Brainstorming: The extinction of China’s Ancient Noble Houses, and the rise of the Bureaucracy.

Investigating a new line of inquiry for a blog post, this time about the near extinction of the major Noble Families of Antiquity after the Tang Dynasty.
What I have managed to establish so far as facts, these are preliminary research, with no particular conclusion or direction. I am just brainstorming. 
1) The Tang Noble families were the last great aristocracy that could trace their supposed aristocratic lineages back to the Pre-Qin Dynasties (Zhou, Shang, and Xia Dynasties).
2) The Tang Dynasty was also when the Imperial Examination became entrenched as a institution, allowing the rise of Scholar-Officials, gentry raised from the ranks of commoners on the basis of merit and education. The following dynasties was almost always ruled by Scholar-Officials, permanently moving China towards Bureaucratic Rule.
3) Southward Migration of Noble Families over successive dynasties. After the collapse of the Tang Dynasty, the survivors moved into Southern China.
4) According to wikipedia: Historically there are close to 12,000 surnames recorded (including those from non-Han Chinese ethnic groups), of which only about 3,100 are in current use, a factor of almost 4:1 (about 75%) reduction.
5) Surnames, in the original Zhou culture, were only held by nobility, but after the Qin Dynasty, commoners begin to have surnames. Chinese Surnames arise from many sources, including nobility, occupation, position in government, or are ethnic or religious (ie, “Barbarians”, specific religious groups, etc).
6) Confucius’ established his House in 551 BC in the Zhou Dynasty, but he traces his lineage from the Royal Family of Shang Dynasty, through the Dukes of Song. Confucius’ direct descendant, Kung Te-cheng is the current head of House and still holds a hereditary governmental position (Sacrificial Official to Confucius) directly derived from a hereditary peerage (Duke of Yansheng). This proves at least, that it was possible for a Noble House that was 2500 years old to survive intact to the present day. The Yamato Dynasty (The Japanese Imperial Family) could only claim 2000 years of patrilineal descent, though they are the world’s oldest monarchy.

7) Succeeding dynasties did ennoble new peerages. The last Han-Ethnic regime to do so was the short-lived “Dynasty” under the self-proclaimed Emperor Yuan Shikai when he subverted revolutionary efforts to restore Imperial Rule. His rule lasted for under a year, from 1915 to 1916.

8) The Yuan Dynasty (Mongol Empire) and the Qing Dynasty (Manchurian-Chinese State) brought with them their own systems of nobility and peerages, but they made extensive use of the Imperial Examination system. The Mongols initially did not do so, refusing to adopt such extensive use of Chinese language, ideology, and educational history. But they eventually did.

9) There is an undeniable Colonial Aspect to Chinese Surname Culture. It seems to me that the Han Chinese culture was the only one that seemed extensively concerned with surname culture and keeping records of their lineages (or at least they were the ones whose practice survives to the modern day). They brought these practices everywhere they went. There was certainly ancient, equally sophisticated cultures of non-Han origination in China (such as that of ancient Fuzhou), but everyone was encouraged to adopt a Han culture and a Chinese surname over time. With regards to good records, even someone like me, who was literally from a village in Taiwan, have genealogical records that goes back to at least the 17th century (when my Ancestor first established himself in Taiwan, as a Scholar-Official serving under Kongxinga’s command during his invasion of Taiwan, with even older records traceable to specific towns in China). We kept good records in Taiwan, although in China, during the Cultural Revolution, a lot of genealogical records, family temples, etc were destroyed.

Tentative Conclusion: Again, these preliminary research have no true conclusion, but I am leaning towards a combination of 1) Imperial Examination becoming a permanent institution in the culture along with 2) the unfortunate decline of most of the truly ancient houses, and 3) the normal phenomenon of surname extinction, and 4) The Chinese Cultural Revolution as the key causes.

My Family Genealogical Records.
My Family Genealogical Records. Page 1 of 50.

Golden Mother: The 3500 year old Bronze Age Goddess still worshipped today

Han period Brick Relief depicting The Golden Mother. Xiwangmu. Queen Mother of the West. Source: Zhongguo meishu quanji bianji weiyuanhui (1993), no. 216.

The Unknown Goddess

The Golden Mother, also known as Xiwangmu (The Queen Mother of the West), The Western Mother, Golden Mother of the Nacre Lake, etc is a 3500 year old Chinese deity still widely worshipped today.

