Mulian Rescues His Mother

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Mulian Rescues His Mother
Mulian Saves HIs Mother.jpg
Mulian and his mother Madame Liu (19th century)
Traditional Chinese 目連
Simplified Chinese 目连
Literal meaning Moggallāna Rescues His Mother

Mulian Rescues His Mother or Mulian Saves His Mother From Hell is a popular Chinese Buddhist tale originating in the third century CE, inspired by tales from India of Maudgalyayana, who is named Mulian in Chinese stories. Mulian, a virtuous monk, seeks the help of the Buddha to rescue his mother, who has been condemned to the lowest and most painful purgatory in karmic retribution for her transgressions. Mulian cannot rescue her by his individual effort, however, but is instructed by the Buddha to offer food and gifts to monks and monasteries on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month, which established the Ghost Festival (Chinese: 鬼 節; pinyin: guǐjié). The monk's devotion to his mother reassured Chinese that Buddhism did not undermine the Confucian value of filial piety and helped to make Buddhism into a Chinese religion.

The story developed many variations and appeared in many forms. Tang dynasty texts discovered early in the twentieth century at Dunhuang in Gansu revealed rich stories in the form of chuanqi ('transmissions of the strange') or bianwen ('transformation tales'). Mulian and his mother appeared onstage in operas, especially folk-opera, and have been the subject of films and television series. The story became a standard part of Buddhist funeral services, especially in the countryside, until the end of the twentieth century. The legend spread quickly to other parts of East Asia, and was one of the earliest to be written down in the literature of Korea, Vietnam, and Japan.[1]

A version of the legend substituting Mulian (Pali: Moggallāna) with his friend, Sāriputta, is recorded in the Theravāda Petavatthu and is the basis of the custom of offering foods to the hungry ghosts and the Ghost Festival in the cultures of Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Laos.[2]

The stages of the story

Mulian Intercedes With Buddha to Save His Mother

Indian myth becomes Chinese legend

The Indian ancient classic epic, the Mahabharata, includes the story of an ascetic who sees his ancestors hanging upside down in purgatory because he has not married and provided them with heirs.[3] The Petavatthu, a Theravadan scripture in the Pali Canon, contains an account of the disciple Sāriputta rescuing his mother from her torment in hell as an act of filial piety. It claims to represent conversations that occurred during the lifetime of the Buddha but probably dates to the 3rd century BC.[4]

The apocryphal Mahayana scripture known as the Yulanpen or Ullambana Sutra retells this story, but changes the protagonist to the disciple Moggallāna, known in Chinese as "Mulian". Mulian asks the Buddha how he can relieve the suffering his mother is enduring in her present incarnation as a hungry ghost. Prior to his enlightenment, both of his parents had died. His clairvoyance had found his father's new incarnation in the heavenly realms but his mother had been greedy with money he had left her, refusing to help the monks who passed by, and she had been reborn into Avīci, the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts or Pretas. These had ravenous appetites but could not eat, either because food burst into flames upon their touch or because their throats were too thin and fragile. Mulian is informed that a tray of food offered to the community of monks and nuns at the time of their return from the summer retreat (i.e., on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month) will prompt them to offer prayers that will benefit 7 generations of his ancestors.[5]

Buddhist tradition held that this was an authentic record of a conversation in the 5th century BC that had been translated from Sanskrit to Chinese by Dharmaraksa under the Jin at some point between AD 266 and 313.[6][7] The earliest attested celebration of the festival appears in much later sources, such as the 7th-century Record of the Seasons of Jingchu, and more recent scholarship finds that the sutra was a forgery[8] composed in China in the mid-6th century.[6] Particularly Chinese phrases include the phrasing "divine eyes" used to describe Moggallāna's clairvoyance.[citation needed] The tale is possibly based on a Central Asian original[8] contained in the 4th-century Zengyi Ahan Jing translated into Chinese by the Kabuli monk Gautama Samghadeva during his residence in Chang'an.[7]

The tale was part of an ongoing process of reconciling Buddhism with Chinese ideas of filial piety.[9]

