The Sacred Mountains of China are divided into several groups. The Five Great Mountains (simplified Chinese: 五岳; traditional Chinese: 五嶽; pinyin: Wǔyuè) refers to five of the most renowned mountains in Chinese history, which have been the subjects of imperial pilgrimage by emperors throughout ages. They are associated with the supreme God of Heaven and the five main cosmic deities of Chinese traditional religion. The group associated with Buddhism is referred to as the Four Sacred Mountains of Buddhism (四大佛教名山; Sì dà fójiào míngshān), and the group associated with Taoism is referred to as the Four Sacred Mountains of Taoism (四大道教名山; Sì dà dàojiào míngshān).
The sacred mountains have all been important destinations for pilgrimage, the Chinese expression for pilgrimage (朝圣; 朝聖; cháoshèng) being a shortened version of an expression which means "paying respect to a holy mountain" (朝拜圣山; 朝拜聖山; cháobài shèng shān).
The Five Great Mountains
The Five Great Mountains or Wuyue are arranged according to the five cardinal directions of Chinese geomancy, which includes the center as a direction. The grouping of the five mountains appeared during the Warring States period (475 BC – 221 BC), and the term Wuyue ("Five Summits") was made popular during the reign of Emperor Wudi of the Western Han Dynasty 140-87 BC. In Chinese traditional religion they have cosmological and theological significance as the representation, on the physical plane of earth, of the ordered world emanating from the God of Heaven (Tian–Shangdi), inscribing the Chinese territory as a tán (壇; 'altar'), the Chinese concept equivalent of the Indian mandala.
The five mountains are among the best-known natural landmarks in Chinese history, and since the early periods in Chinese history, they have been the ritual sites of imperial worship and sacrifice by various emperors. The first legendary sovereigns of China went on excursions or formed processions to the summits of the Five Great Mountains. Every visit took place at the same time of the year. The excursions were hunting trips and ended in ritual offerings to the reigning god.
The emperors, starting with the First Emperor of Qin, formalized these expeditions and incorporated them into state ritual as prescribed by Confucianism. With every new dynasty, the new emperor hurried to the Five Great Mountains in order to lay claim to his newly acquired domains. Barring a number of interruptions, this imperial custom was preserved until the end of the last dynasty, when, after the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, Yuan Shikai had himself crowned as emperor at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. But just to be safe, he also made an offer to the god of the northern Mount Heng.
In the 2000s formal sacrifices both in Confucian and Taoist styles have been resumed. The Five Great Mountains have become places of pilgrimage where hundreds of pilgrims gather in temples and caves. Although the Five Great Mountains are not traditionally canonized as having any exclusive religious affiliations, many of them have a strong Taoist presence, thus the five mountains are also grouped by some as part of "Sacred Taoist Mountains". There are also various Buddhist temples and Confucian academies built on these mountains.
Alternatively, these mountains are sometimes referred to by the respective directions: the "Northern Great Mountain" (北岳; 北嶽; Běi Yuè), "Southern Great Mountain" (南岳; 南嶽; Nán Yuè), "Eastern Great Mountain" (东岳; 東嶽; Dōng Yuè), "Western Great Mountain" (西岳; 西嶽; Xī Yuè), and "Central Great Mountain" (中岳; 中嶽; Zhōng Yuè).
According to Chinese mythology, the Five Great Mountains originated from the body of Pangu (盘古; 盤古; Pángǔ), the first being and the creator of the world. Because of its eastern location, Mount Tài is associated with the rising sun which signifies birth and renewal. Due to this interpretation, it is often regarded as the most sacred of the Five Great Mountains. In accordance with its special position, Mount Tài is believed to have been formed out of Pangu's head. Mount Heng in Hunan is believed to be a remainder of Pangu's right arm, Mount Heng in Shanxi of his left arm, Mount Song of his belly, and Mount Hua of his feet.
In ancient times mountains were places of authority and fear, ruled by dark forces and faithfully worshipped. One reason for such worship was the value of the mountains to human existence as a spring of welfare and fertility, as the birthplace of rivers, as a place where herbs and medicinal plants grew and as a source of materials to build houses and tools. A basic element of Taoist thought was, and still is, an intuitive feeling of connectedness with nature. As early as the fourth century, the Taoists presented the high priests with the 180 precepts of Lord Lao for how to live a good and honest life. Twenty of these precepts focused explicitly on the conservation of nature, while many other precepts were indirectly aimed at preventing the destruction of nature. Respect for nature has been a key component of Taoism from the very outset and, in its own right, explains why the Five Great Mountains are considered sacred. In addition, Taoists consider mountains as a means of communication between heaven and earth and as the place where immortality can be found. The sanctity of the Five Great Mountains is the reason why even today these mountains still host an exceptional diversity of plants, trees and animal species.
East Great Mountain: Tài Shān
"Tranquil Mountain" (泰山) Shāndōng Province, 1,545 m (5,069 ft) This mountain is associated with Feng Shan and by extension the Mandate of Heaven and life or death, being the most important of all the mountains
West Great Mountain: Huà Shān
"Splendid Mountain" (华山; 華山) Shaanxi Province (Shănxī), 2,154 m (7,067 ft)
South Great Mountain: Héng Shān (Hunan)
"Balancing Mountain" (衡山), Húnán Province, 1,290 m (4,230 ft)
North Great Mountain: Héng Shān (Shanxi)
"Permanent Mountain" (恒山; 恆山), Shānxī Province, 2,017 m (6,617 ft)
In the course of history, there had been more than one location with the designation for Mount Heng, the North Great Mountain.
The Great Northern Mountain was designated on the original Mount Heng with the main peak known as Mount Damao (大茂山) today, located at the intersection of present-day Fuping County, Laiyuan County and Tang County in Hebei province.
