Highlights of Chinese Culture and History

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Mount Tai of East China

There are, in China, five famous mountains: Mount Tai in the east, Mount Heng in the south, Mount Hua in the west, Mount Hen in central China, named respectively after their geographical positions.

Mount Tai is in Shandong Province in east China. Though only the third in height among the five mountains, it has since ancient times won the reputation of being "the No. 1 famous mountain in the world." That is because of its beautiful natural scenery, the fantastic sight of the rising sun tourists can enjoy on its summit, and probably more because it was here that many emperors in history held grand ceremonies to worship Heaven and Earth. Its own history being so bound up with China's long history and culture, Mount Tai boasts many cultural relics and historic sites. So its name has spread far and wide in the world.

In ancient times, people could not explain certain natural phenomena, and so tended to interpret them as the workings of divine forces, a deity in heaven dominating all things on earth. As the sun always rises in the east, the ancients regarded it as the Sun God, and believed that the growth and change for everything in nature originated from the east. Therefore, people held all kinds of ritual ceremonies offerings sacrifices to show their deep reverence to the God of Heaven and the Sun God to accept their good wishes and oblations, the ancients would always choose a site on a height or a mountain, or even build a high altar on a mountain top to place their sacrificial offerings - in short, the higher the better. The ancients considered Mound Tai, which as believed to be the highest mount and was situated in the east as well, as the best location to offer sacrifices to the God of Heaven and temples dedicated to the God of Heaven and the Sun God were erected there on the mountain top.

The ancients also believed implicitly in legends about mountain gods. According to tradition, there was a god on Mount Tai who administered precipitation. When foggy vapor surged out of the crevices of the rocky mountain and accumulated to form dark clouds, then it would begin to rain. IT is also said that the Mountain God possessed an elixir, an immense treasure trove, and absolute power over people's fate. And since all gods were believed to dwell on high mountains, people also offered sacrifices to the Mountain God while worshipping the God of Heaven and the Sun God.

In ancient times, every king or emperor called himself the son of Heaven, on the assumption that he was the son of the Heavenly God with whose mandate he was on earth to rule the people. Therefore, whenever an emperor ascended the throne a grand ceremony of worshipping Heaven and Earth was held. The two Chinese characters "fengchan" that make up the name of this ceremony stand respectively for "worshipping Heaven" and "worshipping Earth." The First Emperor of Qin, Emperor Wu and Emperor Guangwu of the Han Dynasty, Emperors Gaozong and Xuanzong of Tang, and Emperor Zhenzong of Song, had one and all held such ceremonies on Mount Tai. The ceremony of worshipping Heaven and Earth, with its many rituals and rites, was very solemn occasion. In the old days, it was indeed far from easy for the emperor to come to Mount Tai with his large retinue. So although many emperors had planned to hold worshipping ceremonies on Mount Tai, not everyone of them had actually succeeded.

It is said that when the First Emperor of Qin came to Mount Tai to perform the rites of worshipping Heaven and Earth, he was caught in a storm, and found shelter under a giant pine tree. Later, he conferred the title "Wudafu" (the title of a high-ranking official in the Qin Dynasty) on this tree, which has since been called the "Wudafu Pine." However, today's "Wudafu Pine" on Mount Tai is no longer the original tree, and is said to have been planted there in the Ming Dynasty.

After they ascended the mountain top, may sovereigns would put up stone tablets with inscriptions extolling their own merits and virtues. Many poets and calligraphers also inscribe lines of poetry or words on the rocks. Halfway up the eastern side of Mount Tai, there is a cliff face with an area of several mu on which is inscribed the entire text of The Diamond Sutra in official script, each word covering the space of about one square meter. Consequently, it is often referred to as "the predecessor of China's giant characters." Exposed to the elements and worn through the ages, 1,067 carved characters are still there today.

On Mount Tai, there are also twenty-odd ancient shrines and temples which sovereigns had built for their sacrificial ceremonies. A long flight of 7,421 stone steps leads from Mount Tai's "Zhongtianmen" (Mid-Heaven Gate) to "Natianmen" (Southern-Heaven Gate). Ever since ancient times, people have followed this path on their strenuous and arduous climb to enjoy the beauties of nature and visit famous historic sites. Many writers and poets have written beautiful poems and essays glorifying Mount Tai, comparing it to a museum of China's ancient culture and civilization. Sima Qian once said, "Though death befalls all men alike, it may be weightier than Mount Tai or lighter than a feather." To the people, Mount Tai is indeed a magnificent and holy name.      


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