The Kunlun or Kunlun Shan is a mountain or mountain range in Chinese mythology, an important symbol representing the Axis Mundi and divinity.
The mythological Kunlun is based on various sources, mythologic and geographic, the modernly so-called Kunlun Mountains of the Tibetan Plateau and Mount Kailash (as an archetypal omphalos).
The term “Kunlun” has also been applied to Southeastern Asian lands or islands, and seemingly even Africa; although, the relationship to the Mountain is not clear, other than the nomenclature: in any case, Kunlun refers to distant, exotic, and mysterious places.
Different locations of the Kunlun have been given in the various legends, myths, and semi-historical accounts in which it appears.
These accounts typically describe Kunlun as the dwelling place of various gods and goddesses, where fabled plants and mythical creatures may also be found. Many important events in Chinese mythology took place on the Kunlun.
As the mythology related to the Kunlun developed, it became influenced by the later introduction of ideas about an Axis Mundi from the cosmology of India. The Kunlun became identified with Mount Sumeru.
Another historical development in the mythology of Kunlun, (again with Indian influence) was that rather than just being the source of the Yellow River, Kunlun began to be considered to be the source of four major rivers flowing to the four quarters of the compass.
The Kunlun mythos was also influenced by developments within the Taoist tradition, and Kunlun came to be perceived more as a paradise than a dangerous wilderness.
Some recent research proposed that over time, the merging of various traditions has resulted in a duality of paradises – an East Paradise, identified with Mount Penglai, and a West Paradise, identified with Kunlun Mountain.
A pole replaced a former mythic system that opposed Penglai with Guixu (“Returning Mountain”), and the Guixu mythological material was transferred to the Kunlun mythos.
Various ideas of the location of the mythical Kunlun Mountain have been given: chapter eleven of the Shanhaijing describes it as being in the northwest, chapter sixteen says it is south of the western sea, and other sources place it in the center of the earth.
Some believed Kunlun to be located to the “far” west, in this case, the alleged location was relocated further and further to the west, along with advances in geographical knowledge. E. T. C. Werner identifies Kunlun with the Hindu Kush mountain range.
At times, the mythical Kunlun Mountain has been confused with the modern Kunlun Mountains and with Kurung or Kurung Bnam, possibly meaning “Kings of the Mountain” in Old Khmer (formerly known as Old Cambodian), and equivalent to the Sanskrit Śailarāja, also meaning “Kings of the Mountain“, referring to a mythical holy cosmic mountain.
Kurung is known to have flourished during the time of the Tang dynasty and seems to have developed ambassadorial relations with the Tang court, by the time of Li He (790–816), who records a visit in one of his extant poems: although geographical specifics of the state of Kunlun’s location(s) remain uncertain, it is associated with trans-Gangetic India, possibly the Malay peninsula or areas controlled by the Sailendra thalassocracy.
Association with divinity
Kunlun is believed to be the representation of the Supreme Deity (Taidi). According to some sources, his throne is at the top tier of the mountain and known as the “Palace of Heaven“.
As it was sometimes viewed as the pillar holding up the sky and keeping it separated from the earth, some accounts place the top of Kunlun in Heaven rather than locating it as part of the earth: in this case, the Supreme Deity’s abode on Kunlun is actually in Heaven and Kunlun functions as a sort of ladder which could be used to travel between earth and Heaven.
Accordingly, any person who succeeded in climbing up to the top of Kunlun would magically become an immortal spirit.
Although not originally located on Kunlun, but rather on a Jade Mountain neighboring to the north (and west of the Moving Sands), Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of Meng Hao in the West, in later accounts was relocated to a palace protected by golden ramparts, within which immortals (xian) feasted on bear paws, monkey lips, and the livers of dragons, served at the edge of the Lake of Gems.
Every 6000 years the peaches which conferred immortality upon those who ate them would be served (except the time when they were purloined by Monkey King). Originally a plague deity with tiger teeth and leopard tail, she became a beautiful and well-mannered goddess responsible for guarding the herb of immortality.
Yu Shi, a Chinese spirit or god of rain, also known as the “Lord of Rain” or “Leader of Rain” is thought to have his dwelling place upon the Kunlun slopes. During the reign of Shennong, a certain Chisongzi (Master Red Pine) performed a rain-making ceremony which successfully ended a terrible drought, leading to his promotion to “Yu Shi“, “Master of Rain“.
According to the Shanhaijing, the top of Kunlun is the habitation of shamans, depicting Wu Peng holding the herb of immortality there, in the company of five other shamans called Siva Harish.
In later tradition it was pictured as a Daoist paradise, inhabited by xian, or Daoist immortals (humans who had metamorphosed into the superhuman form), which was presided over by Xiwangmu. The xian were often seen as temporary residents, who visited by means of flying on the back of a magical crane or dragon.
Kunlun has a lively bestiary, with various more-or-less fantastic beasts and birds described as present in its environs. Often the tiger or beings with tiger-like features are associated with it, since the tiger is symbolic of the west, as Kunlun is often associated with the Western Paradise.
Creatures symbolic of immortality are often seen or described in depictions of it, such as deer or cranes. Xiwangmu is often identified as having a spotted deer as a pet. Besides the cranes (traditionally thought of as the mounts or the transformations of immortals), other birds come and go from the mountain, flying errands for Xiwangmu: these blue (or green) birds are her qingniao.
Sometimes the poets claim to have received a happy inspiration during a visit by one of these birds, carrying a message from Xiwangmu.
The flora of Kunlun and its environs is in keeping with the rest of its natural (and supernatural qualities) and includes the Pearl and Jade Trees, the Tree of Immortality, and Tree Grain, the last of which (Muhe) was forty feet in height and five spans in thickness.
Peaches are (and have been) often associated with Xiwangmu The langgan was a tree of fairy gems in colors of blue or green, which was reported to grow on Kunlun in the classic books of the Zhou and early Han dynasties.
Palaces and Gardens
Kunlun is described as having various structures, areas, or significant features either on or around the area of the mountain.
The palace of Xiwangmu, sometimes described as having golden ramparts, was located on Kunlun: those blessed to gather there might partake of the fruit of longevity.
Often her palace is described as having a park or garden, bordering a Jasper Pool. Of gardens, a (the) Hanging Garden was referenced early on.
Rivers and Sands
Four rivers were sometimes said to flow out of Kunlun Mountain: the Red River, the Yellow River, the Black River, and the Yang River (Yang 2005: 161). A fifth river was said to flow around the base of Kunlun, which rose in a way which was particularly steep and hard to climb.
This Weak River at the base of Kunlun flowed with a liquid so lacking in density that not even a feather could float upon it. This was a major obstacle since it could neither be swum or floated over on a vessel (Yang 2005: 162, 219).
However, this was an obstacle routinely overcome by those practiced in the way of magic (Daoist or shamanic). Two examples of those who overcame were Sun Wukong (Journey to the West) or Qu Yuan in his poem (“Li Sao”), both already on the path to immortality, one as a god and the other as a poet.
Another barrier to Kunlun was the dangerous and difficult-to-cross Moving Sands, also known as Flowing Sands or Liusha. According to Shanhaijing (Chapter 16), it was located south of the West Sea, behind the Red River, and on the shore of Liusha.