Hermits once lived here (carving stone beds, stone tables), giving cave-temples names like ‘the Cave for Having Audience with the Origin.’
Taoism is connected to mountains. (Taoist alchemists loved mountain herbs — still for sale in baggies in the gift shop). “Buddhist monasteries lie below while Taoists monasteries lie above” is a saying I’ve read. Ancients built altars to calm their local mountain god. Climber-pilgrims bravely approached that power, for its help or forgiveness or enlightenment.
Start up the path on China’s 5 sacred Taoist mountains, & I’ve read that the rock inscription says, “You now enter the first mountain under heaven” : This is the world.
Before stairs, the trek up Hua Shan’s knife-edge ridges was dangerous. People climbed (some still do) at night, to watch the sunrise; there are still fatalities from falls.
Caves weren’t just for shelter; they’re the mountain’s “heart” concentrating the earth’s chi energy.
Mid-mountain sits a monastery. Many once held dragon gods made of gold, used in prayers (now in museums). The Summit has a temple as well. For a few lucky immortals, the summit is where the climber-pilgrim attains the Tao.
Ascending is a symbolic ascension. The ancients gave summits names like, “Precipice for Abandonning the Body.” The summit was for offerings, rituals, self-purification, contemplation. Up there, the mountain symbolizes heaven, no longer earth.
(The monks also had fun, as suggested by other place names: the “Cliff for Evading Imperial Commands.” The “Chess Players’ Terrace and Pavillion.”)
There’s still a working abbey at the bottom. But the structures on the trek (simple hotels, not monasteries; noodle shacks not prayer halls — a few temples with souvenir stands alongside) are “just” for the domestic tourist trade. People are having a nice tough climb.
But the sheer numbers of visitor? The devotion (especially of older folks)? The seeming national obsession with climbing the 5 sacred mountains? Something much more deeply rooted is going on here.