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A Brief History of Wudang Shan


Wudang Shan possesses an illustrious history as a holy Daoist mountain, the central site of worship for Zhenwu the Emperor of the North and the disputed birthplace of taijiquan. Though it's not one of the Five Peaks (wuyue) orienting traditional Daoist cosmology, Wudang Shan is instead known as the Great Peak (dayue) anchoring the other five; an appellation that by the late Ming imbued it with an air of superiority over China's other Daoist holy mountains. Wudang Shan has historically maintained prominence in its role as a nexus for Daoist religious activity and as a consistent recipient of imperial patronage throughout the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. Unlike other peaks, Wudang Shan is dedicated primarily to the cultic worship of one Daoist deity: Zhenwu, or the Perfect Warrior. As such it is the only holy mountain in China whose iconography is thoroughly integrated into the tale of a single deity.3

Originally known as Xuanwu, or the Dark Warrior, and depicted by the tortoise and the snake,4 the image of Zhenwu first attained prominence in the Eastern Han dynasty among the iconography of tomb engravings. According to legend, sometime in the distant past Zhenwu wandered to Wudang Shan from the North where after forty years of toil and self-refinement he eventually attained immortality. Since then he and the tortoise and snake have forever been associated with the mountain. But it wasn't until 1412 that the Ming emperor Chengzi (Zhu Di), after having attributed his successful usurpation of the throne to the blessings of Zhenwu, elevated him to a status surpassing even Laozi among deities comprising the Daoist pantheon.5 So as to return the favor, Chengzi ordered a massive construction campaign on Wudang Shan in 1412 in commemoration of the god's blessings. Zhenwu “became the object of one of the few truly `national cults', involving all levels of society from the humblest butcher right up to the emperor”,6 with Wudang Shan as it cosmological center.

Though the earliest evidence for the existence of practicing Daoists on the mountain comes from the second century BCE, there weren't established temples on the mountain until that of Five Dragon Hall built in the mid Tang dynasty. It wasn't until the Ming dynasty however that Wudang blossomed into the sprawling complex of Daoist monasteries, temples and shrines which it still resembles today. With around three hundred thousand corvée laborers assigned to this massive construction project, Wudang Shan became home to nine palaces, thirty-six monasteries, seventy-two cliff temples, numerous bridges, residences and shrines within six years. While laborers worked furiously on the Forbidden City in Beijing, so were engineers and workers dispatched to Wudang Shan to build a parallel Forbidden City at the apex of the central mountain. Renowned religious leaders were summoned from around the country to serve in the larger monasteries and temples and by the 1420s Wudang Shan became deserving (the dang in wudang meaning deserving) of its appellation `The Great Peak'.

In the six hundred years since its establishment, Wudang Shan has maintained a turbulent historical tradition including skirmishes among rival schools of Daoism and gongfu who fought for supremacy over the centuries, bandits and rebels who periodically claimed and reclaimed the mountain as base and stronghold, and finally the heavy damages incurred from the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Yet despite such setbacks, Wudang Shan has retained its role as one of the central sites for Daoist pilgrimage in China, a destination for affluent tourists over the centuries and today a treasure house for traditional Daoist culture, architecture and relics.

Though the ravages of the twentieth century certainly took its toll on the monuments of the mountain, efforts to protect the mountain from further damage finally materialized in 1953 when special funds were allocated to the region, and then in 1961 when the Golden Summit Shrine was listed as one of China's Major Cultural Relics. The state of conservation nonetheless remained dismal, ending in the disastrous setbacks of the Cultural Revolution. By 1982, preservation efforts took a turn for the better when 'general protection' was extended to the entire region. Nonetheless, evidence of inadequate preservation efforts by the late 1980s abounds. Even in Wudang Shan's body evaluation for World Heritage Site inscription it understatedly reports that, “serious problems remained to be tackled”.7 After an exhausting eight-year process Wudang Shan was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 1994 and has since undergone an enormous transformation to implement protection plans, enhance preservation efforts as well as to open up the mountain to tourism.

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