The Qingtong theme developed from older beliefs in Dongwanggong the "King Father of the East." Indeed, Qingtong took not only most of the roles of the Eastern King, but also of his consort Xiwangmu "Queen Mother of the West." His home region is also known as the "Eastern Florescence" or the "Blue-Green Florescence" as blue-green is the color of the East in Wuxing cosmology. So, "Blue-Green Lad" is synonymous with "Eastern Lad."
Early texts place Dongwanggong not only in the Eastern seas but decidedly in the southern regions, i.e., to the southeast. In the Zhouli ("Rites of Zhou") redacted around 130 BCE, but containing material mostly from the Zhou Dynasty, Dongwanggong, known by one of his alternate names, Mugong ("Wood Sire"), is said to reside at Chien-mu "the Determining Tree."
The Huainanzi (2nd century BCE) says of the Chien-mu Tree:
The Chien-mu is in Tu-kuang. All the gods ascended and descended by it. It cast no shadow in the sun and it made no echo when someone shouted. No doubt this is because it is the center of Heaven and earth.
As the Chien-mu tree casts no shadows at some point in the year, we should suspect an equatorial location. The Shanhaijing, from about the same period as the Huainanzi, confirms the statement of the Chien-mu Tree casting no shadow and adds:
Beyond the South Sea, between Black River and Green River. . .There is a tree with green leaves, a purple trunk, black blossoms, and yellow fruit called the Chien-mu tree. For one thousand feet upward it bears no branches, and there are nine tanglewoods, while underneath there are nine root twinings. Its fruit is like hemp seed; its leaves resemble bearded grass. T'ai Hao used to pass up and down by it.
In the Shangqing and other medieval texts, the Chien-mu "Determining Tree" is equated with the Fusang Tree, and this probably was also the case in more ancient times judging from the similar geography and characteristics. Medieval sources also place Dongwanggong's home on the island of Penglai suggesting a further equation with this fabled location.
Penglai along with the other paradise islands was famed for its location to the east, but ancient sources also confirm that this should be specifically to the southeast. According to Liezi (4th century BCE), there were originally five paradise islands beyond the eastern seas that floated on the backs of great turtles. A giant caught two of these islands with a fishing line to sacrifice them for tortoise shell divination causing two islands to float away. The remaining three isles of the blest led by Penglai were located near the Ta-Ho a great abyss into which "the waters from the eight points of the compass and from the uttermost parts of the earth, and from the streams of the Milky Way all flow." And it is further states that "this they do without causing any appreciable change in the depth of the 'Abyss."
Zhuangzi from about the same period as Liezi calls this cosmic drain into which all waters flow the Weilu and notes that "it never empties."
In the Chuci, a collection of poems from the state of Chu dating to the Warring States period, this "gap" in the ocean is located to the southeast where the waters drained after Gong Gong caused the earth to lean in that direction.
Kang Hui [Gong Gong] was enraged, and the land leaned southeast [why?]
The nine provinces were askew; the river valleys were fouled [how?]
The eastward flow never fills the sea [who knows why?]
(John S. Major, 1993:64, emphasis added )
Zhuangzi also mentions a geographical feature known as the 'Southern Stygia," to which the Phoenix (Feng) flies regularly with the south-blowing monsoon in the sixth month. This deep or underworld location is also called the "Stygian Sea," and is located a great distance to the South. The 4th to 5th century CE geographical work Hai Nei Shih Chou Chi associates the dark waters of the Southern Stygia with Penglai. During the T'ang Dynasty, the Southern Stygia was located in the midst of the South Sea (Nanhai) where the goddess Lady of the Southern Stygia (Nan ming fu jen) dwelt. Medieval texts also locate the Weilu clearly in the southeastern regions of the ocean.
The Chen Kao dated to about 489 CE states that Qingtong's home of Fangzhu, described as having a square shape, is located in the ocean southeast of Kuai-chi county, the latter corresponding approximately to modern Shaoxing in Zhejiang Province. The name "Fangzhu" has been translated "Square Speculum" and probably is linked to a bronze mirror that was thought in ancient times to collect lunar dew drops during the Full Moon. There was a Greater Fangzhu proper and two Lesser Fangzhus on the eastern and western sides of Greater Fangzhu. There were two great mountains among the ranges of Fangzhu, the Great Mountain of Lasting Light and the High Mound of Night's Moonlight. Qingtong's palace was located on the Mountain of Eastern Florescence. The Lesser Fangzhus were described as circular in shape. The western Lesser Fangzhu had a large Buddhist population with many prominent stupas and tiered buildings. The eastern Lesser Fangzhu was a storehouse of treasures and the plants of immortality. Interestingly with reference to Buddhism in western Fangzhu, the Liangshu states that in 458 CE just 31 years earlier than the Chen Kao, Buddhist monks introduced their religion to the country of Fusang. In 520 CE, emissaries from Fusang are said to have brought to China a gift of a semi-transparent jewel or crystal about a foot in circumference used for gazing at the Sun (Joseph Needham, 1962: 114).
