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From a sacred mountain to China's favourite sage, Shandong is home to two of the country's most venerated sites
In spite of the altitude, it was a hot, hazy afternoon in the Chinese province of Shandong, about 400 kilometres southeast of Beijing. The alpine air was filled with the aroma of burning incense and peach blossoms. Far below me, the Yellow River coursed towards Shandong’s Pacific coastline and the gulf between China and the Korean peninsula. From where I stood, perched high on the pinnacle of an ancient god’s head, I could see an ocean of cloud swirling above the world he’d created at the beginning of time. Named Pangu, the ancestor of all things, the god had awoken to cleave apart the essential forces of yin and yang, and make the earth and sky. After cradling the heavens for eons he lay down to rest, his skull forming the peak I was now standing on — China’s holiest mountain: the revered Tai Shan, or Mount Tai.
Rising dramatically from a sea-level plain, Mount Tai has been essential to China’s religious life and civilization for thousands of years. Achingly beautiful and still worshipped as a deity today by followers of Taoism (an age-old nature-based religion), the mountain houses an elaborate temple complex dating back to the second century BCE which is visited by millions of pilgrims annually. It conferred legitimacy for centuries on imperial rulers who offered sacrifices on its summit to assume the Mantle of Heaven, but Mount Tai has also inspired generations of genuflecting Chinese writers and scholars.
The most venerable of these visitors was China’s greatest sage, Kongzi, or Confucius, whose hometown of Qufu lies about an hour away. An outstanding thinker, educator and statesman, Confucius was given divine royal status for founding a school of philosophy that has influenced Chinese mores and institutions ever since.
Qufu’s Confucius Temple, Mansion and Cemetery boast the finest and most extensive ancient architecture in China outside Beijing’s Forbidden City. Begun in 2500 years ago and remodelled by successive imperial dynasties, the complex attests to Shandong’s pivotal role in China’s history. In the fourth century BCE, the region's Qi and Lu kingdoms paved the way for a centralized Chinese state while achieving a level of technological sophistication unequalled in Europe for millennia.
Marco Polo's lake
Mount Tai and Qufu are most easily reached via the provincial capital of Jinan, less than two hours north by road. A pleasant, lush city of 6.8 million, Jinan has extensive air, rail and bus links, and is connected to both Beijing and Shanghai by 300-kilometre-an-hour bullet trains.
The city is renowned for its natural springs, lakes and luxuriant waterside parks. Weeping willows, lotus pools, elegant pavilions and elaborate manmade rock formations (some designed by emperors) surround over 70 different springs in the immediate downtown area alone.
Most feed into the city’s best-known landmark, the beautiful island-filled Da-Ming Lake, fondly recalled by Marco Polo in his memoirs. The most famous Jinan spring lies within Baoto Spring Park in the city centre, a serene sanctuary filled with pagodas, carp ponds and peony, mum and rose gardens — all flowers first cultivated in China.
The area around Jinan is an important centre of Buddhism, another of China’s great religious traditions. The grand Lingyan Temple, just outside town, long benefitted from the patronage of emperors heading to Mount Tai: its Buddhist architecture and artifacts are some of the finest in the country.
Modern-day Jinan, of course, is a bustling metropolis filled with space-age skyscrapers, plazas and malls built on a scale inconceivable to visitors from an under-populated country like Canada. At night, buildings blaze with kaleidoscopic neon patterns as crowds congregate in colossal Quancheng square to stroll, play sports, fly illuminated balloons and kites, and even practise kung fu moves on skateboards!
The tao of the mountain
About an hour south of Jinan, you reach Tai’an, the city at the base of Mount Tai. Historically, the Dai Temple here was the first stop for emperors and pilgrims venturing up the holy mountain. Mount Tai itself is a revelation, not just because of its beauty, but because the mountain has been so altered by thousands of years of human worship that this UNESCO World Heritage Site is best viewed as a collective work of art.
