The North Peak

Searching for an elusive Taoist monk, Ian Johnson finds something better

The “voluntary” insurance at the entrance had cost just two yuan, about thirty-five cents, but I had been fleeced all the way from Beijing and somehow this was the final straw. Why did everything have to be so crass and commercialized? I whined to myself. I knew the answers—all the nuanced reasons why so many religious sites in China had been reduced to a carnival—but was in too foul a mood to be rational. The view didn’t help either. Once one of Taoism’s holiest mountains, Mount Heng in Shanxi Province was a denuded wreck, seeming to consist of nothing but broken slate. I grumbled epithets as I climbed the steep trail wondering why I had bothered to come.

(Wikimedia Commons)
A Tall Pine and Daoist Immortal, ink and color on silk hanging scroll by Chen Hongshou, 1635, Ming dynasty; National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan

Then he appeared on the ridge above me, like something out of a Chinese kung fu thriller: a Taoist priest clad in a blue robe, white breeches, his hair up on his head in a bun. I hesitated for a second. He was moving so quickly that he was almost gone before I could blurt out: “Master, have you seen the priest known as Mysterious Forest?” He stopped, looked at me, and said the priest had moved on.

I didn’t really care about Mysterious Forest. I had come to Mount Heng to meet Taoists and here was one. I told him I was researching Taoism and asked if he knew anything about the mountain. He didn’t answer but immediately strode down the slate slope to my path, oblivious of the mini-landslide he was causing. “I can help you,” he said, turning on his heel. “Follow me.”

I rushed to catch up, trying not to let on that I was in un-Taoist-like bad shape, barely able to keep up with this man who must have been twenty years my senior. As we walked—it felt like cantering—he kept looking back and talking, as if his steady stream of chatter could lasso and draw me toward him.

“Have you noticed that Taoism has a lot of temples to Laozi?”

“Yes, sure,” I said. “He’s the religion’s founder and wrote the Daodejing, which is a great work.”

“Correct. Then tell me what is the second-greatest work of Taoism?”

Zhuangzi. It has many colorful stories and is maybe even more profound than the Daodejing.”

“Exactly! Well put. It’s even better than the Daodejing. It is better. It is much better. But have you ever noticed that there are no temples to Zhuangzi? There are hundreds of temples to Laozi but not one to Zhuangzi. Why is that?”

I shook my head. Both Laozi and Zhuangzi were mythical figures. Who knew why Laozi got all the incense burned in his name and Zhuangzi only got a book named after him.

“So here’s my idea,” he said, stopping at a bend and locking his eyes on mine. “We build a temple to Zhuangzi. You and I. We have met here on this road. It is fate. Foreigners can fund it. It will be China’s first temple to Zhuangzi.”

My heart began to sink. Not another con.

“It will be cheap,” he said, continuing. “Zhuangzi is from my hometown in Henan Province. I know people there and we can get the land for free. The gate receipts can pay back the investors. The officials there are very interested.”

Another cockamamie scheme. No wonder Taoists have a reputation for being slippery. I argued to myself that I was being unfair. Then I got a grip; no, I wasn’t being unfair, and I started to walk ahead quickly. I needed to find some real Taoists and ditch this guy. But he followed me, talking incessantly as I tried to block out his voice. “It’s the twenty-first century. It’s the century of Zhuangzi. Last century was Laozi’s century but this is Zhuangzi’s.” Shut up, shut up, I countered in a loud internal voice. Where can I find a real Taoist?

* * *

Chinese religion is so different from Western belief systems that some experts have argued that for most of their history, the Chinese have been a people little concerned with the spiritual. Nothing could be more wrong. Up until the twentieth century, China was a land imbued with religion and the spiritual. The problem is that it wasn’t rooted in and controlled by powerful institutions like a church with a clergy but instead consisted of a system of daily practices, including ancestor worship, veneration of mountains and streams, worship of famous people or local gods, belief in fate and fortune-telling, and techniques of physical cultivation like tai chi and qigong. For millennia, this amalgam of practices—often called “folk religion” or “popular religion”—dominated China’s spiritual landscape. Organized religions existed but were imports: it was under the pressure of Buddhism, for example, that some of China’s indigenous religious practices coalesced around the second century c.e. into an organized religion that loosely became known as Taoism.

