Sunday, February 25, 2007

Kunlun (崑崙山) (Glossary)

Kunlun (崑崙) is the name of a mountain and/or island in Chinese literature, usually interpreted as two different locations both known more descriptively as 崑崙山 "Mount Kunlun" (Kunlun-shan).

It is generally proposed that the earlier and "original" Kunlun was a mountain range west of China and found near the home of the "Queen Mother of the West." A later Mount Kunlun is located in the Southern Sea often identified as Pulo Condore off the south coast of Vietnam or more generally with the southeastern archipelago to include the Philippines and Maluku, or Southeast Asia as a whole.

However, there is considerable evidence suggesting that the earlier Kunlun is associated also at the same time as the western location with the region southeast of China. I will suggest that in this case Kunlunshan or Mount Kunlun as associated with the cosmic Ruo Tree represents the western counterpart of the Fusang Tree in the double mountain or double-peaked mountain theme.

Early texts like the Yaodian tell of the demon Gonggong's butting Mount Buzhou causing the earth to tilt toward the southeast where the waters flow and collect. These waters pressed toward the Kongsang Tree (Hollow Mulberry) widely seen as another name for the Fusang Tree in the southeast. In latter literature, it is stated that the earth's waters flowed via a current into the abyss known as the Weilu to the east of the Fusang Tree.

The underground Ruo (Weakwater) River, probably another name for the Yellow Springs, is said to rise to the surface at the foot of the Ruo Tree in some texts but at the foot of the Kongsang Tree in others. This fact, combined with the similarity of the ruo character with some oracle bone script forms of sang (mulberry) have led scholars like Mizukami Shizuo to suggest the two were confused and actually one and the same. Sarah Allan though notes that the Chuchi Tian and the Huainanzi mention both trees and a western tree where the sun ravens perch in the evening.

This situation can be solved by suggesting that the Ruo Tree in the "West" was actually western in orientation in relation to the Fusang Tree but was otherwise located in the same spot in the Southeastern Sea. Thus, the Ruo River would rise near both the Fusang and Ruo trees which faced each other on two peaks of a double-peaked mountain oriented east-west.

This idea is strengthened by the fact that the Fusang/Kongsang Tree is said to be situated near an eastern sea from which the Sun rises, while the Ruo Tree is near a western ocean where the Sun sets. The latter situation however would not apply to Central Asian locations often suggested for Kunlun like the Karakorum Mountains. Indeed the region around Kunlun is often described as an archipelago.

In the Huainanzi, four rivers radiate from the corners of Mount Kunlun: the Yellow River, probably not the modern one, from the northeast corner flows eastward, the Vermilion River flows from the southeast corner toward the southwest, the Ruo River from the southwest corner flows toward the south, and the Yang River in the northwest enters the sea south of the Winged People Country.

All four rivers are stated to enter the "Southern Sea." John S. Major explains this using the Gonggong story and the characteristics of rivers in China, but it could just as well describe a mountain on an island in the Southern Sea, where naturally all rivers would flow.

Southeast of Kunlun, texts like the Shanhaijing place a Jade Mountain associated with the Queen Mother of the West. The Weilu or "Tail-Gate" to the east of the Fusang Tree is also described as a jade mountain or jade rock in the sea. Joseph Needham notes that the Weilu was associated in latter times with the Kuroshio Current (Japan Current):

In +1067 Ssuma Kuang was quite sure that the Fu-Sang country was to the west of the Wei-Lü Current, i.e. on its hither side, a fact which had much influence on latter European sinologists. By +1744 Chhen Lun-Chiung spoke with the voice of centuries-long tradition when he said that the Wei-Lü was the ancient name of the current now known as the Kuroshio...In his Ling Wai Tai Ta, speaking of Java (Shé-pho), Chou Chhu-Fei says: 'East of Shé-pho is the Great Eastern Ocean Sea, where the waters begin gradually to slope downwards. The Kingdom of Women (Nu-Jen Kuo) lies there. Still further east is the place where the Wei-Lü drains into the world from which men do not return. The statement about the point of origin of the Kuroshio current was right enough, though we should say the Philippines instead of Java; and perhaps the 'bourne from whence no traveller returns' was the American continent rather than the abyss.

The Ling Wai Tai Ta, a Sung Dynasty work also mentions the belief that it was at the Weilu that the ocean water "pours down into the Nine Underworlds." In a similar sense, the Ruo River and Yellow Springs are directly linked with the Underworld. In the earliest reference to the Yellow Springs in the Zuozhuan, for example, Duke Zhuang of Qing tells his mother "we shall not meet one another until we reach the Yellow Springs," i.e. the land of the dead.

