When spring arrives, it’s not just nature that awakens. We, too, make new life plans. What could be better than doing this over a cup of hot green tea at the top of a Chinese mountain, with crickets chirping all around? No wonder it was right here that the Taoist monks discovered the secret of life and immortality. The Mao Shan mountains are one of the most important sites in the Taoist tradition, for it’s here that the link between humans and heaven is especially favorable. That’s why it was the dwelling place of famous monks who recorded the secrets of Taoist practice in their writings. Even today, in the temple at the summit of Mao Shan Mountain, there are monks, oracles, and tourists who make many offerings to the guardian gods of the four cardinal points.
Those not in search of enlightenment will be impressed by the beauty of Mao Shan National Park. I’ve put together a list of the best places here.
The Mao Shan mountains – where they are and why they’re famous
Mao Shan Mountain is one of the most famous holy mountains of ancient China. It’s situated close to the city of Nanjing in Jurong county, part of Jiangsu province, which today is a national park. The picturesque countryside has several things to offer, from mountain peaks and temple complexes to beautiful forest paths with caves and waterfalls. This region is known for its more than 5000-year-old Taoist history and, according to different reports, is home to classical Taoist schools, secret sects, and enterprising oracles.
What impelled me to Mao Shan Mountain
Already in my teenage years, I tried out t’ai chi at a club and since then have consistently practiced a little. The movement sequences not only look smooth, but great emphasis is also placed on training your concentration. This came in very handy later on in my daily life and work, which were filled with a variety of issues. On top of that, exercises of this sort can be found in specific retreat sites all over the world. There was also a special program planned this time—two weeks in the cradle of Taoism, which according to legend is supposed to have already harbored several immortals.
Monastery on the mountain
It doesn’t take long to figure out what you’ll find on a mountain in China—namely, a monastery. Mao Shan Mountain, too, has a building that’s easily seen from all sides. There are at least two paths that lead up the mountain and that you can conquer in about an hour. On the shorter, well-built path, every so often you’ll find a nice pavilion suitable for short breaks or simply for admiring nature.
Otherwise, on the longer path that initially goes through the forest, then along the road and finally up the mountain, there’s more to see. First you’ll find a park with twelve statues representing the signs of the Zodiac. Right next to it is already the first small temple, with beautiful statues of gods, the guardians of the four cardinal points. After that, embedded in the rock, comes a giant white statue of the goddess Guanyin. It’s here that visitors light their votive candles. But what made even more of an impression on me was the walk through a small cave that showed numerous scenes from the last days all along the way. Unlike what we do, these are not in picture form but instead are displayed as colorful painted clay figures. That way, the torments of suffering sinners boiling in a cauldron look much more real!
Once at the top, alongside the souvenir stands, you enter a lovely temple area with a wide view of the Mao Shan mountains. It’s believed that the connection with heaven is particularly close in these hills, which is why it’s an especially good place to write several wishes on pieces of paper and burn them in the open air. Besides, the temple itself was newly built and is therefore less suited to the quest for Taoist secrets.
From here, you have a good view of another complex—the one with the world’s largest statue of Lao Tze, the legendary founder of Taoism. The 33-meter-tall monk looks golden across the landscape and overshadows all else. One legend says that Lao Tze’s mother took no notice of her conception and that, because of that, he didn’t come into the world until 81 years later. Something extraordinary had to come from that.
There are many equally beautiful buildings, even if they’re significantly smaller—for instance, Santian Gate from the Southern Song Dynasty or the Temple of Mercy. On the whole, I liked this complex the best. Sitting on the sun-warmed marble slabs and eating ice cream while admiring Lao Tze’s statue was an amazing experience. If you want to, you can prolong your outing with a visit to a small grotto in the nearby woods. Everywhere you’ll find small signs warning visitors to not disturb the monkeys or frighten the spirits.
The Mao Shan mountains are a worthwhile excursion for those traveling around Shanghai and Nanjing, especially those interested in Chinese culture and history. The area is a great favorite with tourists, though the majority are admittedly Chinese—or why I highly recommend booking an English-speaking guide in advance.