Tang dynasty tales of karmic punishment and redemption

In the Tang dynasty, Mulian was a popular topic of sutra lectures by monks. They often used pictures and songs to amuse their illiterate audiences, enriching the Mulian story with many variations and making it thoroughly Chinese. The story-tellers shaped their stories to meet the charge that Buddhism undermined filial piety because it took believers away from their families and prevented them from attending to their ancestors. The written versions of these stories were bianwen, of which a large number were preserved in the library cave at Dunhuang, an oasis in Central Asia, and not rediscovered until the twentieth century.[10]

Tortures of Chinese Buddhist Hell (including those who take money intended for temples [11]

The fullest and most important of these Dunhuang texts is "Maudgalyāyana: Transformation Text on Mahamaudgalyāyana Rescuing His Mother from the Underworld, With Pictures, One Scroll, With Preface." [12] In this text, Mulian's original name is "Radish", or "Turnip," typical Chinese nicknames, and his mother is Liu Qingti.[13]

Before Radish became a Buddhist, he went abroad on business and gave his mother money for feeding monks and beggars. She stingily hides it away, and soon after Radish returns, dies and the Jade Emperor judges that she should be turned over to Yama, ruler of the underworld, and dropped to the lowest order of hell for her selfish deception. Mulian becomes a Buddhist and uses his new powers to travel to heaven. There his father informs him that his mother is suffering extremely in the Avīci Hell, the cruelest of the purgatories. Mulian descends and meets ox-headed devils who force sinners to cross the river to hell and to embrace hot copper pillars that burn away their chests. But by the time Mulian locates his mother she has been nailed down with forty-nine iron spikes. He seeks Buddha's help and is given a rod to smash prison walls and release the prisoners of hell to a higher reincarnation, but his mother is not released. Mulian's mother is reborn as a hungry ghost who can never eat her fill because her neck is too thin. Mulian tries to send her food by placing it on the ancestral altar, but the food bursts into flame just as it reaches her mouth. To rescue her from this torture, the Buddha instructs Mulian and all filial sons to provide a grand feast of "yülan bowls" on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, the time when monks emerge from their summer retreat.[14] When his mother is reincarnated once gain, this time as a black dog, Mulian recites sutras for seven days and seven nights, and his mother is reborn as a human again. In the end she is reborn again and can attain the joys of heaven.[15]

Filial emotion is vivid in this version. Mulian's mother calls him "my filial and obedient son," while Mulian "chokes and sobs with his tears falling like rain." As in the Yulanpen Sutra, she only can be redeemed by group action of all the monks, not any one monk. Mulian, a good Chinese son, exclaims that the most important thing is "the affection of one's parents and their kindness most profound." As Guo puts it, by the late Tang, "the Buddhist embrace of filial piety seems to have been taken for granted..." and the way was opened for further synthesis in later dynasties".[13]

The stories sometimes use earthy characterization.[further explanation needed] When Mulian's mother is reincarnated as a black dog, Mulian seeks her out and she concedes that she is better off than she had been as a hungry ghost. As a dog, she says:

"I can go or stay, sit or lie as I choose. If I am hungry I can always eat human excrement in the privy; if I am thirsty, I can always quench my thirst in the gutter. In the morning I hear my master invoking the protection of the Tree Treasures [Buddha, the Religion, and the Community]; in the evening I hear his wife reciting the noble scriptures. To be a dog and have to accept the whole realm of impurities is a small price to pay for never so much as hearing the word 'Hell' said in my ear."[16]

In another version, "The Mulian Legend," Mulian's mother, Liu Qingti, had been pious but after her husband died took up sacrificing animals to eat meat, resorted to violence, and cursed. When she dies, the Jade Emperor judges that she should be sent to the underworld. Yama, ruler of the underworld, dispatches demons to take her, and she lies to them and to her son, saying that she has not eaten meat or done wrong things. The demons then take her away.[17]

Later variations use Mulian's story for different purposes.[further explanation needed] In the thirteenth century Blood Bowl Sutra, for instance, Mulian's mother must swim in a bloody pool and drink blood to punish her for letting her menstrual blood flow into public waters which the Buddha drank it when his followers used it to make him a cup of tea.[18]


The folk opera "Mulian Rescues his Mother" has been called "the greatest of all Chinese religious operas," often performed for the Ghost Festival on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month. The performance "presented the mysteries of death and rebirth in scenes whose impact on audiences must have been overwhelming" and which taught the audience religious and moral values, though not always in orthodox form.[17]

