TAOIST CHINESE ALTAR-PIECE
In 1999 i received two of these altar pieces from "Elf-Zen,"
a net-friend in Singapore. He did not tell me much about
them -- only that they are Taoist, that they are always sold
in pairs, and that they are placed on altars.
In the center are two small white plastic doll-like "twins," their faces
painted as if wearing makeup for a Chinese opera. They wear
little robes made of folded paper. Between them (tipped to
one side in this picture) is a chicken feather dyed pale
turquoise blue. The little dolls are mounted on an elaborate
three-dimensional frame made from thin slivers of bamboo tied
together with threads and covered with coloured gold foil,
twisted multi-coloured pipe cleaners, and golden
half-spheres. Mounted behind the frame at the top are two peacock feathers.
I was quite mystified by this item, but assumed that they were a
regional variant of the "lucky Boy" and "Lucky Girl" seen on
a zillion Chinese New Year prints and amulets.
However, correspondence with ay
(firstname.lastname@example.org) and Zhou
(email@example.com), both of whom i met in the newsgroup
painted a different story.
Jay's research turned up an astronomical myth, a folk tale,
and some religious stories about the Taoist entity known as
Xi Wang Mu, The Queen Mother of the West, and her mortal
consort The Prince of the East -- all of which made it obvious that these are
the two beings depicted on the altar-piece.
An early folk-tale version of the story concerns Weaving Maid, a
goddess whose task it is to weave the clouds across the sky.
She falls in love with a mortal man, Oxherd, marries him,
and bears him two children. She is so happy on Earth that
she stops weaving the clouds, so her father, the God of
Heaven, snatches her back to the skies. Oxherd, distraught, follows
after her, carrying their two children. He reaches Heaven,
but he cannot get across the Silver River
that separates them. Only on the 7th day of the 7th lunar
month can Weaving Maid cross over on the wings of all the magpies of
the world, and thus husband and wife spend one night
together every year. A festival held on
that night is attended by women who weave and spin for a
living; they look for divine favour and dexterity for the
coming year, and if a spider
is seen weaving on a gourd, it is a sign their wishes will
As Taoism became a dominant religion in China, the story was
modified a bit, and the protagonists were named The Queen
Mother of the West and the Prince of the East. The Queen
Mother of the West lives in the Ku'n Lu'n Mountains and grants immortality instead of weaving
clouds, but in other respects, the story is much the same.
At its conclusion the two lovers are still separated by
a heavenly stream, the Han River -- but now a single great bird, whose name is
Seldom Seen, bridges the distance between them, extending
one wing over The Queen Mother of the West and one over the
Prince of the East. On the 7th day of the 7th lunar month,
The Queen Mother of the West crosses over the Han River on the bird's body
to meet her mate, and thus the essential Taoist qualities of Yin and Yang
The Queen Mother of the West or Weaving Maid is the star Europeans call
Vega in the constellation Lyra, the Oxherd
is the star Altair in the constellation
Aquilla the Eagle, and the Silver or Han River between them
is the Milky Way.
The astronomical nature of the myth is identified on
the excellent web page at http://www.albany.edu/faculty/lr618/chin.html
hosted by the University at Albany, State University of New
York, and can
easily be deciphered in the following two poems, also quoted on that page:
From "The Book of Songs" (hymns of the Chou dynasty, sixth to the third
centuries B.C.E., among the earliest poems in the Chinese language):
Once these stories are told, the symbolism of the Taoist
altar piece is obvious: it depicts the Queen Mother of the
West or Weaving Maid and the Prince of the East or Oxherd
separated by a pale blue feather, representing the silvery
Han River that flows between them. Above and behind them
stretch the peacock feathers that symbolize the wings of
the great bird Seldom Seen. I am guessing that this altar-piece
was made to celebrate the 7th day of the 7th lunar month,
the day that Yin and Yang unite.
In Heaven there is a River Han
And from "Nineteen Old Poems" of
the Han period (202 B.C.E. - 9
Looking down upon us so bright.
By it sits the Weaving Lady astride her stool,
Seven times a day she rolls up her sleeves.
But though seven times she rolls up her sleeves
She never makes wrap or skirt.
Bright shines that Draught Ox,
But can't be used for yoking to a cart.
Far away twinkles the Herd-boy star;
Brightly shines the Lady of the Han River.
Slender, slender she plies her white fingers;
Click, click goes the shuttle of her loom.
At the end of the day she has not finished her task;
Her bitter tears fall like streaming rain.
The Han River runs shallow and clear;
Set between them, how short a space!
But the river water will not let them pass,
Gazing at each other but never able to speak.
If anyone knows the Chinese name of this item,
the festival it commemorates, or any additional details,
please contact me via email.
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