Sacred Mountains of China

Temple of Pu Tuo Shan, China
Temple of Pu Tuo Shan, China (Enlarge)

With accurate historical records of events that occurred over three thousand years ago, China has some of the oldest recorded history of any country on earth. It is from the legendary era, however, long before historical records were compiled, that we find the first mention of sacred mountains in China. Why were certain mountains believed to be sacred? Perhaps the most primitive reason was the belief that mountains, especially the tallest ones, were pillars separating heaven from earth. According to one ancient Chinese cosmology, the realm of heaven covered the realm of earth and from this belief arose the idea that heaven could fall down if not supported. The mountains were believed to perform this function. In the myth of the 'Reparation of Heaven', the Goddess Nu Wa, having repaired the broken sky, killed a huge turtle and erected its four feet as supporting pillars in the four quarters. These four pillars allowed the world to again enjoy a peaceful and harmonious life, and later came to be regarded as the earliest sacred mountains.

Another reason for the sanctification of particular mountains is the legends and myths of both shamanism and early Taoism. These legends speak of sages and mystics, often called 'immortals', who lived deep in the mountain wilderness, existed on diets of rare herbs and exotic elixirs, and lived to be 400 to 800 years old. The mountain areas where these sages dwelled came to be regarded as sacred places, as access points to the heavenly realm, and also as the abodes of magical spirits and powerful deities (in the Chinese context a sacred mountain can mean a single peak, a cluster of hills, or a whole mountain range).

The Shu-ching, a classic of traditional history compiled around the fifth century BC, mentions how the ruler Shun (2255-2206 BC) went every five years on a pilgrimage to the four mountains that defined the limits of his realm. Offering a sacrifice on the summit of each mountain, he began a tradition that has lasted to the present age (it is interesting to note that the Chinese phrase for pilgrimage - ch' ao-shan chin-hsiang - means 'paying one's respect to a mountain'). While only one of these mountains, Tai Shan (originally called Tai Tsung), was referred to by name in the Shu-ching, from other sources we learn that the following five mountains were highly venerated by the Taoists in ancient times:

  • Tai Shan, Taoist mountain of the east, Shandong province, 1545 meters.
  • Heng Shan Bei, Taoist mountain of the north, Shanxi province, 2017 meters.
  • Hua Shan, Taoist mountain of the west, Shanxi province, 1997 meters.
  • Heng Shan Nan, Taoist mountain of the south, Hunan province, 1290 meters.
  • Song Shan, Taoist mountain of the center, Henan province, 1494 meters.

These mountains were not, however, the only or even the most important of the Taoist sacred peaks. Writing in Pilgrims and Sacred Sites in China (listed in the bibliography under Naquin), John Lagerwey comments: "A note on what is meant by "Taoist mountain" is perhaps in order here. It is traditional to regard the Five Peaks (wu-yueh) as Taoist, in contrast with the "four most famous (Buddhist) mountains" (ssu-ta ming shan). While both history and cosmology can be called on to justify this identification of the Five Peaks with Taoism, these mountains already constituted a distinct group in the Former Han dynasty before Taoism had taken on an organized ecclesiastical form, and it is only from the late sixth century on that Taoists made a concerted effort to claim these mountains as theirs. The Taoists were never entirely successful in pressing this claim, and of the five only Hua Shan and T'ai Shan, albeit in a very different manner, play a significant and ongoing role in Taoist religious history. Perhaps even more to the point, even these two mountains are nowhere near as important to Taoist history as are such mountains as Mao Shan and Lung-hu Shan, centers, respectively, of Shang-ch'ing and Cheng-i Taoism. Together with Ko-tsao Shan (in Kiangsi), the ordination center of Ling-pao Taoism, these mountains constituted the "tripod" on which officially recognized forms of Taoism rested from the early twelfth century on."

In the 1st century AD, merchants returning from India via the Silk Route began the introduction of Buddhism into China. Over the next few centuries adventurous Chinese pilgrims traveled to India to visit the sacred places of the Buddha’s life. The most famous such pilgrim was Hsuan-tsang (596-664), the Tripitaka Master, who spent sixteen years in India. These pilgrims returned with translations of Buddhist texts and, equally important, with an affinity for the Buddhist tradition of monastic life. Like Taoist hermits, the Buddhists monks favored quiet mountains and deep forests for their meditative practices. Small hermitages and later great monastic complexes sprung up at many peaks (some previously held sacred by the Taoists) and over the centuries the Buddhists began to regard four peaks as having primary sanctity:

  • Pu Tuo Shan, Buddhist mountain of the east, Zhejiang province, 284 meters. Sacred to Kuan-Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.
  • Wu Tai Shan, Buddhist mountain of the north, Shanxi province, 3061 meters. Sacred to Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom.
  • Emei Shan, Buddhist mountain of the west, Sichuan province, 3099 meters. Sacred to Samantabhadra, the Bodhisattva of Benevolent Action.
  • Jiu Hua Shan, Buddhist mountain of the south, Anhui province, 1341 meters. Sacred to Kshitigarbha, the Bodhisattva of Salvation.

