Nine Sacred Mountains

Report By
Megan Stacy
December 29, 2009
December 29, 2009

In Chinese, the term for pilgrimage, ch’ ao-shan chin-hsiang, is literally translated as “journeying to a mountain and offering incense.” Throughout China’s history, Buddhist and Daoist pilgrims have gone to mountains seeking spiritual sustenance and solace; there are five sacred mountains that are preeminent for Daoists and four sacred mountains that are paramount to Buddhists. In the 20th century, political upheaval led to the violent repression of religious expression, and sacred sites across China were destroyed. Despite losses, the devotion of monks and local residents to the holy reputation of these mountains prevented total destruction. Now, as China gradually moves away from its past of religious intolerance and forges a new social and political identity amid unprecedented economic growth, the sacred mountains continue to attract traditional pilgrims and a considerable number of secular visitors. With these dual roles as spiritual destinations and economic enterprises, the sacred mountains face new challenges, such as uncontrolled tourism and habitat destruction. In this modern era, Buddhists and Daoists are turning to age-old philosophies as an impetus for environmental conservation. Martin Palmer, secretary general of the NGO Alliance of Religions and Conservation, writes that according to the Daoist Grand Master Wu, “For centuries, Daoism has protected the sacred mountains by making them places of refuge, places where nothing was done. We have been passive. Now we must be active. We must work to preserve that which we love. We must educate people about our need for nature.”

The Land and Its People

As the indigenous religion of China, Daoism and its philosophies are entrenched in Chinese culture, art and daily practice. It is a spiritual tradition that stretches back thousands of years; the earliest written record of its existence is from 350 B.C., when one of its classic texts, the Daodejing (Tao-te Ching), was written. Unlike many major religions, Daoism does not have a single prophet or a definitive text but rather is an evolving set of beliefs. Some of its essential tenets include the ethics of humility, moderation and compassion; a belief in the interconnectedness of all things; the pursuit of harmony in a universe made dynamic by the opposite and complimentary forces of yin and yang; and a view of nature as a model for a balanced life.

Buddhism came to China from India in the first century. Like Daoism, Buddhism focuses on the spiritual development of the mind and body. Buddhism emphasizes meditative practices; the interconnectedness of the past, present and future; the impermanence of life; and a moral imperative for compassion and simplicity. In the natural world, Buddhists find a place for retreat and contemplation.

Over the course of Chinese political history, both Buddhism and Daoism were official imperial religions, and both exerted popular influence. Emperors and commoners journeyed to mountains as pilgrims, believing that mountain peaks were closest to heaven and the gods, and the ideal training ground in the pursuit of enlightenment and transcendence. Over time, particular mountains became associated with Daoist and Buddhist pilgrimage. While there are numerous mountains throughout China that are considered sacred, nine of them achieved particular prominence.

The five sacred Daoist mountains are Tai Shan, in Shandong province; Hua Shan, in Shaanxi province; Heng Shan Bei, in Shaanxi province; Heng Shan Nan, in Hunan province; and Son Shan, in Henan province. The four sacred Buddhist mountains are Emei Shan, in Sichaun province; Wutai Shan, in Shaanxi province; Jiuhua Shan, in Anhui province; and Putuo Shan, in Zhejiang province. The mountains range in height from less than 1,000 feet to more than 10,000. Because most transition from warm climates at the base to alpine conditions at the peaks, they provide habitats for a wide number of plants and animals that account for a significant portion of China’s biodiversity.

At the height of their cultural influence, the mountains supported hundreds of monasteries and sheltered elaborate temples, cliff inscriptions and stone tablets. They were also associated with major works of Chinese poetry and art. Today, far fewer temples and artifacts remain, and the level of religious activity varies from site to site.

For the Daoists, Tai Shan is their holiest mountain. In 351 B.C. the first known Daoist temple in China was established there, and at one time its slopes protected hundreds of temples. Today, 22 temples remain, along with other relics. The mountain is also renowned for the more than 400 species of medicinal plants that grow there.

Home of the first Buddhist temple in China, built in the first century, as well as the world’s largest Buddha, Emei Shan is one of Buddhism’s holiest sites. The mountain once supported 100 monasteries, but only 20 survive. More than 3,000 plant species have been recorded on Emei Shan, making it the most botanically rich mountain in the Northern Hemisphere. On Wutai Shan, the highest mountain in northern China, Buddhism has also been active for 2,000 years; 53 monasteries reside among its five peaks, and the pilgrimage tradition is very much alive.

