The Ancient Building Complex in the Wudang Mountains

The epic merges with the subtle in this 72-peak spiritual landscape.
Wudang Mountains
Build It and They'll Always Come: China's Wudang Mountains  (image courtesy, UNESCO)
The Ancient Building Complex in the Wudang Mountains
Location: Danjiangkou City, Hubei Province, China
Date of Inscription: 1994
Why Go: Blessed by the Taoists and a stunning landscape, China's dynastic emperors made a mountain into a model of Eastern designs.

On the path to nirvana, the Ancient Building Complex in the Wudang Mountains is like a truck stop to enlightenment. The heaven-bound (and heaven-sent?) temples and palaces hark back to China's dynastic rulers, some of whom claimed that Taoist gods told them to construct the mountainous compound—and not just any little retreat, but one spanning an entire range. But while the leaders' links to higher beings is debatable, their achievements are eternal: not rain nor lightening nor royal downfalls could shake these structures from their otherworldly perch.

Sitting in the lush subtropical monsoon region of central China, the Wudang Mountains (or Great Mountain of Supreme Harmony) stretch across 2,485 miles of landscape prettified by waterfalls, lakes, pools, and neck-craning peaks. Of the 72 summits, the most gawked-at is the Tianzhu "Heavenly Pillar" Peak, which the other crests lean toward like flowers to the sun. Despite its natural beauty, though, Wudang wasn't sacred enough for the emperors. So they built palaces, shrines, halls, convents, and other spiritual centers based on Asian designs, imbued with Taoist precepts, and seemingly named after takeout menu items.

Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty laid the first stone in the seventh century, constructing the Five Dragon Hall to honor Yiao Jian, the region's governor who delivered rain through prayer. Nearly 400 years later, members of the Song and Yuan dynasties caught the building bug.

Among their many projects: They converted the hall into a temple and then a palace, and erected the Purple Heaven Hall beneath the Zhanqi Peak. The pace really picked up, though, with the Ming Dynasty, whose rulers built as furiously as real estate developers in Fort Lauderdale. For example, Ming Emperor Zhu Di, who proclaimed that his royal-ness was protected by the Taoist god Zhenwu, enlisted 20,000 workers to hammer together nine palaces, nine temples, 36 monasteries, and 72 cliff temples, all connected by more than 100 stone bridges. The spree took a dozen years to complete. In 1416, 3,000 prisoners then moved in to oversee the maintenance of the buildings and the well-being of the Taoists who lived and meditated up high. The kingdom's favorite eunuchs were also installed at the complex, to worship and shake their tin cups for donations.

If Wudang's stats seem intimidating—here's another one: the total property encompasses 53 buildings covering 27,000 square meters-don't let them. Though scattered among the peaks, the complex follows a clear hierarchical plan: The palaces and temples are centered in the valleys and along the terraces, with the monasteries and cliff temples sprinkled nearby. The construction also demonstrates examples of eco-architecture, utilizing such earth-friendly materials as wood and stone to flatter the topography. The Golden Shrine, for instance, rests in the center of a stone terrace atop Sky Pillar Peak. The bronze shrine copies wooden forms but also exemplifies the imperial style with its palatial shape, five-ridged roof with double eaves (for royalty only), and seated indoor statue of Zhenwu, attended by the Golden Page and the Jade Maiden. (For another monument of similar design, hop over to the Lotus Flower Peak and its early 14th-century Ancient Bronze Shrine, whose metal work is the oldest in China.) The walled Forbidden City rings the peak, with four wooden Gates of Heaven providing entry and exit points. The Purple Heaven Palace makes an even grander statement; the region's biggest and best-preserved compound includes a mind-bending 29 buildings, with five halls (Dragon and Tiger, Tablet Pavilion, Shifang, Purple Heaven, and Parental) per terrace, plus pavilions and adjunct buildings housing Taoist monks.

But don't be impressed by size alone—sometimes the small details can be transcendent, like the three-meter-long Dragon Head Incense Burner, which stands guard over the valley, its carved dragon head blowing plumes of sweet-scented smoke. Farther down, the Zhishi-Xuanyue Gateway dresses up the highway and Wudang entrance with elaborate carvings of tortoises, dragons, cranes, clouds, waves, and celestial creatures. Elsewhere, Buddhist statues and altar tables glimmer in gilded gold.

By the early 1800s, construction had slowed considerably, yet centuries later, the ancient complex continues to draw pilgrims as well as inspire odes and valentines. Indeed, creative types have immortalized the mountain in martial arts and mainstream films (Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), poetry, literature, and hip hop (nod to the Wu-Tang Clan).

It's as if the powers that be are spreading the religion of the Wudang to all ends of the earth, sky, stereo, and Cineplex.

Published: 19 Jan 2007 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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