Mount Heng was renamed Mount Chang (常山) to avoid the taboo of sharing the same personal name as Emperor Wen of Han. The appellations Heng and Chang were used extensively in the past to name various districts in the region, such as Changshan Prefecture (常山郡), Hengshan Prefecture (恒山郡), and Hengzhou (恒州).
While it was customary of the ethnic Han emperors to order rites to be performed regularly to honour the Five Great Mountains, the location of the original Mount Heng meant that for much of the eras of fragmentation, the region was either under non-Han rulers or a contested area. The shrines built to perform the rites were neglected and damaged from time and natural disasters. The decline was especially acute after the overthrow of the Yuan Dynasty when the local population fell sharply after the wars.
This created opportunities for Ming Dynasty officials who were natives of Shanxi to spread rumours that the spirit of Mount Heng had abandoned the original location and settled on Xuanwu Mountain in Hunyuan County in Shanxi. Between the reigns of Emperor Hongzhi and Emperor Wanli, they kept petitioning the emperors to declare the change and decree for the rites for the Northern Great Mountain to be shifted there. In 1586, Emperor Wanli opted a compromise by re-designating the Xuanwu Mountain as Mount Heng, but ordered the relevant rites to continue to be performed in the historic Beiyue Temple.
The movement for the change persisted after the demise of the Ming Dynasty and into the Qing Dynasty. Finally, Emperor Shunzhi consented to have the rites to be moved to Shanxi as well.
Center Great Mountain: Sōng Shān
"Lofty Mountain" (嵩山), Hénán Province, 1,494 m (4,902 ft)
Sacred Mountains of Buddhism
"Five-Platform Mountain" (五台山), Shānxī Province, 3,058 m (10,033 ft),
"High and Lofty Mountain" (峨嵋山), Sìchuān Province, 3,099 m (10,167 ft)
"Nine Glories Mountain" (九华山; 九華山), Ānhuī Province, 1,341 m (4,400 ft),
Other sacred mountains
Mount Xuedou (雪竇山) has been recently promoted as a fifth sacred mountain of Chinese Buddhism. This was first advocated by Changxing (1896-1939), an associate of the famous reformer Taixu. Xuedou mountain is seen as the sacred place of bodhisattva Maitreya. It is located 8 kilometers north-west of Xikou Town, Fenghua City, Zhejiang. Xuedou Mountain is at 29°41'3.1"N, 121°7'12.0"E. Mount Xuedou is home to the newly expanded Xuedou monastery, which was originally founded in the Jin Dynasty and is connected with the eccentric monk named Budai, who is considered to have been an emanation of Maitreya.
Fanjing shan (Chinese: 梵净山; pinyin: Fànjìngshān) part of the Wuling Mountains in Tongren, Guizhou, is another sacred mountain associated with Maitreya. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Fanjing shan is also often claimed to be the fifth sacred mountain of Chinese Buddhism.
Five Mountains of Chan Buddhism
The five mountains where the top Chan monasteries in the empire were located were:
- Lingyin Temple (灵隐寺, Lingyin si) on Lingyin mountain, Hang prefecture, Qiantang county
- Jingci Temple (净慈寺, Jingci si) on Nanping mountain, Hang prefecture, Qiantang county
- Jingshan Temple (径山寺, Jingshan si) on Jing mountain, Hang prefecture, Lin'an county
- Tiantong Temple (天童寺, Tiantong si) on Tiantong mountain, Ming prefecture, Yin county
- Ayuwang Temple (阿育王寺, Ayuwang si) on Ayuwang mountain, Ming prefecture, Yin county
The Four Sacred Mountains of Taoism
The "Four Sacred Mountains" of Taoism are:
Literally "Military Wherewithal" (武当山; 武當山); northwestern part of Hubei. Main peak: 1,612 m (5,289 ft). .
Literally "Dragon and Tiger" (龙虎山; 龍虎山), Jiangxi. Main peak: 247.4 m (812 ft).
It is famous for being one of the birthplaces of Taoism and particularly important to the Zhengyi Dao, with many Taoist temples built upon the mountainside.
Literally "Neat Clouds" (齐云山; 齊雲山), Anhui. Main peak: 585 m (1,919 ft).
Literally "Misty Green City Wall" (青城山); (Nearby city: Dujiangyan, Sichuan. Main peak: 1,260 m (4,130 ft) (surveyed in 2007). In ancient Chinese history, Mount Qingcheng area was famous for being for "The most secluded place in China". .
- Sacred mountains
- Grotto-heavens, Sacred grottoes, sometimes associated with sacred mountains
- Hills and mountains in Meitei culture
- Five Mountains of Korea
Other mountains with spiritual/religious significance in China
- Three Famous Mountains (Three Shan, 三山)
- Five Garrison Mountains (Five Zhen, 五镇)
- Mount Lao
- Mount Mian
- Mount Sanqing
- Mount Changbai - regarded by Manchus of the Qing dynasty as Holy Mountain
- Kunlun Mountains - the location of the peach tree of immortality wardened by Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West
- Mount Tian
- Three Holy Mountain Peaks at Daocheng
- Four Sacred Mountains in Tibetan Buddhism
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Sacred Buddhist sites especially evidence this kind of environment, such as Mount Wutai, Mount Jiuhua, Mount Putuo and Mount Emei. The four biggest Taoist mountains – Mount Longhu, Mount Qiyun, Mount Qingcheng and Mount Wudang – are also beautiful and tranquil.
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The four sacred Buddhist mountains of China are believed to be the homes of Boddhisattvas (enlightened beings who have delayed their Nirvana to remain on earth and help others find enlightenment).
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