Each of the Buddhist sacred mountains is considered to be the dwelling place of a Bodhisattva. These particular Bodhisattvas are mythological spiritual beings that have dedicated themselves to the service of assisting all sentient creatures in the transcendence of worldly suffering and the attainment of enlightenment. These Buddhist mountains and the Taoist peaks listed above became the primary pilgrimage destinations of both China's masses and also the ruling elite. Over many centuries the monastic centers developed into great centers of scholarship, art and philosophy, with hundreds of temples and thousands of monks and nuns. This extraordinary way of life continued unbroken until the Communist Revolution of 1949. During the 'Great Leap Forward' in the 1950's and the 'Cultural Revolution' of the 1960's, both Buddhism and Taoism were brutally suppressed and more than 90% of China's temples and great cultural artifacts were completely destroyed. Since the 1980's the Communist apparatus has taken a less destructive approach to religious culture and both Buddhism and Taoism are reviving. Some of the monasteries and temples have been reconstructed, yet much of the reconstruction work is poorly done and lacking in artistic beauty. Readers interested in more in-depth study of sacred sites and pilgrimage in China are recommended to consult the works of Naquin and Yu (and their extensive bibliography), Birnbaum, and Geil.

Stairway to Heaven, Pilgrims ascending sacred Mount Tai Shan
Stairway to Heaven, Pilgrims ascending sacred Mount Tai Shan (Enlarge)

Mount Tai Shan

Tai Shan is not merely the mountain home of the Gods such as Mt. Olympus in Greece or Mt. Sinai in Egypt; it is considered a deity itself and has been venerated by the Chinese as their most sacred peak since at least the third millennium BC. The emperors of ancient China regarded Tai Shan as the actual son of the Emperor of Heaven, from whom they received their own authority to rule the people. The mountain functioned as a God who looked after the affairs of humans and who also acted as a communication channel for humans to speak to God. Seventy-two legendary emperors are said to have come to Tai Shan, but the first known evidence dates from a rock carving left on the mountain in 219 BC by Emperor Shih-huang who is remembered for having begun construction of the Great Wall. Historical records tell of the enormous retinues that would accompany an emperor on his pilgrimage to Tai Shan; lines of people might stretch from the bottom to the top of the mountain, a distance of over six miles. In addition to the royalty, artists and poets have also favored the holy peak. The walls lining the path up the mountain are covered with poems and tributes carved in stone, proclaiming the importance and beauty of the surroundings. Confucius and the poet Dufu both wrote poems expressing their respect, and legends tell that those who climb the mountain will live until they are one hundred years old.

Over 7000 steps lead to the summit, and the slopes are dotted with numerous temples, inns, small restuarants and shops for the millions of annual pilgrims. Two important temples are situated at the top of the peak; the Temple of the Jade Emperor, the heavenly ruler of this world; and the Bixia, the Temple of the Princess of the Azure Clouds, the daughter of the Jade Emperor. The temple of the Princess is perhaps the preeminent place of pilgrimage for Chinese women. Thousands make the long climb each day, and occasionally one may still see very old women with the tiny, bound feet of pre-communist times. Mothers whose daughters have been unable to conceive come to pray for grandchildren, and two attendant goddesses standing next to the Princess are miricle working images, one for curing eye ailments, the other for children' diseases.

Pilgrims climbing Mount Hua Shan, China
Pilgrims climbing Mount Hua Shan, China (Enlarge)

Mt. Hua Shan

The five peaks of Hua Shan are thought to resemble a five petalled flower, hence its common name, the 'Flowery Mountain.' Originally it was called Xiyue - meaning 'Western mountain' - because it was the westernmost of the five Taoist peaks. A tortuous 15 kilometer stepped path leads to the Green Dragon Ridge (Bilong ji) where other trails lead to the major peaks. Of the five peaks, the southernmost (2,100 meters) is the highest, closely followed by those in the east and west. Formerly the five mountains were dotted with temples but now few remain. Today Hua Shan is a popular hiking destination for Chinese youth on vacation but the mountain routes are still trekked by devoted pilgrims and wandering monks. In order to reach certain temples and the caves of the sages great courage is needed. Pilgrims must scale cliffs with only a linked chain for support and to fall is certain death. These routes have been given the humorous, but quite accurate, names such as 'Thousand Feet Precipice' and 'Ear Touching Cliff'.

Pilgrims preparing to enter Puji Si temple, Pu Tuo Shan, China
Pilgrims preparing to enter Puji Si temple, Pu Tuo Shan, China (Enlarge)

Puji Si Temple, Pu Tuo Shan

Putuo Shan, the lowest of China's sacred mountains, is located on a small island of only twelve square kilometers, five kilometers east of Zhoushan Island in Zhejiang province. The peak of Putuo Shan, meaning 'beautiful white flower,' is 291 meters above sea level and is reached by a stone staircase with 1060 steps. A holy place before the arrival of Buddhism, the island is full of mystic caves, tranquil valleys, overhanging cliffs and golden beaches.