Qingtong plays an important role in Daoist millenarian texts through his connection with Li Hong, the end-times savior believed by some sects to be a reincarnation of the sage Laozi.
Daoist messianism traces its roots back to the earliest sages. Confucius, Laozi and Mencius all believed in a type of savior king who ruled, and shall rule, in the Teh "the age of perfect virtue. Daoists know this virtue as wu-wei and Confucianists call it jen. According to Mencius, a new savior sage or king appears cyclically every 500 years. Zhuangzi used the term "Great Peace" or Taiping to describe the golden ages, and "Perfect Ruler" or Zhenjun for the savior king. These terms would appear predominantly in latter millenarian literature. Early in the Han Dynasty, Jia Yi and the father of Sima Qian expressed expectations of a new sage or king as the period of 500 years from Confucius was fast approaching. A Daoist book, "The Classic on Great Peace and on the conservation of the Origin according to the Calendar revealed by the Officers of Heaven" was presented to the emperor requesting that the dynasty renew the Mandate of Heaven. The author was promptly imprisoned and terminated. Rebellions broke out leading up to the first great millenarian Taiping revolt of 184 CE.
If we admit to a greater antiquity for the legendary history, there are also cosmological cycles of destruction and creation that may have helped in the development of later millenarian views. The great deluges caused by Gong Gong and the battle between the fire and water gods are examples of such upheavals. These world catastrophes are usually followed by golden age periods. The Wupian Zhenwen of Ge Chaofu (400 CE) describes the deluge as the most important element in the turning of the great ages. Medieval punning on the sound "hong" as in the savior Li Hong's name is believed to be linked with the word hong "flood, vast, e.g., the first Ming emperor uses the word in his first year title with suggested millenarian motivations (David Ownby, Mary F. Somers Heidhues, 1993: 167).
By at least the mid-T'ang period, we also see the Daoist idea of the geological formation known as the "Mulberry Fields" in the eastern Ocean that undergoes cyclical catastrophic change. Due to changing sea levels and/or rising land formations, the Mulberry Fields would periodically rise above the ocean allowing people to cross on the resulting land bridge to Penglai. In latter times, messianic Buddhists believed that Prince Moonlight would lead the elect across this land bridge to hide in caverns under Mount Penglai during the apocalypse, which is characterized by a great world flood.
Among Daoists, Qingtong leads the 'seed people' across the Mulberry Fields to Fangzhu during the end-times tribulation.
During the Six Dynasties period, texts like the Spirit Spells of the Abyss suggested that a sage during the Former Han Dynasty known as Muzi Gongkou, the cryptic four character spelling of Li Hong, was an avatar of Laozi. The Shiji (2nd or 1st century BCE) of Sima Qian states that Laozi had the surname of Li and it became a Daoist tradition that future messiahs would have the same surname. Some also suggested they should have the same name as the Han dynasty sage Li Hong. Shangqing texts make Li Hong the deity of the Golden Porte in Heaven, to whom Qingtong visits to obtain millenarian scriptures.
It is Qingtong, acting as a mediator, who delivers these texts to humanity. In some versions, he must deliver them twice because people cannot decipher their hidden meanings. As mentioned, Qingtong also leads the elect over the Eastern Sea dryshod via the Mulberry Fields to his island Fangzhu, and from there to the heavenly Golden Porte of Li Hong during the latter's return.
Another example of cosmic cycles in Chinese myth may be found in the story of the archer Yi's shooting down of nine of the Ten Suns. The superfluous Suns rose from the Fusang Tree and fell into the Weilu. Although the legends do not connect the events directly with cyclic periods, the geological and climate upheavals associated with this myth and similar ones in neighboring regions indicate catastrophic and cyclic thinking. The Ten Suns are related to the cyclical ten celestial stems used in astrology and calendrics that originate from at least Shang Dynasty times.
With his residence near the Fusang Tree and "Sun Valley" (Yanggu), Qingtong has clear solar associations. He is called the Lord and Master of the brilliance and "florescence" of the dawn, and one 6th century text states that his given name is Yang "Sun." Thus, it is not surprising that Qingtong along with other residents of Fangzhu practice a type of alchemical mediation known as 'ingesting the rays of the Sun and Moon.'
