EMEI SHAN : A TOURISTIC PILGRIMAGE TO THE HOLY MOUNTAINEmei Shan (“shan” means mount in Chinese) to me, and many less religious Chinese round the world as well, is the abode of beautiful nuns well skilled in Chinese martial arts, as portrayed in numerous martial arts movies and novels. To the more devoted, however, Mt Emei is one of the four holy mountains of Buddhism in China (the other three are the Wutai Mountains in Shanxi Province, the Putuo Mountains in Zhejiang Province and the Jiuhua Mountains in Anhui). In fact, according to May Holdsworth (Odyssey Illustrated Guide to Sichuan),
“Emei Shan is more than a mountain; it is a frame of mind. That is not just because looking up at monumental heights induces in the beholder a sense of his own frailty and insignificance. It is also because for centuries Chinese belief has endowed Nature with a mystical influence on man’s character, and Nature is supremely exemplified by mountains. Mixed up with this tradition was the ancient folk belief that mountains were the magical habitations of immortals. Although Taoist in origin, these ideas have been gathered into the Chinese Buddhist’s view of the universe like much else of the indigenous cult.”
And as the book continues, it wasn’t clear when and why Mt Emei was venerated in the first place. The first temples here are Taoist but eventually became Buddhist, and not just merely Buddhist - but Buddhist holy mountains, with thousands coming here on pilgrimage. An explanation I read on a website says that Emei Shan has “a Buddhist heritage that can be traced back to the Eastern Han Dynasty under the reign of Emperor Ming (58-75). One day a hermit called Pugong was collecting medicinal herbs in Emei Shan when he suddenly saw a man with a halo around his head flying over on the back of a white elephant. Awe-stricken, Pugong followed the man to the summit where he found nothing but fleeting purplish clouds. Then he went to the Western Region (Xinjiang region, from where Buddhism spread from India to China) to consult an abbot who told him that the man he saw was the holy person of Bodhisattva Samantabhadra (a Buddhist deity). Back to Emei Shan, Pugong converted his residence into a temple for worshipping Bodhisattva Samantabhadra. This became the first temple ever built in Emei Shan. There used to be more than 70 temples in Emei Shan when Buddhism was prevailing in China. To date, a dozen of them are still functioning” [Words in italics are added by me.]
The ascent up Emei Shan is a difficult one. At 3,099m above sea level, the hike up passing only the main monasteries and temples (Baoguo Si - Qingyin Ge - Wannian Si - Huayan Ding - Baiyun Si - Jieyin Dian - Jinding), is 40 to 50 km one way. Pilgrims used to take 2 days up and 2 days downhill, even on a quick pilgrimage (and well, in the old days of devotion, many stayed much longer, visiting the countless temples of the holy mountain). A guidebook says tourists can try doing it in 3 days altogether. But modern tourism have found a way out for tourists on the rush. Buses now travel from the foothills at Baoguo Si to Wannian Si at 1020m, and to Jieyin Hall (2640m) from where one can take a cable car to the summit at Jinding (Golden Summit), 3,075m. At the moment, the highest peak, Wanfoding (Peak of Ten Thousand Buddhas), 3099m, is still unreachable.
We arrived at Emei Shan in the late afternoon and quickly left our luggage at the Hongzhushan Guesthouse where Chiang Kai Shek once stayed ( - a nice, quiet place, the Generalissimo sure knows where to build his villas), before making a brief visit to Baoguo Si (Temple of Dedication to the Nation). At the gateway, we were overwhelmed by a large number of hawkers and touts, anxious to get us to buy their assortment of souvenirs, maps, snacks, etc and also to take photos with the legendary monkeys of Emei Shan. The rest of Sichuan had appeared to be devoid of tourists (when compared to international tourism cities like London, NY, Hong Kong or Singapore) but in Emei Shan, the only industry seemed to be tourism, or rather, in the older days, religious tourism. And the locals appeared to have only one preoccupation - that of servicing tourists. This mountainous region, lacking in fertile soil and minerals, would have been unimaginably poor (like so many such parts of China) if not for tourism. And as for the Baoguo Si, its most renowned treasure is a 2.4 metre tall porcelain Buddha, made in the 15th century. Apart from that, the most notable thing about this temple is its beautiful setting at the foothills of Emei Shan. The cool, misty climate, together with the surrounding ancient trees, all add a very mysterious and holy feel about the whole place. Perhaps it was such an environment which created a perfect venue for sages and mystics to settle here, and thus leading to the evolvement of Emei Shan as a pilgrimage site.
After Baoguo, we visited Qingyin Ge (Clear Sound Pavilion), a traditional Chinese pavilion and temple standing across running mountain streams. The pavilion was no big deal although the long walk there is through one of Emei Shan’s most scenic spots, with little mountain hamlets and tiny shrines along the way. But not all was as innocent and holy as it seemed, as my host pointed out a few ordinary-looking buildings and commented that they are brothels, and that the two friendly and pretty ladies who were chatting with us earlier were actually “xiao jie” (or prosititutes ; although the same term may also mean a young lady, but when used in certain context refers to lady of the night). Alas, even human decadence has reached these remote and holy mountains.