In the Ming dynasty, Zheng Zhizhen (Chinese: 鄭之珍) (1518–1595), a native of the Huizhou, Anhui, village of Qingxi, Zhenyuan County, wrote the opera Mulian jiu mu xing xiao xi wen (Mulian rescues his mother).[19] According to local legend, Zheng was blind when he wrote the opera and was restored to full sight by a grateful Guanyin (the legend also has it that when Zheng later wrote a love story he went blind again). Zheng's opera places emphasis on Confucian family values.[20]

Mulian in the twentieth century

On the mainland, after declining in popularity after the 1920s, the Mulian opera revived when it was listed as a National Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2006. But even supporters in the People's Republic see the future as under threat from high-tech television and films. There are several further challenges. In the past, the opera was passed on orally through family troupes which kept their skills to themselves. However, these troupes no longer exist. The opera is difficult to perform. The ghost roles involve acrobatic skills which require years of training. Since it is a genre that has a small audience, performers require government support. Some observers point to signs for hope, however. While traditional village audiences have dwindled, some film stars and celebrities have taken up the art. Local authorities in Huangshan City, Anhui province, have also promoted performances as a tourist attraction.[21]

Anthropologists report that in Taiwan the Mulian story was used in funerals at least until the late decades of the twentieth century.[22] Seaman interprets the legend as reflecting attitudes toward women in village Taiwan. Since "because of their polluting nature, women cannot approach the deities who could help them to overcome the ties of karmic retribution caused by their sexuality," but "need men to act on their behalf..." [23]

Film and television adaptations

Among the many film and television adaptations is a 1957 version, starring popular actor Ivy Ling Po.[citation needed]


  • Mair, Victor, ed. (2011), "A local drama from Shaoxing", The Columbia Anthology of Chinese Folk and Popular Literature, translated by Berezkin, Rostislav, New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 303–9 
  • Ma, Y. W.; Lau, Joseph, eds. (1985), "Maudgalyayana Rescues His Mother From Hell" (PDF), Traditional Chinese Stories, Dunhuang Bianwen Manuscript P2319, translated by Eoyang, Eugene (reprinted, illustrated and annoted as Minford, John & Joseph S. M. Lau (2000). "The Quest of Mulian". From Antiquity to the Tang Dynasty. Classical Chinese Literature: An Anthology of Translations. I. New York; Hong Kong: Columbia University Press; Chinese University Press. ISBN 0-231-09676-3.  ed.), Columbia University Press, ISBN 0-231-04058-X 
  • Mair, Victor H., ed. (1983), "Maudgalyāyana: Transformation Text on Mahamaudgalyāyana Rescuing His Mother from the Underworld", Tun-Huang Popular Narratives, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 87–122, ISBN 0-521-24761-6 
  • Waley, Arthur (1960), "Mu Lien Rescues His Mother from Hell", Ballads and Stories from Tun-Huang, translated by Waley, Arthur, London: Allen and unwin, pp. 216–235  Translation of "Maudgalyāyana: Transformation Text on Mahamaudgalyāyana Rescuing His Mother from the Underworld, With Pictures, One Scroll, WIth Preface."
  • Johnson, David (2000), "Mulian Rescues His Mother", in DeBary, Wm. Theodore, From 1600 through the Twentieth Century, Sources of Chinese Tradition, II, New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 93–104, ISBN 0-231-51799-8  Excerpts.
  • Whitfield, Susan (1999). "The Nun's Tale". Life Along the Silk Road. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 155–73. ISBN 978-0-520-23214-3.  A popularized retelling of the Mulian story by an imagined Tang dynasty nun.