Unlike most Chinese Gods, the Golden Mother did not originate as an apotheosized human being. Her origins were mysterious, stretching back to a time before the written word, as was the case for most of the truly ancient Chinese deities.


“The Queen Mother of the West obtained it [Dao] and took up her seat at Shao kuang. No one knows her beginning; no one knows her end.”
— Zhuanzi (c. 3rd century BC)
Of note, the other major Chinese deity of the 2nd Millennium BC was Shang-Di (the ‘monotheistic’ universal God), who was worshipped as the primordial progenitor and supreme being during the Shang Dynasty; but the Shang Kings also paid homage to the Western Mother, who they knew of as a powerful mother goddess to the West.
Chinese Theology (this is proper term of the religion as a whole) was Monistic in origination.
Shang-Di was without doubt the “Highest Deity”, but he worked through intermediaries in the form of the Shang Kings, his Priestesses, and other numinous spirits. I shall elaborate more on Shang-Di, his evolution over time, and his relationship to the Shang Dynasty and China as a whole in a different post.

Deeply Symbolic

The Golden Mother symbolizes the Axis Mundi (the centre of the world, like Yggdrasil or Mount Meru), she is also the cosmic weaver (she wears a Sheng Headress, which is a symbol of the loom) and in primordial times was a goddess of destruction.

She has tiger characteristics and was a herald of death, slaughter, epidemics and terror, whilst simultaneously having benevolent aspects. In Medieval Times she became increasingly diluted as a more benevolent, life-giving deity (ie, the Queen Mother, as depicted in Journey to the West).

That’s actually very similar to the Egyptian Goddess Hathor/Sekhmet. In Egyptian Religion, Ra sent the normally benevolent Hathor (the Cow Goddess) to punish humans in the form of Sekhmet, the Lioness.

In Chinese Popular Media, the Golden Mother is often depicted as the wife of the Jade Emperor (who was actually multiple, successive gods of usually human origination), but these are actually based on minor accounts.

In most accounts and stories, the Golden Mother was always a single deity.

Personal Relationship

She’s a deity with whom one has personal relationships, appearing before the potentially worthy to confer immortality and dispense with her teachings.

Most of those she approaches ultimately fail to uphold her teachings and as a result could not attain immortality that she offered.

Note that Immortality could possibly refer to spiritual or transcendental immortality. If we consider that the meaning of Xian (Immortals) originally referred to saintly beings with shamanistic powers, but who were definitely not physically immortal, then the neolithic proto-Chinese cultures likely had the same conceptualizations regarding eternal life.

Of the Kings that has purportedly encountered or were disciples of the Golden Mother, the following two were successful in becoming “immortals”.

Shun and Yu were Chiefs of the Tribal Confederacy (the Huaxia) that eventually became China; established by The Yellow Emperor and the Red Emperor during the Neolithic Era. As was the norm for the succession of those times, the Rulers were not father and son, nor were they related by blood. They were considered Saints.

And of those who failed to become Immortals:

Symbolism and Context

Max Dashu wrote a very comprehensive paper on Xiwangmu, whom he called “the shamanic goddess of China”.

In it, he details that Ancient Chinese usage of Wang-Mu (lit. King Mother) does not indicate royal women, but rather any Grandmother (even that of peasants). Paul Goldin says that Chinese usage of Wang (King) was used to refer to any numinous beings or spirits. The proper translation of Xiwangmu is actually The Spirit Mother of the West.

She’s a truly ancient god, and far more cosmic in scope than her relatively anthropomorphic presentation in the modern day.

As I said before, she was a single deity, not paired with a male god, because the “wife” part of her identity was an invention of Medieval writers who tried to tell stories about a mostly unknown mother goddess.

If anything, the Western Mother was often paired with a mysterious “Eastern Mother”. There were implications that the semi-matriarchal Shang Dynasty worshipped multiple Mother Divinities.