On the ground, this means that its multi-peaked range of stunning gorges, valleys, forests and waterfalls is filled with cultural artifacts ranging from tablets and statuary to grandiose temples and cliffs embossed with metre-high gold calligraphy that preserve the edicts of a particular emperor. You may find yourself admiring the natural wonder of an old growth forest only to discover it was planted two millennia ago and is still somehow used for astrological divination.
Large friendly crowds stagger up the steep main route, a grand ceremonial staircase of 7200 stairs that leads to the temple complexes atop the sacred East Peak and Mount Tai’s uppermost point, the 1545-metre Jade Emperor Summit. The walk takes most mortals four to six hours with breaks for rests and spectacular views. It winds through imperial gates, archways and pavilions before reaching the entrance to the summit’s village and temples.
For those who prefer vertigo to exercise, the peak can be reached by the world’s longest cable car. As well, there are more difficult and less-travelled routes uphill for visitors inclined to Canadian-style nature hikes and solitude.
Once on top, you’ll find a bustling monastic version of Banff, replete with tourist haunts, shops and simple restaurants. Spartan mountaintop hotels all ring 6AM alarms to alert guests to the stupendous views at sunrise (the cause for Mao Zedong’s celebrated remark that, “the East is red”).
There are many temple complexes to visit, of which the Azure Cloud Temple is the largest. Relax post-climb and watch as pilgrims worship with incense sticks, throw wishes scrawled on table-sized paper into a raging oven, and inscribe names for good luck on padlocks bought on-site and then locked in the thousands to altars and shrines.
Mount Tai boasts 22 temples, almost 100 ruins and over 1000 cliff-side and stone inscriptions. Wildlife also abounds with over 300 subtropical species of birds, mammals and reptiles on its verdant slopes, although these days the long-resident dragon and phoenix now make their presence felt without being seen.
The easygoing country town of Qufu, seventy kilometres south of Mt. Tai was the site of Confucius' home. When the sage died in 479 BCE, his Qufu residence was consecrated as a shrine. By 200 BCE, his veneration had become important to the unifiers of imperial China, the Han dynasty, and temples had begun to spring up.
The temple complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that contains nine massive courtyards, scores of buildings, and six major temples with design motifs otherwise restricted to emperors — a fact that ensures the complex’s historical importance and architectural grandeur. Pillars bedecked with coiled dragons stare benevolently at the tranquil courtyards filled with moats, gardens, greenery and holy trees. Shielded from the traffic jams outside its walls, the complex remains the perfect place in which to consider Confucianism’s emphasis on hierarchy, obedience, selflessness and filial respect.
Adjacent to the temple complex is Confucius Mansion, inhabited by members of his direct line for 900 years until the invasion of China by Japan in 1937. The sage’s direct descendants became a priestly caste running all aspects of his temple. The term “mansion” is a misnomer, as this is a walled compound with 152 buildings. Many artifacts and family heirlooms are on display, including the hefty sugar cane stalks prescribed by Confucius to make corporal punishment sweeter.
On the northern outskirts of Qufu (take the golf cart-style trams from downtown) is the Confucius Cemetery Forest, the burial ground of the wise man and 100,000 of his descendants. The tombs lie in a densely treed tangle of unkempt parkland where marble lions, camels, horses and turtles peek through the high grass. Large colonies of herons and egrets nest in the trees overhead, watching over the 78 generations.
Shandong province of course has many other attractions. Try venturing to the city of Linzi’s chariot tombs (an emperor buried with his warhorses), the especially ancient of Zhoucun, or the centres of Weifang and Yangjiabu, specialists in arts and crafts (the kite was invented here, and amazingly ornate examples are everywhere).
Further east, coastal Qingdao looks across the Yellow Sea to Korea. A German colony during the early 20th century, the city has beaches and handsome Teutonic buildings, and is the home of world-famous Tsing Tao Beer.
Wherever you do end up going, relish China’s unique contrasts and remember Confucius’ celebrated pronouncement on first climbing Mount Tai: “Look there, the world is small.”
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