|Sacred Mountains of China
|The "Four Holy Buddhist Mountains" are actually entirely devoted to Buddhism, with one
of the four principal Bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism thought to be residing at each one.
They are therefore especially-effective practice-sites for veneration of those deities by devotees,
so that their virtues can be acquired within / adopted by the practitioners. The resident Bodhi-
sattva may be considered as the Shanshen [Mountain-spirit; Sanshin in Korean] or Yueshen
[Peak-spirit] of that mountain, although Daoists and local people might venerate a separate native
Shanshen. See my Doryang page.
Establishing these "homes" of the four principal Bodhisattvas on prominent Chinese mountains
started in about 200 CE, as a major step in the sacralization of China as a "Buddha-Land" equal
to India, very important for the proud Chinese to be able to accept and culturally incorporate the
"imported foreign religion" -- a process repeated in Korea by Master Jajang in the 7th century.
They are secondarily a directional set, representing, sacralizing and spiritually defending north/
south/east/west, the four primary directions of India and the Western cultures:
West: Emei-shan (峨眉山 Éméi Shān, in Sichuan Province south of Chengdu City) a magnificent
set of peaks up to 3100 meters high (tallest of these 9), is really just a foothill of the great
chains of lofty mountains flowing westward into Tibet. It is the "home" of 普賢 Pu-xian the
Bodhisattva of Benevolent Actions & Practice -- known in Korea as Bohyeon-bosal, in
Sanskrit as Samantabhadra.
East: Putuo-shan (普陀山 Pǔtuó Shān, actually a rocky island off the coast below Shanghai) is the
"home" of 觀音 Guan-yin the Bodhisattva of Compassion -- merged with the ocean-
goddess Matzu (originally from the south chinese coast, like Fujian Province), and therefore
depicted as female; in Korea this deity remains in its original male form (most of the time) as
the popular Gwanse-eum-bosal. In original Sanskrit he is called Avalokitesvara.
South: Jiuhua-shan (九華山 or 九华山 Jiǔhuá-shān, in Anhui Province south of the Yangtze River,
upriver from Nanjing City) is the "home" of 地藏 Di-zang the Bodhisattva of Salvation from
Suffering in the Afterlife (manifested in human form by a Korean Prince during the Tang Dynasty!)
-- known in Korea as Jijang-bosal, in Sanskrit as Ksitigarbha. It is actually a bit further north
that Putuo-shan and Emei-shan, and should really be "central", but this is ignored.
North: Wutai-shan (Wǔtái-shān 五台山, in Shanxxi Province west of Beijing City) is actually five
big and rounded mountains in a rough circle, connected by ridges, with a great valley and
pond in their center. With the "central" peak at 3058 meters high, and all well above 2000,
it is called the "holy roof of northern China". It is the "home" of 文殊 Wen-shu the Bodhi-
sattva of Wisdom -- known in Korea as Munsu-bosal, in Japan as Monju and in original
Sanskrit as Manjusri. His key characteristics are Wisdom and keen awareness, and his
main teachings are thought to be encapsulated in the Diamond Sutra. Wutai-shan became
a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 -- official page here.
China has many other sacred Buddhist mountains, such as Tiāntāi-shān [天台山, Heavenly Platform
Mountains], with a 1,138-meter summit, in Zhejiang Province (which also hosted a major Daoist temple, and
also might be the legendary Hán-shān [寒山, Cold Mountain], residence of the great Tang poet Hanshan).
The Zhongnan Mountains south of Xian are listed below as sacred Daoist peaks, but were also
hosts to many important Buddhist temples, as with many other mountains nearby important cities.
There are carved-cave-filled slopes such as Luòyáng City's Dragon-Gate Mtn Longmen Grottos,
and the Yungang Grottoes near Datong City of Shanxi Province, and Maiji-shan in Gansu.
And there are yet many more in the "outer China" regions like Tibet, Yunnan, Xinjiang and Taiwan!
The "Five Great Imperial (Daoist/Confucian) Mountains, or Marchmounts"
are also regarded as a directional set -- north, south, east, west & center, according to the ancient
Chinese 五行 Wŭ-xíng "Five Elements/Phases/Agents" system of thought employed by the
Han Dynasty Royal Confucianism and then by Daoism. They all also host Buddhist and Confucian
shrines on their holy slopes.
