An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Mu Tianzi zhuan 穆天子傳

Jul 18, 2010 © Ulrich Theobald

The short book Mu Tianzi zhuan 穆天子傳 "Biography of King Mu, Son of Heaven", also called Zhou wang youxing ji 周王遊行記 "The travels of the king of Zhou, the phantastic biography of King Mu 周穆王 (r. 976-922 BCE), one of the first rulers of the Western Zhou dynasty 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE), has an amazing history of transmission. The text was discovered in 281 AD in Jixian 汲縣 in a tomb of the Warring States period 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE) King Xiang 魏襄王 (r. 335-319 BCE) of the state of Wei 魏, as part of the library buried during the funeral. Among the texts (known as Jizhongshu 汲塚書 "Tomb book from Ji") that were written on bamboo slips was the biography of King Mu, as well that of his consort. The text had a length of 6 juan "scrolls" and was written in the ancient small seal script (xiaozhuan 小篆). Emperor Wu 晉武帝 (r. 265-289) of the Jin dynasty 晉 (265-420) therefore ordered the scholars Xun Xu 荀勖 and He Jiao 和嶠 to transcribe it into modern chancery script (lishu 隸書).
The first five chapters of the book describe in an annalistic style the travel of King Mu to the west, the course he and his companions, seven "worthies" took, what the saw and whom they encountered until they reached the land of the Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu 西王母) who feasted them with food and wine. The last chapter is actually a separate text called Shengjilu 盛姬錄 and describes the illness and death of Consort Sheng, and her interment by King Mu.
The imperial bibliography Jingjizhi 經籍志 in the official dynastic history Suishu 隋書 classified the Mu Tianzi zhuan as a kind of imperial diary (qijuzhu 起居注), but because of the phantastic character of the book it was later rated as a novella (xiaoshuo 小說). The Ming period 明 (1368-1644) scholar Hu Yinglin 胡應麟 called the Mu Tianzi zhuan the forerunner of Chinese fiction.
Modern scholars like Ding Qian 丁謙 and Gu Shi 顧實, attempted reconstructing the path of his phantasy travel and identify the capital Zongzhou 宗周 with Luoyang 洛陽 and the land of the Queen Mother with the Pamir range, and thus try to establish a picture of early China's relationships with Inner Asia which must have existed long before the famous journey of Zhang Qian 張騫 in search for allies against the Xiongnu 匈奴 during the Former Han period 前漢 (206 BCE-8 CE).
The original text is not preserved in full, and of the 8,514 characters only a part of 6,622 has survived. The Mu Tianzi zhuan is to be found in the Daoist Canon Daozang 道藏 and the reprint series Han-Wei congshu 漢魏叢書, Sibu beiyao 四部備要, Siku quanshu 四庫全書 and Bilinlangguan congshu 碧琳琅館叢書.
The oldest commentary was written by the Jin period 晉 (265-420) scholar Guo Pu 郭璞. During the Qing period 清 (1644-1911) Tan Cui 檀萃, Hong Yixuan 洪頤煊 and Zhai Yunsheng 翟雲升 commented the Mu Tianzi zhuan. In 1990 the Shanghai guji press 上海古籍出版社 published a modern edition in a joint version with the texts Shenjiying 神異經, Hainei shizhou ji 海內十洲記 and Bowuzhi 博物志.

Li Xueqin 李學勤, Lü Wenyu 呂文鬰 (1996). Siku da cidian 四庫大辭典, Changchun: Jilin daxue chubanshe, vol. 2, p. 2168.
Mathieu, Rémi (1993). “Mu t‘ien tzu chuan”, in Michael Loewe, ed. Early Chinese Texts: A Bibliographical Guide (Berkeley: Society for the Study of Early China/Institute of East Asian Studies), 342-346.
Miao Wenyuan 繆文遠 (1992). "Mu Tianzi zhuan 穆天子傳", in: Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史, vol. 2, p. 708. Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe.
Nienhauser, William H. Jr. (1986) "Mu T‘ien-tzu chuan 穆天子傳", in William H. Nienhauser, ed. The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature (Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press), 632-633.