For much of the next two thousand years, Taoism (sometimes written as “Daoism”) ran a distant second to Buddhism, which was better organized and had a devout cadre of monks who zealously spread their creed around the empire. Buddhism was also a more intellectualized religion and more acceptable for high-ranking officials than Taoism, which seemed a hodgepodge of esoteric and earthy beliefs.

Many religions also combine high philosophy with simple rituals. Catholicism boasts the works of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas but also rosary beads and saying the “Hail Mary” to atone for sins. But Taoism might take it further than most. Laozi’s DaodejingThe Classic of the Way and Its Power—is a work on governing written in such a spare, metaphorical style that it can be read as a way to conduct one’s own life. The Zhuangzi is full of allegories and parables, including some of the most memorable in the Chinese language. But if one takes the entire body of Taoist writing—for example, the 1,400 texts gathered in a compendium known as the Taoist Canon—most are works of liturgy and ritual. These include how to summon gods, fast, cure diseases, extend the lifespan, purify vessels, pray, or channel energy around the body. In the West, Taoism has become synonymous with going with the fl ow (The Tao of Pooh) and maximizing pleasure (The Tao of Sex), but throughout most of its history it’s been a religion that seeks union with the “way” through carefully scripted rituals and principled living.

I got interested in Taoism because I saw in it a way to understand many different parts of Chinese culture. Taoist principles underlie Chinese calligraphy, painting, poetry, and many great works of literature, such as Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West, which is ostensibly about a Buddhist’s monk’s journey to India but on a deeper level is a book on Taoist longevity practices. I thought of Taoism as the DNA of Chinese culture, and while I later learned that this was a bit of a stretch, I found I learned a lot about China by looking at its only indigenous religion.

I quickly realized, however, that Taoism had suffered the most of China’s religions. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries were brutal for China, with the country unable to ward off the West’s and then Japan’s unstoppable combination of science and advanced capitalism. The country was being carved up piece by piece, and the problem seemed to lie deeper than just in outdated military technology. Reformers began to cast doubt on everything Chinese, especially the country’s religions. Influenced by Western definitions of religion and superstition, some Chinese thinkers decided that most Chinese belief was mere “superstition” and only a few narrow practices—basically more intellectualized and organized forms of Buddhism and Taoism—were real religions worthy of the name. The rest had to be destroyed.

What followed was one of the most sustained assaults on religion in modern history. Starting with the reform movement of 1898 and picking up speed when the last emperor was overthrown in 1911, a wave of violence was visited upon Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian places of worship. Islam and Christianity also suffered, but Islam is closely tied to specific minority groups, and Christianity was at times protected and at other times persecuted because of its close ties to Western colonialists. At the turn of the twentieth century, the best estimate is that China had one million places of worship. When the Communists took over in 1949, half of those had been destroyed, turned into schools, or commandeered for other purposes. As the most radical of the groups that advocated destroying the past, the Communists continued the attack with even more zeal. By the time radical communists were overthrown at the end of the 1970s, almost no place of worship was open. Priests, monks, imams, and nuns had been driven out of their churches and mosques and forced to work in factories or the fields. Many of those practicing celibacy were forced to marry.

Yet what followed was a dramatic revival of religious life. China was still run by a Communist Party that is officially atheist, but starting in the 1980s, religion was tolerated. Communist leaders saw this as a concession to mainly elderly worshippers who, they thought, would die out anyway. What happened shocked authorities: young people began to believe, and religion, far from dying out, flourished. The best guesstimate is that China today has one hundred thousand places of worship, although many of these are simply informal meeting places. That’s still just 10 percent of the figure at the end of the nineteenth century, but a significant change from the late 1970s. Opinion polls also reflect a return of belief. Over two-thirds of Chinese say they believe in a higher being, while a quarter say that over the past year, they have experienced the presence of a deity. Those are figures similar to those for Western countries like the United States or Britain.