According to an old metaphoric Chinese myth (not taken seriously by any educated person), these Five
Great Mountains originated from the body of Pángǔ 盤古, the first being and the creator of the world,
when he finally collapsed and died on the region that became China (the Central nation). Tai-shan in
the east was formed out of Pangu's head, and Hua-shan out of his feet. Nan-Heng-shan in Hunan is
the remainder of his right arm, Bei-Heng-shan in Shanxi is of his left arm, and Song-shan was his belly.
There are other such origin-myths of 4 or 5 holy peaks, including the concept that they are cosmic
pillars holding the sky up above the earth, but they have no significance to later traditions.
This system of Five Great Mountains that roughly defined the geographical extent of the heartland of
the Empire of China probably began (as far as we know), appropriately enough, when the first true
Emperor of China, Qin Shi-huangdi, ascended Tài-shān with a formal procession in about 219 BCE,
built a shrine on the peak (where the Jade Emperor Temple is now) and held a ceremony in which he,
the "Son of Heaven", reported to the powers of Heaven that he had successfully (re-)united and
pacified the empire. Subsequent emperors who founded new dynasties or achieved other great
victories followed his example, by traditional count 72 of them (and then Mao Ze-dong in the 1950s),
and this cult expanded to five peaks under the Wu-xing theory; all became objects of pilgrimage for
emperors who considered their positions to be strong enough, as they "inspected their realm". By
the Tang era we know that they were pilgrimage and hermitage destinations for all sorts of spiritually
inclined adepts and travelers. Confucians came to claim them in a theoretical way along with Daoist
as they showed support for the imperial government, and some Buddhist masters also established
temples on them. Together the Confucians, Daoists and then Neo-Confucians came to claim that the
Five Holy Mountains ideology (with pigimages to and rituals at them) had actually been started by
the mythical founding-emperors Yao and Shun in around 2350-2200 BCE -- just in order to give
it the strongest possible ancient legitimacy.
There seems to have been an older system in the most ancient periods of Chinese civilization, the Xia
and Shang eras, of Four Marchmounts (or Lofty Peaks, or Great Mountains), called 四嶽 / 四岳 Sìyuè,
Sa-ak in Korean. This in mentioned only a few times in the oldest texts, and remains mysterious. In
the legend of Yu the Great (trad 2123–2025 BCE), legendary Founding Emperor of the Xia Dynasty
(大禹治水 Dà Yǔ Zhì Shuǐ / "Great Yu Who Controlled the Waters") the Sìyuè appear as a set of noble government
ministers, or perhaps the name of a Ministry, that advises and assists Yu with his governance. Folk-
lorists and historians have various opinions on whether this was four personages, one minister with
that title, or a set of four mountain-gods serving in some kind of divine ministerial function. Some
modern scholars think that it refers to a set of four divine marchmounts anchoring the four corners
or directions of the world, and then their powerful spirits serving the emperor, possibly similar to the
Four Buddhist Mountains described above; but there has never been any association of these with any
four actual mountains in the region of ancient-most China. No more can be known about this 4-holy-
peaks concept, and it was superseded by the 5-holy-peaks under the Wǔxíng Five Elements System.
The Shanshen [Sanshin in Korean] or Yueshen [Peak-spirits] of these five great mountains were
thought to defend the empire from bad fortune, from their favorable geomantic positions -- these
mountain-spirits can be regarded as the Daoist/Confucian equivalents of the 4 principal Bodhisattvas
of Mahayana residing at the Four Buddhist Mountains above. The ceremonies to venerate them and
grant feudal aristocratic status to them (as if they were humans, and key kings serving the emperor)
were called Fengchan [封禅, Contemplation of Bestowing Noble Rank; Bongseon in Korean, Fūzen
in Jp], featuring the sacrifices of many valuable animals and lengthy reports of imperial victories and
the nation's prosperity. See my page on the very similar O-ak [Five Peaks] system of Korea.
The Five Great Imperial-Confucian / Daoist Mountains
or Marchmounts are:
East: Tai-shan The East Great Mountain [Dōngyuè] is named Tài Shān [泰山, Tranquil /
Eminent Mountain], with a 1,545-meter summit. It is the greatest & holiest of them all, and "leader" of
the system of nine holy mountains, partly due to its association with the rising sun (birth, renewal).
