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Spiritual China, A Pilgrimage to China's Most Sacred Sites

News and media about China today would have you thinking that China is an unapologetically capitalist country that has abandoned its cultural and spiritual roots. However, while the modern Chinese are not known to be deeply religious or spiritual, it’s still, after all, the birthplace of Taoism and has played an important part in the development and diffusion of Buddhism.  

The ancients have made their mark on various spiritually sacred sites, and pilgrims from the country and beyond continue to be drawn to these beautiful and inspiring locations.  

Giant Buddha of Leshan

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Image Credit: Flickr

"The mountain is a Buddha, and the Buddha is a mountain," goes the local saying. The Giant Buddha of Leshan in Sichuan province is an architectural wonder from the Tang Dynasty.  Carved out of a cliff face, this is the tallest stone Buddha statue in the world, and perhaps the world’s tallest pre-modern statue.

The Giant Buddha overlooks the confluence of three rivers and faces the sacred Mount Emei.   The history of its construction is an interesting one.  In year 713, a Chinese monk by the name of Haitong had the idea of constructing the Giant Buddha with hopes of calming the turbulent waters that made passage tough for ships at that time. It turned out to be a great idea, as the rubble that was carved out from the cliff and deposited in the river actually altered the currents and calmed the water.

Construction was eventually completed in year 803 after some hiccups with government funding (some things never change), and tourists can visit the site today with calmer waters and engine-powered ferries.  

Longmen Caves, Henan 

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Image Credit: Public Domain Pictures

For yet another place that’s a testament to classical art and skill, make your way to Luoyang, Henan, for the Longmen Caves. The area spans 1 kilometer along the Yi river and is home to some 1,350 caves and 40 pagodas. Like the Buddha of Leshan, these statues are carved out from the cliffs, which adds a whole new dimension to the meaning of creating art with nature.

The style that you see here is a representation of art not just from the Tang dynasty, but across half a millennia of art in China as carving work lasted for 500 years starting from the 5th century A.D. The caves not only contain religious sculptures but also have interesting inscriptions such as that found in the Medical Prescription Cave, which contains prescriptions for a wide range of ailments.

The site has explanations in English, which are always a relief for those who prefer to travel independently without a guide. Be sure to wear comfortable clothing and shoes as you’d be climbing up and down a lot of stairs if you plan to explore extensively.  

Mount Taishan

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Image Credit: Chinatoday

Mount Taishan is one of five sacred mountains for Taoists. Located in Shandong province, Mount Taishan sprawls across three cities and its highest summit, the Jade Emperor Summit, is over 1500 meters in height.  

The mountain holds significant historical and cultural importance to the Chinese and has been worshiped by royalty and regular folks for thousands of years.  

Word has it that 72 emperors of various dynasties have made their pilgrimages to Mount Tai to pray to heaven, earth, and ancestors. Poets and scholars have also visited the mountain to be inspired by its magnificent beauty.  

The Temple of the God of Taishan hosts a Taoist masterpiece painting and trees that are thousands of years old. What’s fascinating about Mount Taishan is that the man-made elements like architecture, painting, and sculptures are well integrated into the landscape of the mountain, proving that man and nature do better in harmony. 

Mount Jiuhua

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Image Credit: Wikimedia

The Taoists have their sacred mountains, and so do the Buddhists. Mount Jiuhua in Anhui province is one of four sacred mountains for Chinese Buddhists. Nestled in the mountain are shrines and temples dedicated to Kshitigarbha, the Bodhisattva of Salvation. The presence of streams, caves, and forests add a touch of delicate tranquility to this place. 

According to history, a Silla (modern day South Korea) prince cultivated himself for over seven decades on Mount Jiuhua, and Li Bai, one of China’s greatest poets, had visited the mountain himself. Be prepared for a long journey and some hiking, but it’d all be worth it once you get a glimpse of the surrounding beauty.

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About the author

Tilda is a happy sufferer of chronic wanderlust. When she isn't spending a disproportionate amount of time Googling about places and cultures, she's writing, dancing, and navigating a massive career change. She shares stories and photography on Wanderful People, and shares her coffee with no one.

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