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Mountains, sacred, of China

By the end of the Zhou dynasty (11th century - 256 BC) a system incorporating inherited animistic, shamanistic and ancestor worshiping beliefs and sacrificial rituals had been organized according to a cosmology of heaven, earth, and man. Mountain worship occupied an important position in this system. Five Sacred Mountains were designated to receive royal sacrifices. These five represented all existing mountains and their earthly powers and, together with the Four Sacred Rivers, symbolically represented the power of the earth as a whole.

Among the powers ascribed to mountains, the ability to provide water was perhaps the most important for an agrarian society like China. More importantly, they were seen as the sources of the clouds that brought the rain. Cloud-breath, whose visible manifestation was depicted in art as trailing wisps of smoky clouds, was regarded as an auspicious omen.

The Five Sacred Mountains were also supposed to act as intermediaries between earth and heaven, where the Supreme heavenly Sovereign resided.

When a new dynasty was founded, the emperor was supposed to visit the mountains, or at least one of them, to report to heaven through them and to receive the heavenly mandate for ruling the whole world.

Mountains were portrayed as places where all sorts of peculiar mammals, birds, and fish live. The deities who presided over the mountain ranges were described as composites of two or three creatures-human, dragon, bird, snake, or horse.

There were many myths and legends associated with mountains in general and with certain mountains in particular. Mt. Kunlun was described as the place where the Queen Mother of the West dwells. By the Han dynasty, it was written that a mortal could reach the upper Heaven and become a god if he succeeded in climbing Kunlun.

From the late Zhou period, the cult of immortals became increasingly important. Belief in a mythical land called Penglai, an imaginary mountain paradise inhabited by immortals and said to be located in either the western mountains or the eastern seas, began as early as the 4th century BC It was believed that humans could find this paradise and there obtain the elixir of immortality. This cult eventually became incorporated into religious Daoism.

From other sources it appears that there are several important mountains in China. From art, myth and litterature we are mostly concerned with five Daoist Sacred Peaks and four Buddhist Sacred Peaks.

The five Sacred Peaks (Daoist) are located along the five directions - north, south, east, west, and center - so as to connect heaven and earth. They are not actually single peaks but rather networks of peaks, cliffs, gorges, hills, ravines, etc. The peaks are: Hua Shan in Shaanxi, Tai Shan in Shandong, Heng Shan in Hunan, Heng Shan / Wutai Shan in Shanxi and Song Shan in Henan. To communicate with the deities on these mountains, emperors ordered the construction of important Daoist temples on each peak. Daoists also believe that immortals inhabit the Five Sacred Peaks and that the magical lingzhi mushrooms that bestow immortality grows on the slopes of these hills and where qi is most refined.

The Four Buddhist Sacred Mountains are: Jiuhua Shan in Anhui, Pu Tuo in Zhejiang, Emei in Sichuan and Wutai Shan in Shanxi.