Religious devotion flourished on all these mountains until the 1949 Communist Revolution, which established an atheist state; many monasteries were made over for secular use and religion was oppressed. The Cultural Revolution of the 1960s continued this violent, state-sanctioned suppression. During this time, a campaign to rid the country of what the communist leadership considered to be archaic ideas — including religious institutions and symbols — destroyed approximately 90 percent of the temples and other religious artifacts on the sacred mountains. Nevertheless, local people fought to protect these sacred sites, often at the risk of their own lives.

While nominally still a communist state, China began moving toward a more capitalist economic system in the 1980s. Modern China is a country in transition and one marked by increasing religious tolerance. Along with these changes have come a movement to rebuild the temples destroyed during the 20th century and a tourism strategy that plainly banks on the religious history of China’s sacred mountains.

Current Challenges and Preservation Efforts

In the late 1990s the NGO Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) surveyed China’s nine sacred mountains and found a high level of ecological conservation at sites with active religious communities — where monks were present and practicing at all times — affirming the link between ecology and spirituality. It is clear that future protection of these sacred sites depends on continued support of the religious communities that are devoted to them, on reviving religious customs and on strengthening the ecological-spiritual bond to foster greater environmental conservation.

Many of the environmental challenges on the nine sacred mountains are directly linked to tourism and commercialism. The mountains continue to attract religious pilgrims, but nature tourism in China is an increasingly popular pastime. Each of the mountains attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors per year, with some documenting a million or more visitors annually. This human pressure has brought problems like air pollution and unchecked development. At several of the mountains, including Emei Shan, cable cars have been installed to ferry visitors to the peaks, and pilgrimage trails are crowded with restaurants, hotels and souvenir stalls.

Other conservation issues pertain to illegal logging (despite a 1998 national logging ban), illegal collection of plant and animal species for sale in the lucrative underground medicinal trade, and industrial pollution from towns and cities surrounding the mountains.

The state has made attempts to protect the mountains. It obtained UNESCO World Heritage designation for Tai Shan, Emei Shan and, most recently, Wutai Shan, and in 2008 submitted application to extend the Tai Shan listing to include its four fellow sacred mountains. However, government conservation efforts exist in tension with powerful profit motives. For example, in 2003, the Chinese government pulled down hundreds of illegal structures on Tai Shan, including food huts, souvenir stands and billboards. At the same time, however, plans continue to open a theme park on the mountain in 2010. Emei Shan also faces a theme-park threat.

A profit-versus-protection conflict was also apparent on Wutai Shan. In 2007, monks demonstrated against iron ore mining, which was ravaging the mountain. As a result, the government agreed to close three mines and suspend the operation of seven others. However, the Chinese government was later criticized for plans to forcibly relocate 6,000 residents of Taihuai town, which is nestled among the mountain’s five peaks and full of historic monastic buildings, to clean up residential and commercial sprawl in an effort to obtain UNESCO World Heritage status — achieved in 2009 — and thus develop the site’s potential as a tourist destination.

The ARC began working with the China Daoist Association in 1995, and later with the Chinese Buddhist Association, to develop conservation programs aligned with and supported by religious belief and practice. It has helped create management programs for the Daoist mountains Hua Shan and Tai Shan, and is assisting conservation efforts for the Buddhist Wutai Shan and Emei Shan.

A major breakthrough occurred in 2008, when an official partnership was formed between the China Daoist Association and the provincial government to manage Hua Shan — and to build the program around the concept of the mountain as a sacred place, not just a tourist destination. In addition, a master of the China Daoist Association was added as a full member of the management bureau.

Moreover, the representative bodies of China’s Buddhists and Daoists have made official commitments to environmental practices. In 2008, the Daoist Association issued an eight-year draft plan that includes practices such as limiting the sale of incense sticks, which are a significant pollutant; using energy-efficient technology, such as solar panels, on their temples; and collaborating with local governments to offer ecological education to visitors. China’s Buddhists are expected to issue a similar plan, which builds on other statements issued in 2006, to recognize the leadership role Buddhism can play in environmental advocacy.

One model for religious stewardship in China is found on another sacred mountain, Taibaishan. Here, the China Daoist Association, with help from the ARC, rebuilt a temple using sustainable materials and established an ecology training center for the community and visitors. The Daoists are using this model to guide their work on other sacred mountains.

The venerable traditions of Buddhism and Daoism honor nature, which has helped preserve the sacred mountains for over 1,000 years. Contemporary Buddhists and Daoists are increasingly making frank connections between their theology and everyday environmental practices in order to sustainably conserve these sacred sites.

What You Can Do

Consider supporting the work of the Alliance for Religions and Conservation. Visit the ARC website for ways you can get involved.

If you visit, stay on marked trails, dispose of litter properly, limit your use of incense sticks, and respect the religious activities of monks and nuns on the mountains. Follow the guidelines in “Ethics for Visiting Sacred Sites” when traveling to any of the sacred mountains in China.


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