Cultural Heritage

The Five Sacred Mountains of Ancient China (1)

Hiking is one of the most popular past-times in Norway, and mountains often have a special place in every Norwegian’s heart. In China, there are five mountains which also have a special place in the culture for over two millennia. As dynasties rose and fell, these five mountains stand high above the horizon overlooking the changes in borders and regimes. They were said to be selected since the Zhou Dynasty (c.1000BC), when the concept of the world’s four corners was combined with that of five fundamental elements. Four of these mountains sit on the north, south, east and western edge of the territory of ancient China, with one in the middle. Whether you are a climber, geologist, anthropologist, sinologist, or just someone interested to learn about the ancient Chinese civilization, these five mountains have something valuable to offer. This blogpost will look at three of them.

Stable as Taishan

Thousands of years of word carvings on Taishan is part of its invaluable cultural heritage.

The first to be mentioned usually is Taishan (泰山, tàishān) in Shandong province the east, which is known as the King of the five, and also recognised as a World Heritage by UNESCO. There is a common saying 稳如泰山 (wěnrútàishān) ,“as stable as Taishan”, showing its enormous base and height. Over the centuries, emperors from different dynasties had come to perform worship rituals, and many of the most famous poets and writers in history have also carved their words on the rocks of the mountain; through generations of preservation, not only can we see how their handwritings are till this day, some of these words of wisdom are integrated into the daily language.

Huashan – the Taoist sacred peak

Tourists hiking on the steepest part of Huashan

Along the Yellow River all the way to the west in Shaanxi province in is Huashan (华山, huáshān), a mountain of great significance to Taoist monks for millennia. Taoist monks have carved out not only impossibly steep and narrow stairways up the peak at over 2000 meters, but they have also dug caves to meditate in, a common Taoist practice to be one with nature. Modern geological survey has proved that the whole mountain is actually a large single piece of granite, which makes it a very special find in the world. Among the five, Huashan is the most dangerous and no emperor had actually ever climbed it, but nowadays metal chains and safety belts are offered to tourists who dare.

Hanging on Hengshan

The hanging temple on Hengshan, Shanxi

In the north and south are two mountains with same pronunciation, Hengshan (héngshān), but written differently. The one in the north in Shanxi Province, 恒山(héngshān), had historically been a natural barrier between Mongolian nomads up north and the agricultural Hans in the south. One of the most stunning features on Hengshan is the “Hanging Temple” (悬空寺, xiánkōngsì), which is special not only because it is built right on the side of a vertical cliff at the height of 75 meters above ground, it combines three of the traditional religions in China: Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. Having stood there for over one and a thousand years, the temple is a wonder to look at and perhaps a good place to ponder about differences in religions.

The next blogpost will continue with the other Hengshan and the last but not least, the middle mountain, Songshan.