Why does the government tolerate this revival? One reason is the recognition that belief alone does not threaten the Communist Party’s rule. Many government officials also realize that the country suffers from a lack of public morality—for too many people, all that matters is the prosperity of immediate family and the acquisition of riches. Religion, even Party officials grudgingly admit, can instill values. And then there’s money: for local governments, holy mountains and temples can help fill coffers, aiding an area’s tourist industry. Entrance tickets—and even insurance—are sold, and the local government siphons off a good chunk of the profits.

This was the case at Mount Heng, also known as the North Peak, one of the five holy mountains that marked the extent of civilization in very early Chinese history. The mountains were seen as pillars holding up the Chinese world; even the emperor worshipped them at the Temple of the Earth in Beijing. But when I made this trip to visit it in 2000, the North Peak had only been officially open for a year and was mostly in the hands of greedy government officials, who sold tickets and tourism “insurance” policies and harassed the few Taoists who tried to live there. Soon into my trip, I was pretty sure that the rich Taoist traditions I’d come searching for had been extinguished.

* * *

We soon arrived at the main halls, one of the most down-at-heel temple complexes I’d seen at a major Taoist site. I hadn’t expected much. My friend Brock, an American businessman who runs a charity devoted to helping renovate Taoist sites, had visited a few years earlier, and he told me it was a wreck. Still, this was one of Taoism’s holy mountains, and I thought something might have survived the past century’s tumult.

“This is the North Peak,” the Taoist announced as we looked at the temples, which were so weather-beaten that they seemed to sag under some enormous historical weight. I generally like old buildings, but these were sad, more like corpses than relics of a glorious past. The Taoist began to talk again but my inner voice blocked him out. Taoists, I thought; there must be some real ones here like Mysterious Forest. Brock had met him, and they meditated together. That seemed like a real experience. This seemed like a waste of time. But my Taoist’s voice was loud and persistent. I glanced at his name card: Xianfo Shengren.

“Shengren means saint,” I said. “Is this a title?”

“It’s a goal,” he said, waving off my question. “Some people call me that.”

I stifled a laugh as we stepped inside the main hall, an unimposing building about thirty feet long and twenty feet deep, with a ten-foot-high ceiling. The cramped feeling was reinforced by red ropes that kept us in a small area directly in front of the altar. Most temples allow visitors to walk around, but this limited access to the front of the main altar. It seemed annoying, but as I stood there I began to see why. The altar had only three statues, but the central one was a Ming dynasty sculpture of the god of the North Peak. The statues of the acolytes flanking him were new, but the main deity was a genuine piece of art, covered in dark gold leaf, at least 400 years old. That made it a rarity for a Chinese temple—over the past century, anti-religious zealots had singled out statues for destruction, acting as if they were missionaries eager to wipe out pagan idols. But, somehow, here was the real thing, a dark, brooding god that could stand up to any piece of religious art I had seen. It was protected by glass, and the ropes made sure we kept our distance. A single stick of incense smoldered. The trip was beginning to feel more worthwhile.

Xianfo pointed to the statue. “During the Cultural Revolution, a Red Guard tried to smash the god, but he broke his arm when he struck the statue. Another Red Guard fell to his death ascending the mountain. After that, everyone fled, and the god was saved.”

I wondered what really happened and imagined something very dramatic: angry villagers pushing a Red Guard off the sheer precipices or beating one of Mao’s fanatics before his club could strike the statue. Maybe locals simply told the Red Guards the most dangerous way up the mountain, which in places can be treacherously steep. Some had died and the rest had given up. Stories about temples in the Cultural Revolution often involved miracles. For the Maoists, their leader himself was nearly a god, and they began circulating miraculous stories. Following Mao’s thoughts could increase production, cause fruit to stop rotting, and even raise the dead. His “Little Red Book” of quotations was treated like a religious text, and young believers undertook what can only be described as pilgrimages to see him, even just for a split second.