It was the first one of the nine established, by the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi-huangdi (late
3rd century BCE) -- and after him some two dozen emperors personally visited and performed the
rituals -- including Mao Ze-dong in the 1960s. It may comprise China's most important set-site of
shrines, monuments and carvings. The main parts of this mountain-cluster are located in Tai-an
City of Shandong Province, fairly near Qufu City, the hometown of the great sages Confucius
and Mencius. Confucians came to claim that the Great Sage himself climbed Tai-shan, seeking
communion with the will of Heaven and supreme energies of Earth, and there is a famous rock-
carving there supposedly written by his hand, among a hundred others. The palatial temple
dedicated to its male Shanshen, one of China's most powerful deities, remains the largest
mountain-spirit shrine in the world, and ranks with only the emperor's palace in Beijing and the
Confucius Family Shrine in Qufu as a traditional Chinese complex (it contains a monument written
by Qin Shi-huangdi commemorating his visit). Another temple near the summit dedicated to the
female Shanshen "Bixia the Princess of the Azure Clouds" (conceived of a s daughter of the Jade
Emperor, enshrined on the summit) is extremely popular, especially with women devotee-pilgrims.
Tai-shan continues to be a major pilgrimage and tourism destination. Tai-shan became a
UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 -- official page here.
North: Bei-Heng-shan The North Great Mountain [Běiyuè] cluster is named Héng Shān
[恆山, Permanent or Stable Mountain] and sits in northern Shānxī Province (west of Beijing and just
north of Wutai-shan), with a 2017-meter summit (the tallest of these 5, 3rd-tallest of the 9). A dozen
of its major temples and shrines have been rebuilt, and there is a cable-car up to those near the
lofty curved-cliff summit. The medium-sized Daoist temple with imperial shrine for veneration of
its spirit has been rebuilt on its southern foot as a tourist attraction. It is also famous for hosting,
on the north face of the next mountain south of the main one (right across from the rebuilt imperial
temple), the amazing "Hanging Temple", a Buddhist shrine-complex similar in architecture to some
of the Daoist shrines rebuilt above.
Central: Song-shan The Central Great Mountain [Zhōngyuè] is named Sōng Shān
[嵩山, Lofty Mountain] and towers over Hénán Province (between the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers),
with a 1,512-meter summit. The huge Daoist temple with imperial shrine for veneration of its spirit
has been rebuilt on its southern foot. It is also famous for the Shaolin Temple, perhaps China's
most famous and important Buddhist monastery (as the home of both Chan/Seon/Zen Buddhism
and Wushu/Kung-fu martial arts) on its northern side (towards Loyang, the ancient capital city).
Sōng Shān may have been the actual first of these mountains to become regarded as supremely
holy by an early Chinese state, being mentioned in such terms in Shang Dynasty oracle-bone
inscriptions. Northern Celestial Master Kou Qian-zhi established his temple on Song-shan.
West: Hua-shan The West Great Mountain [Xīyuè] is named Huà Shān [華山, Splendid,
Illustrious, Flowery or Flower Mountain] and sits in the southwestern corner of Shānxī Province
(as the last prominent mountains of the sacred Qinling Range), with a 1,997-meter summit. This
is the only one of the five that actually was a major residential, teaching, practice and hermitage
center of Chinese Daoism. It still hosts many temples and shrines, although with little authentic
religious or spiritual practices being conducted; it is a very popular tourism and pilgrimage destination.
South: Nan-Heng-shan The South Great Mountain [Nányuè] is named Héng Shān
[衡山, Balancing Mountain] and sits in Húnán Province (south of the Yangtze River), with a 1,290-
meter summit (the shortest of these 5, 2nd-lowest of the 9). The Grand Daoist-Buddhist Temple
with imperial shrine for veneration of its spirit has been rebuilt on its southern foot as a tourism
and pilgrimage destination.
China has a well-known system of Nine Most-Sacred Mountains, and has dozens more that
are highly sacred by any standard. The "Great Nine" are divided as five sacred to the ancient
Daoist religion and four sacred to Buddhism, but this formulation is really too simplistic. There
are many other mountains in China that are very important to Daoism, Neo-Confucianism and
Buddhism, and more -- hundreds more if you include the Tibetan and Uighur regions and
Taiwan Island as parts of "Greater China". In addition, only one or two of the so-called the "Five
Holy Daoist Mountains" have actually been centers of Daoist teachings; that system is really
more part of the 2000-year strain of Confucianism that supported the imperial government system
-- the Daoists just symbolically appropriated it as a show of patriotic loyalty.
