his northeastern wetlands for the summer, is urged to fly over the dry seabed to P’eng-lai to look for her—but he searched in vain, or perhaps succumbed to the wonders of the place and, rejuvenated, to the beauty of the ever-youthful goddess.

This low road (or high road, if the crane route were elected) was taken regularly by other distinguished ladies. Ts’ao T’ang reports the preparations at P’eng-lai for the arrival of the Royal Mother of the West:

Jade syrinx and gold zither emit the tone of shang:
The mulberry leaves wither and dry as the sea water clears.
They sweep the road below Mount P’eng-lai clean,
Planning to invite the Royal Mother to chat about long life. (1)

The tone of shang was, in T’ang times, the foundation of a myxolydian mode. It was also the cosmic-note of autumn and the setting sun, the sombre and chilling sound of death emanating from the holy mountain K’un-lun, which dominates the icy western world. The divine orchestra of the Royal Mother’s palace has sounded the doom of all living things. Even the sacred mulberries of the East — the fruit that nourishes the immortal beings of the sunrise — are afflicted by this ultimate frost, and as they fade, the waters of the ocean begin to wash over them once more. Concerned by this memento mori, the visible evidence of corruption, even the radiant beings of P’eng-lai are troubled, and they quickly prepare special access for the Queen of the West so she may give them new wisdom and training in the arts of longevity. This rather solemn allegory of slow change and decline is quite unlike most of Ts’ao T’ang’s lighthearted confections, except insofar as it attributes to these fragile “‘transcendents” a very human frailty.

In still another quatrain about the Eastern Sea—here called “East Stygia,” suggesting its dark remoteness — the treatment of these themes is rather more frivolous:

East Stygia on two occasions has seen the dust fly,
And since a myriad years ago. such interviews have been rare:
Now a hundred pots of wine, and the pear blossoms on a [here wine and pear are underlined and a note in the margin says “Fourier!”]
a thousand trees,
Unite these lords in argument and drink—but no one will
discuss poetry. (89)

Here, then, old friends, separated through two geological eons, meet in the eternal springtime to savor the white vernal flowers, the new wine, and perhaps love. The “pear blossoms” represent mulberries and their millennial burgeoning, and, more remotely, allude to “Pear Blossom Spring” (li hua ch’un), the name of a wine which is ready to drink at the time of the flowering of the pear trees in early spring.

Other flowering trees, too, assumed the role of punctuating eternity. In the following poem, Ts’ao T’ang substitutes a more mysterious one than those we have already encountered:

Blue Lad transmits the word, requiring them to come back:
His report tells that Miss Hemp’s “jade stamens” have
opened. [here jade stamens is underlined with a note in the marginalia “marijuana?”]
The Watchet Sea has turned to dust—all other affairs may be
They mount dragon and crane and come to observe the
flowers. (81).

Here the Lord of the East sends news to the mainland that requires the immediate return of his court to the east: the wonderful flowers of the bird-woman’s garden are opening. Once more it is cosmic spring, and the solar power of yang rules the world. The company will make swift passage for the flower-watching holiday at P’eng-lai.

The real novelty in this quatrain is the presence of a flowering plant named “jade stamens” (yü jui), which adorns the magic garden of the wind-blown seamount. For some writers and readers, perhaps, this beautiful snow-white bloom was altogether an unearthly flower, doubtless crystalline, and fit food for the gods, But it also had a terrestrial identity. It was a rare plant, known only, it seems, to a few rich gardens, especially in the capital of T’ang, although there are occasional reports of it in Sung times. The most celebrated display was in the garden of a Taoist temple, the Belvedere of T’ang’s Glory (T’ang ch’ang kuan) in the An-yeh Quarter of Ch’ang-an. A wonderful story relates the remarkable flowers to a Taoist goddess or (to be more precise) a Jade Woman. It tells how the ‘jewel-like deity descended into the temple garden, gathered a few of the flowers—whose spirit she was—and disappeared into the sky, attended by the crunkling of cranes and the shimmer of phosphoric beings. The full tale survives in the version of the ninth-century writer K’ang P’ien but has also merited poetic treatment by Yen Hsiu-fu, Yüan Chen, Liu Yü-hsi, and Po Chüi. The identity of this rare bloom exercised the detective faculties of some Sung literati. Chou Pi-ta, for instance, reports that he obtained a specimen from the vicinity of Nanking. He provides a good description of the plant and its fantastic flowers, with their “whiskers like threads of ice, with golden grains sewn on top.” It was a climbing shrub, with ovate leaves, and its flowers were distinguished by a radial fringe of stamen-like threads, distinct from the stamens proper. The thready fringe surrounded a central tubular stalk. These characteristics make its identification possible. It appears to have been a species of passion-flower vine, or maypop, which is noted for the handsome corona of filaments that surrounds a central bisexual cylinder called a gynophore.