Putuo Shan and its temples are sacred to the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, a goddess of compassion. Legends tell that Avalokitesvara attained supreme enlightenment upon the island and that Sudhana, another Bodhisattva, came to Putuo Shan to pay homage to Avalokitesvara. Mount Putuo first became a Buddhist Sanctuary during the Tang Dynasty. Legends tell of an Indian Monk, arriving late in the 9th century, who had received instruction and a seven-hued precious stone from the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. In 916, the Japanese monk Huie was stranded at Mount Putuo while bringing a statue of Avalokitesvara from Mount Wutai to Japan. He prayed to the Goddess for help and his call was answered. In gratitude he built at temple upon Mount Putuo to enshrine the statue of the Goddess he had been carrying. This is the so-called Bukenqu (Reluctant to Go) temple in Mount Putuo. Hsuan Tsang, the celebrated monk of the Tang Dynasty is also known to have visited Putuo Shan on his pilgrimage to India.

Avalokitesvara (also known as Kuan Yin or Guanyin) was originally a male Bodhisattva in India and Tibet, who changed gender after reaching China. Since the Yuan Dynasty, the image has gradually been converted into that of a young woman, and in Putou Shan she is sometimes depicted holding a vase in her hand, pouring out holy water to ease the suffering of people. This Bodhisattva, in either of its gender forms, is a deity of mercy and gentleness, and its association with Putuo Shan indicates that the energetic character of the site is conducive to the development of compassion in the human heart.

The three major temples on Putuo Shan, Puji, Fayu and Huiji, are among the most impressive and elaborate temples in China. First built in 1080, during the reign of the Northern Song Dynasty, the Puji Temple covers a space of 14,000 square meters and has nine halls, twelve pavilions, and sixteen chambers. Chinese legend has it that Avalokitesvara was born on February 19th of the lunar calendar, achieved enlightenment on June 19th, and achieved nirvana on September 19th. On these dates, pilgrims from all over the country congregate at Mount Putuo to pay homage to the Goddess. A festival of Kuan Yin on or around April 3 also draws many thousands of pilgrims. A folklore tradition on the holy island says, "Every nook and corner of the mountain contains a temple, and a monk appears whenever someone has lost his way."

Monasteries of Wu Tai Shan, China
Monasteries of Wu Tai Shan, China (Enlarge)

WuTai Shan

Because of its isolated location deep in the high mountains of north China, Wu Tai Shan was mostly untouched by the destructive machinery of the Communist Revolution. Perhaps nowhere else in all of China may one so clearly view the traditional ways and the superb temple architecture of old China. The center of Chinese Buddhism for two thousand years, Wu Tai Shan was originally a Taoist sacred mountain known as Tzu-fu Shan, meaning 'Purple Palace Mount,' and it was believed to be the abode of various Taoist immortals. Wu Tai Shan actually encompasses a number of different mountains, but long ago the Buddhists chose five particular flat-topped peaks as the perimeter of the sacred area, hence the name which means 'Five Terrace Mountain'. The highest peak, at 10,033 feet, is called Northern Terrace and the lowest, at 8153 feet, is called Southern Terrace; between these two peaks stretch twelve miles of mountains.

The first temples on Wu Tai Shan were built during the reign of Emperor Ming Di, 58-75 AD and textual sources describe an estimated 200 temples erected during the Northern Ch'i dynasy of 550-577 AD, but subsequently destroyed. Today, fifty-eight temples built after the Tang Dynasty (AD 684-705) still stand as well as the oldest wooden temple in all of China, the Nan Chan Si temple built in 782 AD. There are forty-eight temples of Chinese Buddhism and ten Tibetan Lamasaries. Taihuai town, in the center of the Wu Tai mountains, is surrounded by the five peaks. Most of the temples are located near the town. The peaks of Wu Tai and all the surrounding temples are sacred to Manjushri, the Buddhist Bodhisattva of Wisdom and Virtue. Scholars trace the beginning of the Manjushri association with Wu Tai Shan to the visit of an Indian monk who visited in the 1st century AD and reported a vision of the Bodhisattva. Manjushri (called Wenshu Pusa in Chinese) is believed to reside in the vicinity of Wu Tai Shan and numerous legends speak of apparitions of the Bodhisattva riding a blue lion in the high mountains above the monasteries.

Wu Tai Shan is widely known to the people of China and also to Buddhists in Japan, India, Sri Lanks, Burma, Tibet and Nepal. Wu Tai's Buddhism is indissolubly tied up with that of Japan and had a great influence on that country. Seeking after the Buddhist truth, such famous monks as Ennin and Ryoosen in the Tang Dynasty, and Choonen and Seisan in the Song Dynasty made long pilgrimages to Wu Tai Shan. The Tantric master Amoghavajra also came to meditate here.

Statue of Bodhisattva  Manjushri, Wu Tan Shan, China
Statue of Bodhisattva Manjushri, Wu Tan Shan, China (Enlarge)
Martin Gray is a cultural anthropologist, writer and photographer specializing in the study of pilgrimage traditions and sacred sites around the world. During a 40 year period he has visited more than 2000 pilgrimage places in 165 countries. The World Pilgrimage Guide at is the most comprehensive source of information on this subject.

Sacred Mountains of China