Mystic mountains in Wudangshan

Reputed to be the birthplace of taijiquan, Wudangshan is the holiest of Daoist mountains, revered by emperors and common people alike through the ages.

THERE is a mountain in China, perhaps less well-known than some others, that has always held a great fascination for me. In my imagination, it is a land of legend, a misty, magical place where immortals live on dew and where solitary men and women test the limits of endurance in their quest for life without end.

I cannot remember exactly when I first heard about Wudangshan (450km northwest of Wuhan), but it probably has something to do with taijiquan, for this fabled mountain is believed to be the abode of the Daoist mystic Zhang Sanfeng, reputed founder of the neijia (“internal”) school of martial arts. It is said he observed a bird fighting with a snake and from their actions developed the flowing, graceful movements of taijiquan. To this day, Wudangshan remains a mecca for taijiquan enthusiasts.

No one knows precisely when Zhang Sanfeng lived though many believe he became immortal. Guesstimates range from the Song dynasty a thousand years ago to the Yuan two centuries later. His fame was such that even the Ming emperors continued to search him out to seek his blessings and perhaps to learn the secrets of life never-ending. Despite many attempts, however, Zhang Sanfeng always managed to elude them, disdaining fame and fortune.

The climb up to the summit (Jinding) offers stunning views of the surrounding hills and vermilion temples with sumptuous roofs.

A notion inherent in Daoist belief is deference to the natural, and for over 2,500 years, pilgrims have ascended Wudangshan to venerate Nature. The earliest temples there date from the Tang dynasty but it was during the Ming era that Wudangshan became the undisputed centre of the Daoist world.

Ming emperors, particularly the Yongle Emperor Zhu Di who seized the throne from his nephew, engaged in a frenzy of construction on the mountain, dotting it with shrines to Daoist gods and deities, monasteries and retreats, a total of some 126 edifices and over 100 stone bridges, according to Unesco. It took 20,000 workers 12 years to complete the ambitious project and Wudangshan came to be known as “the First Mountain under Heaven”, holier even than the Five Sacred Peaks of China.

Some surmise the Yongle Emperor was trying to assuage his guilt over his usurpation of the throne in 1402, or that he hoped to entice Zhang Sanfeng by his sincerity, or perhaps it was just another grand scheme (like the voyages of Admiral Zheng He) to legitimise his rule.

Whatever the reason, he was largely responsible for a legacy that Unesco declared a World Heritage Site in 1994, stating that Wudangshan’s beautifully detailed structures “represents the highest standards of Chinese art and architecture over a period of nearly 1,000 years.”

Breathtaking: Shrines and walkways constructed against rock walls lead to Nanyangong, the most dramatic of Wudangshan’s temples.

Cared for by elderly Daoist temple keepers, they exude a sense of other-worldliness.

Not all the buildings have survived and many are well-worn but if these are any indication, Wudangshan was a fitting symbol of imperial splendour.

We arrived in late Autumn to dream-like views of temples nestled in hills whose foliage had already turned a muted shade of olive, accentuating vermilion walls and gorgeous glazed roof tiles in turquoise and jade. An occasional scarlet maple or gingko tree of pure gold dotted the hill slopes.

The most regal of the temples in Wudangshan is undoubtedly the Zixiaogong (Purple Cloud Palace) where dynastic emperors and high officials came to pay respects to that most revered of Daoist divinities Xuanwu (Zhenwu), god of Wudangshan and warrior god of the north. Constructed in layers reached by several flights of steps, Zixiaogong’s shrines and gazebos were first built in the northern Song dynasty and renovated by Ming emperors 300 years later.

Besides a wooden Xuanwu statue, there is also an earthen one that purportedly sports the face of the Yongle Emperor, and gigantic stone bixi (turtle-like creatures) bearing huge stone steles.

One afternoon we ascended Wudangshan’s summit by cable car. From the station, we still had to climb hundreds of steep and winding stone steps with commanding views of the surrounding hills and valleys, past shrines and ascetic retreats, up to the 1,612m high Golden Peak (Jinding).

Wudang taijiquan students gather for afternoon training.

Wudang taijiquan students gather for afternoon training.

Finally, we reached the Jindian (Golden Palace), an amazing 5.5m high pavilion constructed entirely of bronze in 1416, with a small rectangle of pure gold weighing one jin (600g) embedded in one of its pillars. Perched on the narrow peak, it was transported section by section from Beijing to house a 10 ton bronze Xuanwu.

One of the most impressive groups of buildings on Wudangshan is the Yuan dynasty Nanyangong (Nanyan Palace) which again is dedicated to Xuanwu. Constructed against a crag, this breathtaking temple complex recalls Shanxi’s Xuankongsi (Hanging Monastery) and is reached via cliff-side walkways and sheer steps that trace the contours of the mountain.

Legend says that after many years of meditation, Xuanwu leapt off the mountain and was carried up to heaven by dragons. At Nanyangong there is a similar test of faith. An incense burner sits at the tip of a length of carved stone projecting out over a precipitous drop and anyone attempting to walk across that piece of rock to burn incense would certainly require not only perfect balance, but also absolute inner stillness and supreme serenity.

It was dusk when I left Nanyangong. The mountains were silent and in the half-light, an air of mystery and enchantment enveloped Wudangshan. The sanctuaries nestled in the hillsides seemed to merge into the topography. They reminded me of Chinese landscape paintings where human forms are barely discernible, a part of and in complete harmony with Nature.


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