  1. ^ Teiser (1988), pp. 8–9.
  2. ^ How Did Moggallana and Sariputta Rescue their Mothers from the Hungry Ghost Realm?
  3. ^ Waley (1960), p. 216.
  4. ^ Langer (2007), p. 276.
  5. ^ Bandō (2005).
  6. ^ a b Bandō (2005), p. 17.
  7. ^ a b Teiser (1988), p. 114.
  8. ^ a b Mair (1989), p. 17.
  9. ^ Guo (2005), pp. 91–6.
  10. ^ Guo (2005), p. 94-96.
  11. ^ Traditional woodblock print, reproduced in Williams, C.A.S. (1941), Chinese Symbolism and Art Motifs, reprinted Dover, 1976, Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh, p. 455 
  12. ^ Waley (1960), pp. 216–35.
  13. ^ a b Guo (2005), pp. 94–6.
  14. ^ Teiser (1988), pp. 6–7.
  15. ^ Mair (1989), pp. 17–8.
  16. ^ Waley (1960), p. 232.
  17. ^ a b Johnson (2000), pp. 94–5.
  18. ^ Cole (2013), pp. 129–30.
  19. ^ Mulian Rescues His Mother 目蓮救母行孝戲文 World Digital Library.
  20. ^ Guo (2005), p. 89.
  21. ^ Mulian Opera 'Ghost Drama' Revival Women of China March 24, 2011.
  22. ^ Oxfeld, Ellen (2004). ""When You Drink Water, Think of Its Source": Morality, Status, and Reinvention in Rural Chinese Funerals". The Journal of Asian Studies. 63 (4): 961–990. doi:10.1017/S0021911804002384. 
  23. ^ Seaman, Gary, "The Sexual Politics of Karmic Retribution", The Anthropology of Taiwanese Society, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, pp. 391–4, ISBN 0-8047-1043-0 


  • Bandō, Shōjun, ed. (2005), "The Ullambana Sutra (Taishō Vol. 16, No. 685)", Apocryphal Scriptures (PDF), Bukkyō Dendō Kyōkai English Tripitaka Series, Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, pp. 17–44, ISBN 1-886439-29-X, archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-02-10 .
  • Langer, Rita (2007), Buddhist Rituals of Death and Rebirth: Contemporary Sri Lankan Practice and Its Origins, Abingdon: Routledge .
  • Mair, Victor H. (1989), T'ang Transformation Texts, Cambridge: Harvard University Press .
  • Teiser, Stephen F. (1988), The Ghost Festival in Medieval China, Princeton: Princeton University Press, ISBN 0-691-02677-7 .

Further reading

  • Cole, Alan (2013), "The Passion of Mulian's Mother: Narrative Blood and Maternal Sacrifices in Chinese Buddhism]", in Wilson, Liz, Family in Buddhism, Albany: SUNY Press, p. 119-, ISBN 1-4384-4753-1 
  • Cole, Alan (1998). Mothers and Sons in Chinese Buddhism, Stanford University Press
  • Grant, Beata; Idema, W. L. (2011). Escape from Blood Pond Hell: The Tales of Mulian and Woman Huang. Seattle: University of Washington Press. ISBN 978-0-295-99119-1. 
  • Guo, Qitao (2005). Ritual Opera and Mercantile Lineage: The Confucian Transformation of Popular Culture in Late Imperial Huizhou. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-5032-7. 
  • Johnson, David G.; Grant, Beata (1989). Ritual Opera, Operatic Ritual : "Mu-Lien Rescues His Mother" in Chinese Popular Culture. Chinese Popular Culture Project. Berkeley, CA: University of California, distributed by IEAS Publications. ISBN 0-9624327-0-9. 
  • Ladwig, Patrice (2012), "Feeding the dead: ghosts, materiality and merit", in Williams, Paul; Ladwig, Patrice, Buddhist funeral cultures of Southeast Asia and China, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 1-107-00388-1 

External links

  • Mulian saves his mother Series of images, with extensive links to other images of Tang dynasty scroll paintings of hells and purgatories in the series Narratives Informing Chinese Notions of Hell at Reed College.
  • 蒙古文绘本 "目连救母经" (Mongolian Depictions of Mulian Rescues His Mother).
  • Mulian Saves His Mother (YouTube 4 min 40 seconds) East Asia gallery interactive of the [ Asian Civilisations Museum] Singapore. Worship and opera performances in Singapore.
  • Mu Lian Jiu Mu 目连救母 (YouTube 6 min 4 seconds) Singapore Opera recorded February 27, 2013. The scene in which Mulian meets his mother.
  • Mulian Saves His Mother (YouTube 1 min 53 seconds). Nanyin performance by Siong Leng Musical Association at the Poh Ern Shih Temple, Singapore. Mulian fights demons.
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