Mountain Climbing, the National (Secular) Prayer?

Ribbons asking for blessings

Hua Shang (Flower Mountain, about 7,000′), sacred to Taoists, is said to house 72 hermit caves. We climbed it (it’s about 13 hours from Beijing). Taoist holy mountains are pilgrimage spots, something I’ve been trying to understand.

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.

Stairs and railings


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.”)


I read an account from 1989 of living communities of monks rebuilding Hua Shan’s many holy structures, most of which were burned down during the Cultural Revolution.

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.