Performing the Way of holding the sun in the heart, the moon in the "Clay Pellet," is referred to as "Reducing Change" (sheng i). If one is able purposefully to perform it, there will be no marantic or knotted things within. It is a Way of eradicating the Three Corpses of the body, the hundred diseases, and the thousand malevolences, of refining the cloud-souls and constraining the white-souls. If sun and moon constantly illuminate the interior of your physical form, demons will then have no form in which to hide. The Azure Lord performs it (i.e., this exercise) now as he did in the past. We pattern ourselves on his person.
-- Chen Kao
(translated in Paul W. Kroll, 1985: 82)
Another important aspect about Qingtong is his youth. The theme of the precocious child and the child prodigy date back to some of China's oldest extant literature including what is believed to be the most ancient layers of the Book of Odes. Possibly this theme, which became very popular during the Han Dynasty, helped in the development of Qingtong. The Buddhist savior Prince Moonlight, who appears somewhat later, is also portrayed as a youth. In the case of Qingtong though he is only young in appearance as his age in years is great.
There appears to be a good argument for Prince Moonlight developing out of the Qingtong theme. The latter originating from legends of Dongwanggong "King Father of the East" who lives in the region of the Chien-mu "Determining Tree." The Chien-mu is not only to the East but to the South, i.e. to the Southeast in the South Sea and the equatorial region where the Sun casts no shadows at certain times. The Chien-mu acts as an axis mundi and in latter literature is equated with the Fusang Tree. Also in latter literature, Dongwanggong's home is specified as Penglai.
Qingtong's home is said to be in the region of the Chien-mu/Fusang Tree, while Buddhist literature says Prince Moonlight resides on Penglai. Both lead the elect across a land bridge to their paradise islands in the latter days. From Fangzhu, Qingtong leads the seed people to the Golden Porte of Heaven, an obvious reference to the Chien-mu axis mundi. In a similar sense, Prince Moonlight in some versions escorts the chosen people to Penglai but in others to the Tushita Heaven. The following passages, translated by Kroll, from the Chen Kao describe a flight through the heavens that starts from Qingtong's home in the Eastern Florescence.
Relaxed and rested in the stillness of Eastern Florescence,
I take aloft the screened carriage, circumvolve the
Looking down peer amidst mounds and ant-hills,
Not at all aware of the Five Marchmounts' eminence.
Those numinous hursts are the equivalent of abyssal
Larger and smaller follow one another in exchange.
"Length" and "brevity" are lacking in any "more" or
The great cedrela in just a moment is come to its end.
-So why not commission the compliance of Heaven,
And take office as an unleashed spirit in the Hollow
The geologic catastrophism associated with Qingtong's home region in the Southeast is noteworthy. In the tales of the loss of two of the original five paradise islands, the catastrophes of the Mulberry Fields, the shooting down of the multiple Suns and the resulting fiery water-consuming Weilu, we could have significations of the "Ring of Fire" environment.
The floating away of the two isles of the blessed could possibly preserve ancient oral remembrance of times when rising sea levels submerged whole islands. The reference to the forming of land bridges at the Mulberry Fields could also possibly refer to the climate cooling phase that started about 5,000 to 5,500 years ago in which sea levels dropped before stabilizing to current levels. During that time, land bridges could have indeed formed among some small island chains.
Paul Kekai Manansala
Birrell, Anne. Chinese Mythology, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1993.
Bokencamp, Stephen R. Early Daoist Scriptures, University of California Press, 1999.
Kroll, Paul W. "In the Halls of the Azure Lad," Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 105, No. 1. (Jan. - Mar., 1985), pp. 75-94.
Liu, Kwang-Ching and Richard Shek [eds.]. Heterodoxy in Late Imperial China, Honolulu : University of Hawai'i Press, 2004.
Major, John S. Heaven and Earth in Early Han Thought: Chapters Three, Four and Five of the Huainanzi, State University of New York Press , July 1993.
Needham, Joseph. Science and Civilization in China. Cambridge University Press, 1962.
Ownby, David; Heidues, Mary Somers, Editors. Secret Societies Reconsidered, Perspectives on the social history of modern South Asia and Southeast Asia, M.E. Sharpe, Armonk, N.Y., 1993
Schafer, Edward H. "Wu Yün's 'Cantos on Pacing the Void'," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 41, 1981, 377-415.
__. 'Three divine women of south China', CLEAR, 1 (1979), 31-42
Wang, Eugene Y. Shaping the Lotus Sutra: Buddhist Visual Culture in. Medieval China, Seattle WA: University of Washington Press, 2005.