Steeped in myth and history, Japan’s Mount Fuji is probably one of the country’s most famous landmarks. In China, the Five Great Mountains (Wuyue), which correspond to the four cardinal points plus one in the centre, are the most revered.
Identified before China reached its present size, the five mountains are clustered within the historical cultural heartland of the North China Plain and Yellow River valley.
Located in Shandong province, Mount Tai – the Eastern Mountain (Dongyue) – is regarded as the holiest of the five. According to legend, following the death of Pangu, the creator of the universe, his head transfigured into Mount Tai. As the east is traditionally regarded as the prime cardinal point, and the direction associated with genesis and rebirth, Mount Tai was where several Chinese emperors travelled to offer their prayers to heaven for the well-being of their realm.
Shaanxi province is home to the cradle of Chinese civilisation, Mount Hua – the Western Mountain (Xiyue) – the tallest of the five and notoriously difficult to climb. One way up is via the 13th-century Chang Kong Cliff Road. With some parts of the wooden walkway measuring only a foot wide and bereft of any railings, many hikers have fallen to their deaths.
Philosopher and revolutionary Zhang Taiyan (1869-1936) believed that the fledgling Chinese tribes took “Hua” from Mount Hua as their endonym, giving rise to the archaic “Huaxia” and the more recent “Zhonghua”, both of which refer to the Chinese nation.
The Southern and Northern mountains (Nanyue and Beiyue, respectively) are both called Mount Heng. They are pronounced the same way in Mandarin but written in different characters.
The Southern Mountain, the lowest of the five, is located in Hunan province. It is reputed to be where the mythical inventor of agriculture and medicine, Shennong, died, and its 72 peaks were believed to be the stomping grounds of Zhurong, the god of fire.
The northern Mount Heng, in Shanxi province, is famous for its Hanging Temple. Suspended on the side of a cliff, it is one of the few existing temples dedicated to the syncretic faith that combined Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism.
Mount Song – the Central Mountain (Zhongyue) – in Henan province, is known for its temples. The Taoist Zhongyue Temple, first constructed in the Qin dynasty (221-206BC) is one of the oldest building complexes in China, while the Fawang Temple, said to be built in AD71, is among the oldest Buddhist temples in the country. The most famous, however, is the Shaolin Temple, said to be the birthplace of kung fu.
The Wuyue and other famous mountains in China, such as the Yellow Mountains (Huangshan), Mount Lu and Mount Emei, have been venerated for several millennia and provided inspiration for countless works of art and literature. So integral are they to the Chinese sense of tribe that the phrase “mountains and rivers” (shanhe) has long been used to refer to the land in which they live and thrive.