Saving China's holy mountains

Posted: 18 April 2001

Author: Martin Palmer

For centuries, China's holy mountains were protected by Taoist and Buddhist monastries and the respect of the pilgrims who visited them. Now, in the face of growing tourist and business pressures, a new effort is being made to save them from destruction. Martin Palmer reports.

To climb some of the great and ancient sacred mountains of China is to risk life and limb. Not just because some of them, like Hua Shan in Shaanxi Province, are amongst the most dangerous in China, but because of the crowds. Even a relatively straightforward climb such as that at the most important of all the Chinese sacred mountains, Tai Shan in Shandong Province, is made risky by the swirling hordes of visitors. mountain templesSuspended temples of the Taoist sacred mountain area of Heng Shan, China.© CIRCA PhotolibrarySacred Mountains in China are big business and a major threat now exists to the delicate balance of ecology on many of these mountain ranges. For centuries they have attracted pilgrims. Now they are attracting tourists but, more worryingly, big business interests as well.

China has nine senior sacred mountains, five of which are associated with Taoism, the indigenous religion of China, and four with Buddhism. They range from the small mountain island of Pu To off the coast near Ningbo to the massive 200-mile-long range of Heng Shan in Hunan Province. Then there are scores of lesser sacred mountains dotted across the landscape of China, each with its own aura of the holy which has helped to protect them down the millenia of Chinese civilisation. But now they are under threat.

Commercial pressure

In traditional Chinese society, sacred mountains were places of retreat from the world: places of pilgrimage, of learning, of a model of co-existence with nature. They were owned and run by the great monasteries, Taoist and Buddhist, and they offered a place of refuge to wildlife, a model of sustainable forestry and agriculture to local communities, and a vision of a more harmonious relationship with nature to pilgrims. In the last 100 years, through revolution, communism, turmoil and anti-religious persecution, much of this ancient balance has been destroyed. It seems likely that the rampant growth of the entrepreneur culture may put the final nail in the coffin.

Over the last few years colleagues and I have visited all of the major sacred mountains to conduct an enquiry into the environmental and religious wellbeing of these vast sacred natural reserves. For despite the ravages of change, these places still have an aura and a local respect which means they have not been exploited to the same alarming degree as much of the rest of China. As Xiao Xiaomin, one of our Chinese colleagues puts it, "The gods still offer protection and local people respect these gods."

But the pressures are mounting. Logging, hunting, tourism and pollution are taking their toll, for the land no longer belongs to the monasteries and thus in theory the lands are open to use. Yet the old reverence has hung on and the mountains are still protected by a veil of sanctity. But this is being attacked on many fronts, not least by Chinese tourists wishing to visit Chinese sites.

The sacred temples of Heng Shan, China,are popular with tourists and pilgrims.© CIRCA PhotolibraryThe religious authorities are trying to find a way of balancing these demands. "These places are meant to be hard to climb, arduous to explore," says Zhang Hua Ne of the China Taoist Association, "for in that struggle lies humility. To build cable cars is not just to disturb the natural balance. It is to deprive us of a sense of awe."

The sacredness of many of the mountains is important to local cultures. China has scores of ethnic communities and most of these live in the mountains, because of colonisation of the lowlands by the Han Chinese. Preservation of the sacred mountains is crucial to the survival of many of these minorities. Their symbiosis with the mountain ecology has meant a balance has been established which the presence of the religious communities has enhanced. Indeed, many of the mountains were originally shamanic sacred sites belonging to the indigenous peoples, stretching back over at least 5,000 years.

The need to preserve these mountain ranges is spelt out by Han Wu Di of the state tourist authority in Shangdong Province, which includes Tai Shan, the greatest of the sacred mountains. "Once the symbol of China was the dragon and the phoenix. Now it is the crane - and I am not referring to the bird."

China is experiencing an extraordinary boom. Everywhere is a building site. Everywhere resources are being drained to make quick profits. Ironically, Chinese economic freedom may do more damage to the sacred mountains of China than the Cultural Revolution. Certainly this is the view of one of the Grand Masters of Taoism, Wu: "For centuries, Taoism has protected the sacred mountains by making them places of refuge, places where nothing was done. We have been passive. Now we must be active. We must work to preserve that which we love. We must educate people about our need for nature."

This shift from passive to active is most clearly to be seen in two linked actions. Firstly, in 1995, the Taoists of China issued a statement on ecology for the first time in their two thousand year history. In a clear rejection of consumerist values, they state: "Taoism has a unique sense of value in that it judges affluence by the number of different species."

Mountain project

At the same time, in collaboration with the Alliance of Religions and Conservation's (ARC) programme on working with religions, the Taoists have launched a Sacred Mountains Project. ARC, in a joint effort with the Taoists, the Government Bureau of Religious Affairs and the tourist authorities, co-ordinated a major survey of the ecology of the five main and three lesser Taoist mountains and is planning a full survey of the four key Buddhist mountains.

Based upon this survey, development plans will be drawn up through consultation with local people, priests, monks and nuns as well as with the relevant provincial and state government departments, which will try to ensure the survival of a balanced way of life on the sacred mountains. This is a partnership between faiths, government, ministries, local communities and the wider environmental movement. It is forging new ties in a country with many major environmental problems.

Walking the sacred mountains is a fascinating experience. Here great areas of natural beauty and diversity still exist. Local people retain a sense of respect and awe for the mountain and all it gives them. To walk the old pilgrimage routes is both to explore the physical and to journey into the metaphysical. This combination has produced a uniquely godly environment which has protected wildlife and peoples through the millenia. It might continue to do so for millenia to come if this project works. High on O Mei Shan in Sichuan Province lives a Buddhist hermit. He has lived in his cave for some fifty years. Perhaps he should have the last word: "For me, the mountain is the Buddha and the Buddha is the mountain. No one wishes to harm the Buddha, so why do you harm the mountain? Come, visit, listen. But also respect all life on this mountain, for the mountain is you and you are the mountain."

Martin Palmer is Secretary General of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, Director of the International Consultancy on Religion, Education and Culture (ICOREC) and religious adviser to WWF.

You can visit ARC's website at: www.religionsandconservation.org