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Chinese Mythology 101: Kunlun Shan

By Celia Lee 17 August 2023

Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Mystery shrouds the history of Kunlun Shan, the divine mountain range of Chinese mythology. Etymology, geography, fauna, and supernatural abilities—matters get complicated when learning about “Kunlun” (崑崙; kwan1 leon4). “Kunlun” is not easy to translate accurately, but in the context of Chinese folklore, it connotes the mysterious, unknown, and fantastical. Read on as we delve into the myth surrounding the foot, hillside, and top of the Kunlun mountains in the latest instalment of our Chinese Mythology 101 series.

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Photo: A grotto-heaven in Taiji, Anhui, China (via Wikimedia Commons)

Divine mountain or Taoist grotto-heavens?

Semantically, “Kunlun” relates to two terms. The first is “hundun” (混沌; wan6 deon6) which refers to a state of primal chaos or muddled confusion that existed before life was created, and is often personified as the faceless Di Jiang, also prominent in Chinese mythology.

The second is “kongdong” (空洞; hung1 dung6) which designates an empty space or cave, and has been associated with Taoist grotto-heavens (洞天; dung6 tin1; “holed sky”)—a type of sacred site, usually found in caves, grottoes, mountain hollows, or other underground spaces.

Taking these semantic associations into account, Kunlun Shan could mean “the mountain from which all life sprouted from,” or quite simply, “cavernous mountain.”

Photo: B_cool (via Wikimedia Commons)

Finding Kunlun

According to early texts, Kunlun was the name of a region, namely South and Southwest Asia. The legendary mountain range is mentioned in Classic Mountains and Seas (山海經; saan1 hoi2 ging1; Shānhǎi jīng), a text dating from the Ming dynasty. In one chapter, it is suggested that the mountains are in the Northwest, while another chapter in the same volume locates them south of the Western Sea. Other sources even indicate that Kunlun Shan is at the centre of the Earth—Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings, anyone?

However, if you search “Kunlun Shan” on Google Maps today, you will be directed to a mountain chain in Xinjiang in western China. While this namesake mountain range is popularly considered the accurate location of its mythological counterpart, many scholars quote historical documents disproving this, favouring other locations for the site of mythical Kunlun. While the mountains in Xinjiang may not be the intended physical analogue of the legendary Kunlun Shan, the untouched ethereal beauty of the destination does exude an undeniable mystique.

The Chinese Mount Olympus

Kunlun Shan has a lot in common with another mythological mountain: Mount Olympus. Much like Greece’s highest peak, Kunlun is known as a real mountain range as well as the breeding ground for a whole score of mythological tales. Like Olympus, Kunlun Shan houses a great pantheon of gods and goddesses.

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Photo: guan (via Wikimedia Commons)

Reality or fiction

Much like Mount Olympus, Kunlun Shan is a name attributed to a real mountain range, as well as the set of mystical tales. The mountain is often attributed to two mighty gods: Queen Mother of the West (西王母; sai1 wong4 mou5) and King Father of the East (太帝; taai3 dai3), also known as the Supreme Deity. Legend has it that the Queen and the King reside on the mountains and/or incarnate the heavenly mountain itself. Both are considered righteous gods of Taoism with a high status amongst the pantheon—you can think of them as counterparts of Zeus and Hera.

Photo: A painting depicting the Queen Mother of the West (via Wikimedia Commons)

Home to gods and goddesses

In Greek mythology, Mount Olympus is where deities feasted. In ancient texts, Kunlun Shan is also often referenced as the dwelling place of gods and goddess, other than the Queen Mother and the Supreme Deity. In later understandings of Kunlun as a Taoist paradise, Kunlun Shan is home to notable deities such as Yu Shi (雨師; jyu5 si1), the god of rain, and a collection of shamans and immortal beings (仙; sin1).

