by Ernie Diaz
There are more than a few mountains in China touted as the Daoist holy of holies. Not that it matters . To quote the sage Bruce Lee, “In order that the mind may function naturally and harmoniously it must be freed from all attachment to oppositional notions.” That means a master will transcend whether he’s on the peak of Huangshan or in the pits of downtown Detroit.
For those of us trapped in duality, however, nice scenery inspires. And, if forced to make distinctions, China Expat points to Jiangxi’s Sanqingshan as the Daoist mecca. Each of its three peaks houses one of the Pure Ones, the three deities, Yuqing, Shangqing, and Taiqing, who took shape right after the formless Dao produced the one, Tai Qi, which in turn produced the two, Yin and Yang.
These three Pure Ones produced all myriad beings, and darn if Sanqingshan doesn’t prove it. Here the very rocks take on living aspects. This is no trick of limestone, as in Kunming or Guilin, where quick erosion fires good imaginations. Sanqingshan’s bestiary is made of pure granite; only the will of heaven could have carved such life-like figures. And they live in a setting which, in a land brimming with misty peaks and ancient forest, nonetheless stands out as the paradigm which the others dimly strive to imitate.
One and a half billion years in the making, “garden” is faint praise for Mount Sanqingshan’s sweet spot, unless we can call the Grand Canyon the “Arizona Gully”. This is where Daoists and stressed-out money-grubbers alike come to watch unrivaled dawns and dusks, breaking over seas of cloud, the mist dispersing under sun to reveal a deep valley of rhododendron.
The Oriental Goddess, ninety meters tall, reigns over Nanqing Garden. Stately seated, she gazes serenely over the pine groves which pay her homage, and the streams which play at their feet. Twenty-third daughter of the Queen of the West, Yaoji, the goddess incarnates spring, and is far too lofty to be PC and take offense at being called “Oriental”, as “Asian Goddess” would hardly fit the bill.
With all due respect to Jung and his archetypes, Chinese mythology brims with snakes not treacherous, but discrete and wise. Soaked in baijiu and ground into medicine, they can be positively benevolent. The Python Coming out of the Mountain, rising 130 meters from Nanqing Garden’s north end, looks too majestic to intend evil, and by default can be but a symbol of yang power.
To most, Nanqing Garden’s Yunu Kaihuai formation is a Rorschach granite; we see a pair of seals admiring their newborn. But to Daoists, it is the symbol of supreme purity and beauty. Considering the full, soft perfection of two such symmetrical mounds, many men less spiritually inclined would no doubt agree.
Super Daoist Ge Hong came to Sanqinshan mid fourth century CE, where he spent his days laboring over a hot alchemical stove, cooking up elixirs of immortality. A potential poster boy for Pfizer, he would push his concoctions in pill form. He must have gotten at least one batch right, for he still lives on the mountain, immortalized in granite, as Ge Hong Presenting the Elixir Pill, a gourd container of pills proffered humbly in his hand.
Sure that’s a dragon: there’s his snout on the right side, with the lone pine sticking out of the top. The Holy Dragon Playing with the Pine clings to a cliff in Nanqing Garden, hibernating, waiting for a chance to charge Heaven’s Southern Gate close by. Good thing the gate is guarded by a kunpeng, a mythical creature sometimes bird, other times fish, but visible only to one who has tasted of Ge Hong’s stash.
Nanqing’s Three Dragons Rising from the Sea aren’t hibernating or plotting, just doing their best to break their earthly bounds and rejoin the heavens. The effect is most clear from Sanqingshan’s Yuhuangding Peak, where the Three Dragons are often the only thing that can be seen above the rolling clouds below.
In primordial days, most of Sanqingshan lay under the sea, and this part formed the western coastline. Traversing its four-kilometer plank road is not for the acrophobic, but certainly no exercise in foolhardiness, such as clambering up Huangshan. Which means you spend less time huffing and puffing, more time pretending you live in Middle Earth, or are journeying to the West.
Among the sweeping vistas of cloud sea and fathomless canyon, one stone feature stands vigil, the Monkey King Presenting the Treasure, to the northwest of Xihaian. Seven meters high, this Monkey King is considerably smaller than many of his fellow Sanqingshan residents, and considerably less annoying than his mythological counterpart, if the CCTV show is anything to judge by.
Beginning at the foot of Sanqinshan, Wanshou Garden enjoys a reputation as a wellspring of longevity. For the tourist, it presents a Donkey Kong’s level-worth of steep climbing, a good start to life-preservation. The one-and-a-half kilometer trek takes one past Shoushan Mountain, Guanyin Terrace, on to Heshou Peak, a place to rest and take in some of the Pure Ones’ most stunning handiwork.
The Old Taoist Worshipping the Moon, with his topknot and backpack, stands staring into infinity during the day. On clear nights, he gazes at the rising moon, a sight said to calm the restless hearts of any tourist lucky enough to take it in.
Ge Hong had a lot more going on than his pill operation. When he had a particularly celestial buzz going, he would let his lute do the talking. One night he nailed a solo of such ethereal beauty that the Goddess of Mercy herself descended to listen, and stayed. Tourists who make it up to Heshou Peak get a wish from the Goddess.
The Sea Lion Devouring the Moon was born of an ancient dragon who, much like Mike Brady, had many sons, but none which reached his stature. Pulao, the Sea Lion, is all roar but no fire, a voracious creature who would swallow the very moon were it in reach.