The Chinese suffix-character -shan 山 is both singualr and plural, and so the names of sacred
mountains can mean just one mountain and its summit, or a cluster of them, or even an entire
sub-range; most of those mentioned below are clusters of many peaks & slopes, with temples in
valleys & gorges fairly far from each-other; this can make explanations and designations in
English confusing. Almost all of these below are now National Parks, and tourism sites.
The Chinese term for "going on a religious pilgrimage" is chaoshan jinxiang 朝山進香 [ch'ao-shan
chin-hsiang in W-G, and 조산진향 josan-jinhyang in Korean], which means "paying one's respects (by offering
incense) to a mountain (sacred mountain is implied)" -- the same way that one offers veneration to a
temple, shrine or royalty.
However, it is important to understand that out of these five, only Hua-shan was an important center
of Daoist temples that taught monks the doctrines and trained them in the practices; Tai-shan hosted
several famous and important Daoist shrines but was not really an education center, and the same
could be said of the other three to even lesser extents -- some Daoist shrines up above the imperial
temples that were sacred to pilgrims, but not educational temples. Daoist monks were mainly trained
at Hua-shan and other famous Daoist temple-rich mountains such as:
Sichuan's Qīngchéng-shān, [青城山, Azure Castle Mountain],
Nanjing's Mao-shan [茅山, Grass/Reeds Mountain],
Chang-an/Xian's Zhongnan-shan [終南山, Terminal-South Mountains],
Hubei's Wǔdāng-shān [武當山, Military-Propriety Mountain-Range],
Jiangxi's Sānqīng-shan [三清山, Three Pure-Ones Mountains],
Jiangxi's Lónghŭ-shān [龍虎山, Dragon-Tiger Mountain],
Anhui's Qíyūn-shān [齊雲山, "Mountain as High as the Clouds"],
Anhui's Tiānzhù-shān [天柱山, Pillar of Heaven Mountain] a.k.a. Huo-shan 霍山, Wǎn-shān 皖山 ,
Heng-shan 衡山 and Taiyue 太岳, seems to have previously been important;
Qingdao's Láo-shān [崂山],
Fujian's Wuyi-shan and
Yunnan's Weibao-shan and several more.
The Huang-shan [黄山, Yellow Mountain] cluster of Anhui Province is similar to the 3 lesser of the Five,
in that while it was highly significant to Chinese Daoists due to its near-mythic scenic beauty (called
"the loveliest mountain in the world") and the inspirations it provided to countless painters and poets,
it was never a major teaching center. In the past millennium 64 temples of both Daoist and Buddhist
shrines were constructed there (matching 64 as the number of hexagrams in the I Ching [Classic
Book of Changes] -- probably not a coincidence), and today it receives around 20,000,000 visitors
per year, global record for a national park. However, Daoist masters have never considered it to
be a good place to live or conduct spiritual practices, because its ultra-craggy topography emits an
excessively strong yang energy, without sufficient yin balance. There are other mountains like this,
very beautiful with a vague Daoist atmosphere but not really very sacred to Daoism, such as Lu-shan.
In the Tang Dynasty there arose a variety of new talisman-scriptures called the Wuyue Zhēnxing-tú
[五嶽真形圖, True/Perfect Forms/Images of the Five Marchmounts Diagram(s), O-ak Jinhyeong-do in
Korean]. These charts show symbols of the Five Great Mountains in some significant arrangement,
in the five directions or as a kind of map of China or the human internal qi-arrangement. These were
used in Daoist meditations, visualizing the set as a kind of cosmic mandala, for illustrating certain
philosophical doctrines, or for inner-alchemy (qi-circulation visualization exercises). Commentaries
claim that they can only be understood by enlightened "immortals", that they can only be transmitted
by masters to disciples after blood-oaths and presentation of sacred offerings, that they provide holy
protection from bad-fortune spirits, that they provide access to esoteric wisdom and to hidden sacred
sites within these mountains, and that their original versions are kept in deep caves of the Five Great
Mountains by their Shanshen / Yueshen, who must be sincerely venerated and propitiated by the
questing adepts wishing to view them.