A lamp representing the realm of the Queen Mother of the West from the Eastern Han Dynasty. (Photo: Smuconlaw via Wikimedia Commons)

Stairway to heaven

Broadly, Kunlun Shan represents divinity and is the border between Heaven and Earth. In real Atlas-style, the mountain often appears as a pillar supporting the sky, separating it from the terrestrial realm. Consequently, the real-world Kunlun Shan is thought of as a ladder that connects Heaven and Earth. Beware, this is by no means a trail for beginners. The mountain is steep, with many hollowed places and rocky paths that makes the ascent not only difficult, but dangerous. This hike is so risky, rumour has it that anyone who reaches the peak of Kunlun Shan is granted immortality as a reward for their perseverance and courage.

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A supernatural phenomenon

In texts where Kunlun Shan is described, and in paintings where it is depicted, the striking mountain is often adorned with lavish vegetation—such as vibrantly coloured magical fungi—and fauna, all co-habiting in an Edenic paradise. Most notably, the peak is usually portrayed with a halo of fog circling its heights, yet another layer of mystery with regard to Kunlun Shan. Its geology is also peculiar, with texts detailing gem-like rocks and cliffs made up of precious materials such as jade.

Photo: Early 17th century censer in the form of a mythical beast (via Wikimedia Commons)

Fantastic beasts and where to find them

A plethora of wild species is said to roam the lavish gardens of Kunlun Shan paradise. Some stories mention tigers or similar feline creatures, linking the animal’s ties to the west cardinal point and the belief Kunlun Shan is located in the west of China. Since the peak can grant longevity in some retellings, deer and cranes—symbols of immortality—are also popularly linked to the mountain; other bird species are also commonly associated to Kunlun, thought to be the Queen Mother’s messengers between Heaven and Earth.

Photo: Wang Hsüeh-hao, “In the Spirit of Hermitage at Fu-ch'un River” (1816) (via Wikimedia Commons)

Headwater of rivers

Five rivers—both fictious and real—have their sources in Kunlun Shan. This includes the Red River, Black River, and Yang River—three bodies of water often featured in Chinese mythology—the second longest river in China, the Yellow River, and finally, the Weak River. If you are wondering why this last river is dubbed as such, it is because the body of water flows out from the base of the mountain. In theory, this opening is an easy-to-access entrance to the paradisical mountain, its secrets to immortality, and promise of apotheosis, allowing malicious trespassers to bypass the treacherous path up to the top.

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Defence against the Dark Arts

Divinity works in mysterious ways, and you might not be surprised to know that “Weak River” is a misleading appellation. The water that flows in the riverbed is a liquid so impossibly light that no body can float on it. Except for a few Taoists or adherents to shamanic magic, no one can enter the sacred mountain by swimming up or sailing on the Weak River. Who’s the weak one now?

Another famous natural defence on Kunlun Shan are the moving sands (流沙; lau4 saa1). This versatile phenomenon—sometimes a rogue and drifting desert or dune, other times a quicksand river—protects the divine heights from the unworthy.

Photo: Dai Jin, “Inquiring of the Dao at the Cave of Paradise,” early Ming Dynasty painting (via Wikimedia Commons)

Setting the scene

Kunlun Shan is the set of many myths and fictional works in Chinese and Western pop culture. Most remarkably, the mountain range is the venue of choice for Nüwa and Fuxi’s marriage—the Chinese counterpart to Adam and Eve transplanted to a post-flood, Noah’s Ark scenario, where the brother and sister must repopulate Earth. It is also featured in the popular novel, Journey to the West, where Sun Wukong (孫悟空; syun1 ng6 hung1; the Monkey King) and his troupe cross the treacherous moving sands leading to Kunlun Shan. The location is also one of “The Seven Capital Cities of Heaven” in Marvel Comics’ Iron Fist universe.

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Celia Lee

Staff writer

Born and raised in Hong Kong and educated in the UK, Celia is passionate about culture, food, and different happenings in the city. When she’s not busy writing, you can find her scouting for new and trendy restaurants, getting lost in a bookstore, or baking up a storm at home.