But the victims had their miracles too. I had visited a temple outside Beijing once and the groundskeeper had told me that when Red Guards were assaulting a statue, a ceiling panel fell and crushed the young attackers. Behind the panel was a carving of a dragon, and the story was born of the dragon god defending the temple. These tales are told privately and rarely recorded—part of the untold history of the rural, uneducated oppressed. The Party is willing to admit that its first thirty years in power were a series of disasters, but it doesn’t want its face rubbed in it. Instead, one is supposed to forget its crimes and move forward. Most people do this. It is sensible, but it has caused a collective amnesia to settle over the country.

I felt Xianfo’s gaze on me and realized my mind had wandered. “There are miracles,” he said. “You have to open your eyes. Look in front of us. The god of the North Peak existed. He was a real person. He died, and his body didn’t decompose. So people thought he was a spirit. His body is inside the statue,” Xianfo said, lifting up his left arm with a flourish. He shook his sleeves so that his index finger, pointing at the statue, dramatically appeared out of the garments. I had to smile, but I knew he wasn’t trying to be funny. He was being dramatic, because for him this was a truth that he was trying to make me understand.

“I can show you a lot of dead bodies in the mountains. Hermits go into the hills to meditate, die, and their bodies don’t decompose,” Xianfo said, turning away from the statue to look out of the door at the endless mountains stretching across the yellow plateau. “It’s common.”

“Yes,” I said absently. “It’s very dry here in North China.” Then I caught myself. This was the wrong attitude. I was ruining it—the same game authorities played when they tried to distinguish between religion and superstition. He was trying to tell me something. He cast a glance at me and went on. “You have to know where to look. There are people in the mountains of the Central Plains who have gone to the hills for centuries. They die, but no one finds their body, just their staff. They have gone to heaven, immortal. This is my goal.”

He fixed his eyes on me and said steadily, “You don’t believe me, but I lived with them in the mountains. They were my teachers.” Xianfo walked outside toward the mountains, and I followed. My eyes teared in the cold, bright light, and I furrowed my brow in concentration, for the first time trying to listen.

“Here’s another strange thing,” Xianfo said. A huge elm tree grew on the terrace in front of the temple, its roots sticking out of the ground. It had grown at such an angle that it was almost parallel to the earth and jutted out into the air above the slope below us. “It is named after Zhang Guolao, one of the Eight Immortals. We call it the Guolao Elm. During the Cultural Revolution, some people hacked at its branches and tried to uproot it,” he said, pointing at the dead roots sticking out of the ground. “It seemed dead but then after the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, it sprouted new shoots and leaves.”

We contemplated the tree for a while and walked back inside the temple to the altar and the beautiful god. “Have a seat,” he said, kicking the kneeler out toward me. I hesitated, thinking it sacrilegious to sit on something people knelt on to pray, but he waved his arms dismissively and pulled a tin tray off the altar. It held a few apples and dry cookies, the locals’ meager offerings to the god.

“Have an apple.” I looked aghast, but then laughed at his casual attitude to the formal practice of his religion. He had lived in the mountains with immortals, I thought; he must know Taoist etiquette better than I. “We can’t waste them,” he said. “Eat one. They’re local products. Very good.”

He sat on the kneeler too and we faced each other, straddling the wood. He drew closer until our feet intertwined. “It’s fate that has drawn us here,” he started, and I wondered if he was about to make another sales pitch for a temple. But then I relaxed and told myself to shut up.

