Visit to Wu Tai Shan Mountains, Shanxi Province, China, Summer 2010
During this trip to northern China in late June, I had a delightful visit to Wu Tai Shan, arguably the most established of China’s 4 holiest Buddhist peaks. Mount Wutai (五台山; literally “Five Plateau Mountain”), is also known as Wutai Mountain or Qingliang Shan, and is located along the northeast border of Shanxi Province, where it borders Hebei Province, not far from Beijing.
The Wu Tai Shan mountains encompasses an area of 2,837 square kilometers (1,095.4 square miles), and takes its name from its topography, which literally means “five terraced mountains” in Chinese. It owes its name to the five flat, rounded peaks in the area with broad and plain terraces rather than forests on their tops (North, South, East, West, Central), with an average height of over1,000 meters (over 3,281 feet). The apex of Wu Tai Shan is the North peak, called Beitai Ding or Yedou Feng, which reaches a height of 3061.1 meters (10,043 feet), and is indeed the highest point in northern China – dubbed the “Roof of Northern China”.
Evening calm in one of the main towns in Wu Tai Shan, amidst the summer breeze:
The pine covered peaks of Wu Tai Shan, refreshingly cool even during summer:
Wu Tai Shan is one of the Four Sacred Mountains in Chinese Buddhism. The mountain is home to many of China’s most important monasteries and temples, which were established over 2,000 years ago as Buddhist scholars returned from India, bringing with them sacred texts and a yearn to study and meditate in peaceful surroundings.
Here are some fierce and colorful temple guardians in a Buddhist temple:
Mount Wutai’s cultural heritage was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009, and consists of over 60 sacred monasteries. Each of the four mountains are viewed as the abode or place of practice (dàocháng; 道場) of one of the four great bodhisatvas. Wu Tai Shan is believed to be the dwelling place of the Bodhisatva Manjusri (Wenshu Pusa 文殊 in Chinese), who is the Bodhisatva of Wisdom and Virtue. In addition to it’s status as one of the 4 holiest sites in Chinese Buddhism, Wu Tai Shan also has a close relationship to Tibetan and Lamaist Buddhism, as evident by the presence of many Tibetan monasteries and shrines in the area. From my visits, it appears that many of the large monasteries are joint places of worship for both Chinese Mahayana Buddhism and Tibetan and Lamaist Buddhism.
Due to its relative inaccessibility, Wu Tai Shan didn’t suffer as badly as other religious sites during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, whereby many of the ancient structures and buildings still survive until today. Despite being established since the 1st century A.D., most of the ancient buildings in existence today probably date back to the Tang Dynasty.
Wut Tai Shan, as in the rest of Shanxi Province, has a continental monsoon climate: long, cold and dry winters, windy springs, short, humid and rainy summers, and cool cloudy autumns. The area is replete with dense pine and mixed forests, with clear streams. It was late June when I visited, and all the peaks and valleys were green, with clear streams running by. Due to its high altitude, I found Wu Tai Shan to be quite cool and refreshing compared to the relatively hot and dusty loess plains below.
Amongst the towns and monasteries, summer agriculture and gardening was in full swing, as I witnessed peonies, flowers, ornamental plants, herbal plants, and various vegetables flourishing in the temple gardens. Vegetable and herbal gardens in the temples were especially in full swing, a very delightful summer gardening sight to a plant enthusiast like me.
By late June, peonies and other flowers begin blooming, making for refreshing temple sights:
Some temples main lovely mixed gardens, and it seems the monks are indeed avid gardeners:
Available spaces are also optimally used by the monks to grow vegetables, as in this garden beside a temple wall:
I also love this circular summer pea garden, in a Buddhist temple complex, in monk’s residential area in a courtyard right in front of the main kitchen:
To my delight, it appears that many of the Buddhist temples are under renovation at a frantic pace, with crowds of pilgrims even during normal weekdays. I even saw some new monasteries springing up among the hills as well. All this points to a religious revival under way, a complete turnaround from the days of the Cultural Revolution back in the 1960s.
Here are some more amazing photos which I took during my stay in Wu Tai Shan. Below is an elaborately carved temple wall, believed to be from the Ming Era.
A traditional northern Chinese opera performance (very colorful and fun!) in the courtyard of a Buddhist temple:
Hope you’ve enjoyed this post, and this visual tour of China’s amazing Wu Tai Shan mountains and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Or better still, I truely hope you’ll have a chance to visit this fabulous, historical, and serene destination.
Happy traveling, wherever you are, and wherever you may be! Cheers!
Lat (Ratasit C.)