The Woman of Wu Shan

Lightly edited on January 31, 2022.

Early morning mist rising from Berley Lake in Oregon. The story in this post reminded me of this kind of scenery back home. Photo by H. McGaughey

Yokohama, Japan Let me begin with a story:

A long time ago in China, King Xiang of Zhou proceeded to the Cloud Dream Pavilion accompanied by the poet Song Yu.  Beholding the peak of Gaotang, they saw a single cloud billow and rise straight up, suddenly changing and shifting within a short time.

The king asked Song, “What kind of spirit is this?”

“That is called the morning cloud,” said Song.

“What is the morning could?”

Song explained:

A long time ago, the late king came to Gaodong, he grew tired and took a nap.  In his dream, a woman appeared.  “I am the woman of Wu Shan, now staying at Gaodong.  Hearing you were visiting, I came to offer my services at your pillow.”

She drew closer and gave the king joy.  As she was leaving, she said, “I live on the peak of a steep mountain in the south of Wu Shan.  In the morning, I am a cloud, in the evening, rain.  Morning and evening, I will appear here.”

The next morning, the king viewed the peak of Wu Shan, and sure enough, a cloud billowed forth.  Thereafter, he built a shrine to the goddess and named it the Morning Cloud Shrine.

That is the end of Song’s story, but his conversation with the king continues in a description of the morning cloud, the evening rain, and the stunning natural beauty of the scenery.

(The above is my translation using the Japanese annotation of the Chinese text attributed to Song Yu. Details at the end of this post.)

Wu Shan (Fusan in Japanese) may be translated as Sorcery or Shaman Mountain.  The first character (fu in Japanese) is used in Japanese in the word for shrine priestess (mi in miko).  It is tempting, therefore, to attribute a shamanic power to the goddess portrayed in the legend.  What may be confidently said, however, is that the predominance of water in the lush environment and feminine fertility are both expressions of the yin element, so the mountain and the goddess are analogous.

According to some sources, the goddess is a deceased imperial princess, which may account for how her image was invoked in the “Aoi” chapter of The Tale of Genji.  Shortly after Aoi’s death, on a rainy evening, Genji says, “Did she turn to rain, to cloud?  I shall never know. . .” and expresses his bereavement to his brother-in-law in poetry that draws on the image of clouds and rain. (Tyler, 181)

By the end of the Kamakura period, interpretations of the legend influenced poetic theory, which began referencing this legend as a concrete example of the aesthetic concept of yugen, an occasionally elusive concept that was also taken up by Zeami in his theory of noh performance.  In other words, the yugen aesthetic was equivalent to perceiving a graceful, mysterious woman within a misty mountainous scene. (Matsuoka, 33)

Of course, the sexual allusion within the legend was not lost on Japanese intellectuals. The Zen monk, poet, and cultural patron Ikkyu took the two characters for cloud and rain from this legend and collocated them to create the word un’u (cloud rain), meaning sex.  (Ikkyu was not shy to express the sexual nature of the relationship he had with his lover Mori in Chinese-style poetry.)

With stories like this, it is hard to say that pre-modern literature is conservative or lacking in vitality or relevance.  On the contrary, old stories seem richer by far because of the history of interpretation behind them.  Some time, I’ll have to write up more about the various Japanese interpretations I mentioned this time.  In the meantime, I’d love to hear what any readers think about the meaning of the woman of Wu Shan.

Matsuoka, Shinpei. “Yugen ga enjaku suru toki: Ikkyū Zenchiku no sekai.” Bungaku April, 1996.

Tyler, Royall, trans.  Shikibu, Murasaki. The Tale of Genji.  New York: Penguin, 2003.

Takahashi, Tadahiko, ed. and trans.  “Kōtō no fu.” Monzen. Shinshaku Kanbun Taikei, vol. 81.  Tokyo:  Meijishoin, 2001.