“You know, I don’t care about the temple to Zhuangzi too much. It was just an idea I had back then, although I do think that Zhuangzi deserves a temple. But let’s forget it; I can see you are not an entrepreneurial person. The problem is how to save Taoism. The Cultural Revolution brainwashed people. They don’t understand anything about their own religion. We have Taoist philosophy, which is widely admired, and the religion, which is looked down on by everyone except the peasants. That was why I brought up the Zhuangzi temple. We could link the philosophy to the religion and bring more prestige to Taoism.

“Local officials don’t understand this. They just want money. They wanted to reopen this for tourism and didn’t want Taoists in the temples. They reopened the temple last year, but I was here already. I was here before they permitted it to be reopened. I had been here for years, sitting in my room playing the erhu [a two-stringed fiddle] and practicing internal alchemy [a kind of meditation] for two hours a day. I said we Taoists would stay here, and that without us there would be no [religious] atmosphere. They eventually relented.” I remembered what he said about living in the mountains and began to understand. “When did you come here?” I asked, guessing at the answer.

“I spent the Cultural Revolution practicing martial arts and medicine in the Kunlun Mountains”—the Kunlun Mountains, I thought, the axis mundi of traditional China, the abode of gods and mythical creatures. They are at the other end of the Central Plains, about six hundred miles south, a refuge overlooking the turmoil below.

“Many people went to the mountains at that time. I had a master, much older than I. He had lived on the North Peak. He had found the Tao here and had a strong attachment to this mountain. He knew when the turmoil was over but said he was too old to leave the Kunlun Mountains and return here. So he said, go to the North Peak and rebuild it. I arrived in 1980. I was fifty years old.”

I could not believe he was seventy already; he seemed so vigorous. I asked how he had managed to start such an ambitious project at that age.

“I know medicine and treated people. I opened a clinic and a consulting company telling fortunes. I got rich; I invested one million yuan [almost US$160,000], basically all my money into preventing these halls from collapsing. This was before the government got interested. The money wasn’t really mine; it was to follow my master’s orders. The peak had to be rebuilt. Can you understand this?”

It was late afternoon, and the light was less harsh. The mountain wasn’t that high, about 6,000 feet, but it had a quiet grandeur. Even though denuded, and featuring nothing but dilapidated buildings, this had once been a beautiful part of the country and a majestic place of worship. I could see why it had been one of China’s five holy mountains and why someone would devote the last part of his life to saving it.

Xianfo was born in 1930 and wasn’t even twenty when the Communists took over. His faith must have been strong for him to have survived the next thirty years of persecution. He got up and nodded to me. “Let me introduce you to more Taoists.”

I followed him toward a set of doors in the back of the temple. He raised one hand and like a Taoist master in a movie seemed to push them open with a burst of energy. They flew apart, and in front of us was a scene that made me believe. It was his team: an even older man, who looked like a caretaker, a young girl with a deformed arm, and a boy with skin hardened like a carapace. They were sitting around a table drinking thin soup and eating buns. The room had a concrete floor and two bunk beds up against the wall, with four thin quilts neatly folded. Clearly, they all slept here, even Xianfo. The old man and the girl continued to eat. The boy looked up, solemnly grave as if about to perform a ceremony.

My eyes locked on the boy, and I suddenly realized the beauty of the mountain, the temple, and Xianfo’s life.

“His name is Qing Feng,” Xianfo said. The name means Clear Wind and it seemed a perfect name for a Taoist.

“His parents?” I asked.

“His parents abandoned him in our care three years ago, and he was hopeless. He had a terrible disease. We tried to cure him. We took him to a hospital, but it was no use. But after a year on the mountain, he recovered. He’s six now and in good health.”

The boy looked vigorous but withered. His face was terribly dark, his hands gnarled and hardened into claws. I gestured at the robes. How could a child be a Taoist priest?

“He has experienced enough. He is a Taoist,” Xianfo said with finality.

I nodded quickly in agreement. Then a voice spoke, a husky unearthly sound that seemed to come out of the ground beneath us. I looked up, startled, and realized it had come from the boy.

“Master, lunch is ready.”

Taoism, Travel, Excerpts