Some Daoist commentators view the Weilu as a superheated rock or mountain in the ocean that evaporates water on contact. The description calls to mind the Indian Vadavamukha, the fiery submarine mare's head that continuously consumes the ocean's waters.

The association with cinnabar, the sunbirds, the axis mundi, the cataclysm of fire and water are other details that point to a location in the southeast.

Medieval texts

Kunlun in medieval times, especially starting in the T'ang Dynasty, is most often used to describe places and people from the south or southeast of China.

The world "Kunlun" (崑崙) at all times appears to be a Chinese rendering of a foreign word. Some have suggested that the word is derived from "Kurung" or "Kulung," which according to Chinese sources was the family name of the kings of Bnam. Others associate it with Khmer words like Krom (Old Khmer kloñ and Cham klauñ), and related Arabic terms like Komr and Kamrun as "Kunlun" is used in describing the kingdoms and rulers of the Funan and Linyi kingdoms in Indochina.

Another possibility, first suggested by Moens, is that the use of Kunlun to suggest a king or ruler might be related to terms like "kulano" and "kolano" found in Maluku and Mindanao.

The term "Kunlun" along with related words "Kulun" and "Gulun" also appear as ethnonyms , especially for a group of people traded as slaves starting around T'ang Dynasty times. These slaves are described as dark-skinned and frizzy haired, much the same as the people of Funan and Linyi, whose rulers was also known as Kunlun. These Kunlun slaves though are strangely said to have yellow hair possibly a reference to the common Melanesian trait of blondism.

The traveller I-Ching and the herbalist Su-Kung mention cloves growing in Kunlun suggesting Maluku where there are many people of "Melanesian" physical type.

A Chinese-Sanskrit dictionary of the 7th or 8th century equates Chinese Kunlun with Sanskrit Dvipantara a general term for insular Southeast Asia extending all the way to the sources of cloves.

Of course, these etymologies for "Kunlun" would presumbly relate only to the southern locations, unless the word migrated from an original home in regions to the south or southeast of China toward the west of China in conformance with Chinese views of their country as the "Middle Kingdom."

The Kunlun were one of three local seafaring people involved in Southeast Asian maritime trade, the others being the Po-sse and the Yueh. Of these, the Kunlun appear to have been most closely associated with "Melanesian" or "Negrito" types although it would probably be a mistake to think of "Kunlun" as a racial designation. The Chinese generally thought of all the Man or "Southern Barbarian" people as having dark complexion.

Axis mundi

The prime example of the axis mundi in Chinese literature is probably the Kongsang Tree upon which one climbs to Heaven. The association of Mount Kunlun and the "Kunlun Pass" with the axis mundi apparently relates to its connection with the Kongsang or "Hollow Mulberry" via the Ruo River textual passages.

We can also see this in the idea of the goddess Miao Shan, a form of Kuanyin, having her home in Mount Potalaka, the Buddhist version of the axis mundi. This is generally identified as Putuoshan off the Zhejiang coast, although Miao Shan originally hails from the more southern kingdom of Hsing Lin in Southeast Asia.

Miao Shan also known as Nanhai-kuanyin "Kuanyin of the Southern Sea," appears to fuse together aspects of earlier goddesses like Xihe of the Southeastern Sea, Mazu, patroness of seafarers, Kuanyin and even the Queen Mother of the West.

Millennial aspects of Miao Shan especially as found in the Xian tian da dao system show up widely in South China and Southeast Asia fit in generally with the strong millennarian milieu of the southern regions which can be extended back in Chinese literature to the tale of multiple Suns/Ages of the Fusang Tree.

Multiple streams of information suggest the association of Mount Kunlun with the axis mundi originally has a southeastern origin derived from the conception of a double mountain, of which it constitutes the western half, that eventually leads to the placement of Kunlun to the West of the Middle Kingdom in Chinese cosmology/geography. However, at the same time, the southern Kunlun never quite fades away as the existence of the rather specific name Kunlunshan (崑崙山) for a kingdom in the South indicates.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Donkin, Robin. Between East and West: The Moluccas and the Traffic in Spices Up to the Arrival of Europeans, DIANE, 2003, p. 153.

Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilisation in China, Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 549-550.

Schafer, Edward Hetzel. The Golden Peaches of Samarkand: A Study of T'ang Exotics, University of California, 1985, p. 290, notes 45-50.

Schipper, Kristofer Marinus. The Taoist Body, University of California
Press, 1994, p. 107.