Max Dashu wrote:

The oldest reference to Xi Wangmu is an oracle bone inscription from the Shang dynasty, thirty-three centuries ago: “If we make offering to the Eastern Mother and Western Mother there will be approval.” The  inscription pairs her with another female, not the male partner invented for her by medieval writers—and this pairing with a goddess of the East persisted in folk religion. Suzanne Cahill, an authority on Xi Wangmu, places her as one of several ancient “mu divinities” of the directions, “mothers” who are connected to the sun and moon, or to their paths through the heavens. She notes that the widespread tiger images on Shang bronze offerings vessels may have been associated with the western mu deity, an association of tiger and west that goes back to the neolithic. [Cahill, 12-13]
And of course she had qualities akin to that of the Fates, in Indo-European Mythologies:

The sheng is usually interpreted as a symbol of the loom. The medieval Di Wang Shih Zhi connects it to “a loom mechanism” the goddess holds. Cahill says that the sheng marks Xi Wangmu as a cosmic weaver who creates and maintains the universe. She also compares its shape to ancient depictions of constellations—circles connected by lines—corresponding to the stellar powers of Xi Wangmu. She “controls immortality and the stars.” Classical sources explain the meanings of sheng as “overcoming” and “height.” [Cahill, 45; 16-18]

This sign was regarded as an auspicious symbol during the Han dynasty, and possibly earlier. People exchanged sheng tokens as gifts on stellar holidays, especially the Double Seven festival in which women’s weaving figured prominently. It was celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh month, at the seventh hour, when Xi Wangmu descended among humans. Taoists considered it the most important night of the year, “the perfect night for divine meetings and ascents.” [Cahill, 16, 167-8] It was the year’s midpoint, “when the divine and human worlds touch,” and cosmic energies were in perfect balance. [Despeux / Kohn, 31]

The Shan Hai Jing goes on to say of the tigress-like Xi Wangmu: “She is controller of the Grindstone and the Five Shards constellations of the heavens.” [Cahill, 16] The Grindstone is where the axial Tree connects to heaven, the “womb point” from which creation is churned out. [Mitchell cite] In other translations of this passage, she presides over “the calamities of heaven and the five punishments.” [Strassberg, 109] For Guo Pu, this line referred to potent constellations. [Remi, 102] The goddess has destructive power—she causes epidemics, for example—but she also averts them and cures diseases. [Asian Mythology]

Many Forms

The Golden Mother is also known as the Nine Radiance, she is the Governor of the Nine Numina, and the Mother of the Nine Heavens.

This establishes her possible role as the hypostasis of Doumu, the Supreme Being and Female Counterpart to the God of Heaven (Shang-Di), representing the Big Dipper/The Great Chariot.

In Esoteric Taoism, Doumu was usually conflated with the Golden Mother and also Jiutian Xuannü (Mysterious Lady of the Nine Heavens), who is an ancient war and sex goddess. In this way, she is a “triple goddess” so to the speak.

The Big Dipper has 7 stars and 2 stars that are not visible to the naked eye (these last two are possibly Vega, a previous North Star and Polaris, the current North Star). Because of this, Doumu is the mother of the Nine Emperors, who are the Manifestations of the God of Heaven (the Nine together are the “Father of the Big Dipper”). 

Doumu is thus simultaneously the consort of God and the Mother of God.

Doumu bears similarities to Semitic goddesses like Ninlil (the consort of Enlil in Sumerian Religion), Ishtar, Ninhursag, or Asherah (the consort to El in Canaanite Religion).

In Chinese Buddhism, Doumu was conflated with Bodhisattva Marici in the Vajrayana Buddhist traditions, during the Tang Dynasty, when Buddhism (and many other foreign religions) were very popular. China had adopted deities as far away as Greece, so this was no surprise.

In Taiwan, The Golden Mother was sometimes associated with Mazu, whom I wrote about in The Goddess of Maritime China.

However, Mazuism was considered it’s own distinct religion, originating from the Fujianese Shamaness Cults in the 10th century, and Doumu and the Golden Mother should not be considered the same kind of religious entities, given their divergent evolution over time. Asia is fairly syncretic however and these different religions, cults and ancient deities are often conflated or united in new theologies.

Xiwangmu/Doumu was also worshipped as Wusheng Laomu (“Eternal Venerable Mother”) or Wuji Laomu (The Absolute Infinite Mother); the Absolute Reality (God) that was primarily the focus of millenarian salvationist sects that have been extent since the Han Dynasty.

The Golden Mother was much more than the somewhat lesser roles accorded in today’s mass media. The so-called wife of the Jade Emperor was in factuality the Chinese Godhead.