Tourism aside, holy site retains the solemnity of ages

In the mountains of Sichuan Province, an ancient seat of Taoism reveals the myths and relics of worship dating back 2,000 years.  

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Mt Qingcheng is the most revered of four holy mountains in China.

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The entrance archway to the sacred Qingcheng Mountain

Mount Qingcheng, about 68 kilometers from Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, is a place of high mountains, thick forests and clear waters. Ancients deemed it a portal to self-enlightenment.

Taoism practitioners began living in seclusion at the mountain about 2,000 years ago, creating one of the four holiest Taoist sites in China — the other three being Longhu Mountain in Jiangxi Province, Qiyun Mountain in Anhui Province and Wudang Mountain in Hubei Province.

In 2000, it was listed as a world heritage site by UNESCO.

The ancients believed the mountain to be “one of the most serene places” on Earth. Its verdant, thick forests acted as a natural shield, protecting the mountain from the hustle and bustle of the outside world.

The mountain scenic area comprises a series of peaks in a front range and a back range. The highest peak is Pengzu Peak at about 1,260 meters.

The remote tranquility that must have attracted ancient Taoists has been somewhat broken by the mountain’s popularity as a tourist site, especially in summer. The area is considered a haven of relief from the scorching heat down on the Sichuan Basin.

Although visitors may not hear the siren call that attracted ancient Taoist masters to the mountain, the Taoist culture itself remains the best part of a sightseeing experience.

Legend has it that a master named Ningfengzi, who lived at the mountain, taught the Yellow Emperor how to master the winds and clouds. Later, Ningfengzi came to be worshipped as the “Old Master of Five Mountains,” or wuyue zhangren.

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Tai’an Ancient Town, at the foot of Mt Qingcheng, is a place of idyllic beauty. 

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Laojun Pavilion stands tall to the sky atop the front range of Mt Qingcheng.

The Jianfu Palace in the front rage of the scenic area was called the Zhangren Temple when it was first built during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) dedicated to Ningfengzi.

The current Jianfu Palace was rebuilt about 120 years ago. At the entrance of the scenic area, the palace is usually the first stop for visitors. Among the most precious of relics in the palace is a couplet entitled “a unique feature of Mount Qingcheng.” It contains 394 Chinese characters.

Although Ningfengzi was widely known in China, the man who truly put Mount Qingcheng on the map was Zhang Ling, or Zhang Daoling, who is said to have died in AD 154 at the age of 122. He created the “Way of the Celestial Masters,” which was also called “Way of the Five Pecks of Rice.”

Zhang’s legacy is a mix of facts and myths. Taoist scriptures say he arrived at the mountain in AD 143, where he defeated resident demons. Local people were so grateful that they acknowledged him as their master. His brand of Taoism is said to have attracted more than 3,000 disciples.

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Jianfu Palace is said to be the place where Ningfengzi, an official during the reign of the Yellow Emperor, lived in seclusion.

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Tianshi Cave, or the Cave of the Taoist Master, is believed to be the place where Zhang Ling practiced and preached.

Today, Qingcheng contains more than 10 Taoist temples. Some date back more than 1,000 years, though others were built in the last 500 years.

The most significant site in the scenic area is Tianshi Cave, or the Cave of the Taoist Master. The cliff-side cave is believed to be the place where Zhang practiced and preached. The original buildings have been long lost, and the current ones were built in late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and early 20th century.

The cave is the center of all the temples at the mountain. The luxuriously decorated buildings are dedicated to the gods and pay tribute as well to earthly arts.

Triple Purity, the highest three gods in Taoism, are worshiped in Sanqing Hall, while three kings of Chinese legend — the Yellow Emperor, Shennong and Fuxi — are worshiped in Sanwang Hall, or Hall of the Three Kings.

Taoism is often linked to kung fu, and Mount Qingcheng was no exception. Indeed, Qingcheng martial arts became a significant school of kung fu, dating back hundreds of years.

Because of that historical background, Mount Qingcheng finds frequent reference in modern pop culture. For example, kung fu novelist Jin Yong, or Louis Cha, praised as “China’s Tolkien,” described Mount Qingcheng as a place that nurtured great martial arts. 

Taoists in his novels, very adept at wielding swords, weren’t always heroes. Yu Canghai, a villain in the novel “The Legendary Swordsmen,” became sort of a pop icon because of his perfidious personality and funny use of Sichuan slang.

But Jin never actually visited Mount Qingcheng before writing the novel, and he later apologized that he stigmatized Qingcheng martial arts due to his ignorance. That hasn’t stopped kung fu fans from making pilgrimages to the mountain, looking for any traces of favorite characters popularized in novels or video games.

One visitor, who uses the online moniker Moon, said he is a hardcore fan of the video game franchise “The Legend of Sword and Fairy.” His sole purpose in visiting the mountain was to visit places he has traveled while playing the game.

“I believed when I walked at Xianren Bridge, the Tianran Pavilion and the Shangqing Palace that my feelings were entirely different from those of other visitors,” he said. “It was more like going home rather than traveling to a new place.”

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Lush mountainside forests engulf visitors in moments of tranquility. 

If you go:

At Shuangliu International Airport in Chengdu, shuttle buses are available to Dujiangyan City. From there, bus transport to Mount Qingcheng can be found at the Dujiangyan Long-Distance Bus Station. 

Shuttle buses to the scenic area are also available at the Chengdu Railway Station.The admission fee for the front range of Mount Qingcheng is 90 yuan (US$14.30) and 20 yuan for the back range.

Ancient hydraulic engineering feat

Although the Chengdu Plain is called the “land of abundance,” ancient people living there suffered from severe annual floods from the Min River, the longest tributary of the Yangtze River. 

Around 256 BC, when the state of Qin was poised to conquer the whole country, officials realized that the occupation of the Chengdu Plain would give them great military advantage over the other six states.

So they recruited Li Bing, a local hydrologist and engineer, as governor and told him to solve the flood problem.

After five years of efforts, Li, his son and thousands of local laborers managed to build the Dujiangyan irrigation and flood-control system, which is believed to be the oldest system of its kind still in use in the world.

It harnessed the river by using a new method of channeling that divided the river into an inner waterway and an outer waterway. In addition to controlling floods, it helped irrigate surrounding farmland, making the Sichuan Basin one of the richest agricultural areas in China.

In 2000, Dujiangyan was listed as a UNESCO world heritage site, along with Mount Qingcheng. Today it’s become a tourist destination. 

Historical sites, such as the Erwang Temple, or Temple of the Two Kings, and Fulong Temple, or Monastery of Subduing the Dragon, are popular tourist destinations. Both temples were built as a tribute to Li and his son, who were worshipped as gods by locals.

The story of how the pair managed to tame the river has taken on mystic elements. Some people believe that the father and son defeated a giant dragon before building Dujiangyan, and Fulong Temple marks the spot where the dragon met his end.

Every year, a temple fair is held in Erwang Temple on June 24 and 26 on the lunar calendar. In ancient times, activities such as bullfighting were popular at the fair, but today’s fair-goers have to be content with performances of Sichuan Opera.

Lidui Park is the best spot to get a panoramic view of Dujiangyan. Lidui is the second shield for flood control when the first shield, the Yuzui Diversional Channel, is out of action.

If you go:

There is direct transport from Dujiangyang City and Chengdu to the Dujiangyan Scenic Area. 

Bus No. 9 from downtown Dujiangyan City and Metro Line 2 from Chengdu go to Lidui Park in the scenic area. 

Admission fee of the scenic area is 90 yuan.

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Temple of the Two Kings is a popular visitor destination at Dujiangyan.



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