Sunday, November 13, 2011

Mount Tai: first mountain under Heaven.

Sleeper Train to the Zhou Enlightenment

My third "night train through history" was from Anyang in northern Henan Province, where the ancient Shang empire reached its greatest glory, including in human sacrifice, until it, too, fell into decay, to Tai An, in the shadow of Mount Tai at the center of the Shandong Peninsula jutting out towards Korea.  This small but more attractive city is not far from the home of a teacher whom we call Confucius.  The journey reprised the flow three thousand years ago from the Shang to the Zhou, and from harsh northern religious practice to what I like to call the Zhou Enlightenment.  (Which seems, like most true enlightenments, to have been partly inspired by faith in God.)  The original political center of the Zhou was also in the Yellow Valley, but it was as the Zhou empire split up into smaller states, and teachers like Confucius, Mencius, Mozi, Lao Zi, and Zhuang Zi poured over early Zhou documents about a just God, that Chinese civilization found its moral core.
"Insurance is even weightier than
Tai Shan" -- a proverbial analogy
for anything of special importance,
with the actual Mount Tai in
the background.

Off the train, I quickly found another light yellow "Like Home" hotel facing me, after skirting a mess of new construction in the dark. This hotel chain seems to represent the rise of the prosperous middle classes in China. It's too expensive for most Chinese, but too cheap and casual for the wealthy. It's clean, predictable, bright, and reasonably comfortable. I've consistently stayed in these hotels on this trip, and had yet to see another foreigner. (A few Italians would show up the next day.) 

As at the Like Home hotel in Hangzhou, part of the homey feeling proved to come from needing to frequently chase staff away from the computer provided for guests.  Actually other staff did the chasing. 

The first day in town, I washed clothes, walked about 6 miles through town, and realized how tired and sore I was.  It drizzled much of the day.  My feet were sore, my right leg hurt, and my back was adding its monotanous tune to the chorus. 

The next morning dawned bright, and I determined to climb as far as I could, at whatever cost to the body.  It was Sunday, and there was a huge crowd at the bus station, with about ten lines some 20 deep each.  I got in the line for tour guides, was told my mistake, and went to the back of another line.  After much waiting, then another line for the buses, we finally set off.

I calculated how much money the state must make from this mountain: $100 million a year in gate sales alone, or more?  Plus hotels, buses, food, trinkets, souvenirs . . . No wonder the town looks well-off. 

I was surprised, though, to see a few villages and plots of garden clinging tenaciously to the slopes of the mountain, here and there.  This is how people have lived for thousands of years, and in much of China, this is more the norm than the tourist industry.  I noticed a few purple morning glories on these lower slopes -- a small token of the masses of this flower I saw on my last visit, some 20 years ago, earlier in the season. 

Here are a few photos from the hike itself, along with comments on the historical and spiritual significance of some of these scenes. 

The most famous stretch of the steep and long climb up Mt. Tai leads to South Heaven Gate, some 2000 granite steps ascending towards heaven.  Here are a portion of the steps. I took a fork in the trail to the right, which proved useful, because I avoided the crowds, and therefore got a chance to interview three hikers with my survey.  (One told me his climb was a kind of celebration because he had reached the age of 30 without getting married, and therefore felt that had earned him the right to remain free!)

Along most of the route up, are numerous vendors, displaying a wide variety of wares: drinks, herbal medicines, red clothes to tie to trees for blessings, photographs.  The stretch in this picture is unusually free of them.

In a sense, Mt. Tai is a hike through a world of visual cliches.  One can hardly take an original photograph when the best sites are marked with inscriptions, some of which are ancient, and thousands of lens are trained on them everyday.  Some of these inscriptions remind climbers of the special significance of this mountain, among all those in China: "Of the five peaks, deserving of unique honor;" "the first mountain under Heaven." 

Here emperors came to report on their rule to the one sentient being whom they recognized as of greater authority than themselves: "Shang Di" (God Above), or "Heaven."  This was the most weighty and significant ceremonial act in any emperor's reign. 

At this spot, supposedly, Confucius looked at the little peaks below, and said "Under Heaven is small."  "Under Heaven" is a phrase meaning "the empire," "all humanity or the world."  Heaven can also be understood as Confucius' name for the Supreme God, whom he recognized.  The phrase, then, while taken as a commonplace, expresses both the heart of Confucius' theology and his humility, as well as describing the most obvious physical fact visible from the summit of this peak which, much like the Olympic Mountains in Washington State, while not extraordinarily tall, is particularly prominent in Shandong Peninsula.  The humility this comment reflects -- the works of men are insignificant in the light of Heaven -- is the key to Confucius' power in Chinese history, as I explain in True Son of Heaven.   

"The wordless stele."  This was erected by Han Wudi, a century or so before Christ, just feet below the mountain's summit.  It expresses his inability to fully express his feelings on the summit of Mount Tai.  It is, in a sense, like the "altar to the unknown God" at which the Athenians worshipped.  It also reflects the most famous phrases in Lao Zi's great masterpiece: "The Way that is spoken, is not the true Way.  The Name that is Named, is not the true Name."  It is a fundamental expression of humility.  As Confucius recognized, one can know some things, and humility does not mean denying that which one can know.  But Lao Zi expressed a deep sense of insufficiency in the fact of the Ultimate, which he called Dao or the Way.  (The word "Dao" could also mean "to say," so the phrase runs, "the dao that can be daoed, is not the true dao" -- it sounds pithy in Chinese.) 

The summit itself is now occupied by a temple to the Jade Emperor, a Zeus-like figure, only less impetuous and more stately, as befits the top bureaucrat in the later Chinese concept of Heaven.  This is a late corruption of belief in the Supreme God.  There are other temples to popular deities lower down the mountain. But before they were constructed, Mount Tai was the most eminent place in China where prayer was made to God long before the time of Confucius, then down through Chinese history, by some of the greatest Chinese rulers.  A plaque at the summit memorializes the spot, in the temple to the Jade Emperor, where sacrifices were made. 

Inscriptions from the Tang and later dynasties are carved on this cliff face just below the summit. Like all the most famous scenes on Tai, one has to find a window of opportunity to take a picture here.  I took a train to the coast the next evening, then a ferry to Korea, and flew on to Taiwan.  Perhaps the most interesting part of that journey was a long and revealing conversation on the train with an interesting cast of characters, largely about the nature of modern China.  I'll save that for a later blog.

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