There were other topographical systemizations or schema of Chinese Daoist mountains below the
Five Grand Imperial ones, and the second most important one is the concept of Dòngtian [洞天,
Cave/Grotto-Heaven or Gorge-Paradise; Dongcheon in Korean]. These were caverns or deep
waterfall-ravines with sufficient improvements (floors, ceilings, doors, stoves, altars, etc) for basic
human habitation, serving as holy-havens, homes and shrines for Daoist hermit-masters and some-
times visited by pilgrims. There were 10 "Major Grotto-Heavens" [Da-dongtian] and 36 "Minor Grotto-
Heavens" [Xiao-dongtian] scattered all over the Chinese landscape, a system first standardized
during the Tang Dynasty by Masters Sima Chan-zhen 司馬承禎 (647–735) and Du Guang-ting 杜光庭
(850-933). These were actual caves or sets of many caves within one or more mountains, sites
perceived to have outstanding qi; but were also conceived of as secret little worlds perfect for
attaining tranquility and wisdom within, as palaces for divine spirits with "jade halls & gold terraces,"
as portals to experience of the numinous Dao itself, and as yin-yang harmonious focal-points
structured by coagulated qi.
Out of the 10 Major Dongtian, four of them are designated as on mountains within some of the
mountain-clusters already listed as highly sacred to Daoism or Buddhism above:
#4 Mt. Xixuan-shan 西玄山 within Hua-shan (Shaanxi) -- the Sanyuan Jizhen Da-dongtian
#5 Mt. Baoxian-shan 青城山 within Qingcheng-shan (Sichuan) -- the Baoxian Jiushi Da-dongtian
#6 Mt. Chicheng-shan 赤城山 within Tiantai-shan (Zhejiang) -- the Zhuming Huizhen Da-dongtian
#9 Mt. Linwu-shan 林屋山 within Mao-shan (Jiangsu) -- the Youshen Youxu Da-dongtian
The other six are most commonly said to be on these less-known mountains:
#1 Mt. Wangwu-shan 王屋山 (Henan) -- the Xiaoyao Qingxu Da-dongtian
#2 Mt. Weiyu-shan 委羽山 (Zhejiang) -- the Dayou Kongming Da-dongtian
#3 Mt. Mt. Xicheng-shan 西城山 (Shanxi) -- the Taixuan Zongzhen Da-dongtian
#7 Mt. Luofu-shan 罗浮山 (Guangdong) -- the Zhuming Huizhen Da-dongtian
#8 Mt. Gouqu-shan 句曲山 (Jiangsu, Lake Taihu) -- the Jintan Huayang Da-dongtian
#10 Mt. Kuocang-shan 括苍山 (Zhejiang) -- the Chengde Yinxuan Da-dongtian
Then there are also the 36 Minor Dongtian and then on another, lower, system of 72 Fudi
[Auspicious/ blessed/ divine realms], important shrine-sites with excellent energetic characteristics.
"In addition to their cosmological, mythical and mystical dimensions, the wide-ranging geographical
distribution of these sacred sites provides a glimpse into the degree to which Tang Dynasty Daoism
was a diverse and integrated religious tradition with national distribution and vast temple networks. ...
Taken together, the three standardized geographical schema of the Five Marchmounts, 46 grotto-
heavens and 72 auspicious lands reveals an esoteric, hidden and mystical landscape within the
visible one. Together they form an interconnected, subterranean network of subtle spatial channels
circulating the numinous energis the Dao, which recalls the ways in which rivers (terrestrial waterways)
and meridians (corporeal waterways) correspond in Daoism. The Daoist geo-theological schema
reveals the interpenetration of the "spiritual" and the "physical" from a Daoist viewpoint: landscapes
are manifestations of the Dao and contain portals into the divine. The terrestrial (yin) is thus an
entryway into the celestial (yang), and the celestial permeates the terrestrial."
(from "Daoism for the Perplexed" by Louis Komjathy, 2014; page 191.
Bloomsbury Academic Publishing, London and New York. ISBN: 978-1--44115-795-9)
The view from inside the Tàijí-dòng
[太極洞, Cave of the Supreme Ultimate;
Taegeuk-donggul in Korean], which is
a Xiao-dongtian / Minor-grotto-heaven
located on Mt. Shilong-shan石龙山 in
Xuancheng City of Anhui Province, China.
adopted from Wikimedia Commons
Each of these Five Marchmounts hosts at its foot a grand Neo-Confucian shrine built and financed by
the imperial government, designed for the Emperor or his proxy to venerate their spirits at (ceremonies
held at least annually). As the dominant Chinese ideology became Neo-Confucianism in the 14th
through 19th centuries, this system remained a key feature of imperial and national identity. Many of
these shrines were badly damaged during China's turmoils of 1840-1980, but all have by now been at
least partially rebuilt & refurbished, although no official ceremonies are held, outside of tourism events.