In 2009 Cesca and I visited the amazing slopes of Wudang Mountain. The mountain is located roughly in northwestern part of Hubei Province of China. This peak is part of the larger Wudang Shan mountain range that runs through the area, but it is this particular peak that is the most famous. This is due to its very long and interesting history. The mountain is littered with Daoist temples and monasteries, including the famous Golden Hall, Nanyan Temple and the Purple Cloud Temple. The history of the area goes back over 2000 years, but it is the period of the Ming Dynasty (1388 – 1644 CE) that had the greatest impact.
During this time, the Mongol led precursors to the Ming had collapsed and China was about to enter its most fascinating historical age. It was an age of intellectual flowering, towering social and political achievements and immense scientific progress. During all of this, Chinese Daoism was again forming into something new. The almost shamanistic practices of external alchemy were giving ground to a new practice of internal alchemy. Internal alchemy was the search for “immortality” through the development of magic powers inside oneself. This is a syncretic idea heavily influenced by both Confucianism and indeed the movements of Buddhism, which after all is all about internal realisations, forming ideas that are readily recognisable for their influence on the west.
I am talking about internal kung fu.
One of the leading thinkers of Daoism at the time was the legendary Chang San-Feng, who wandered up Mount Wudang and made it the base of his Daoist sect. Legend has it that, in one of the temples up the mountain, he formed his magical exercises into Tai Chi after watching a snake and bird fighting. After the Yongle Emperor decreed Wudang to be “The Grand Mountain” its place in history was assured. Fast foward in time and the monasteries and buildings were made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. The palaces and temples in Wudang contain Taoist art and icons from as early as the 7th century. It represents the highest standards of Chinese art and architecture over a period of nearly 1,000 years.
Of course, the true nature of Daoist history is as slippery as the core texts. I will have more to say about the veracity of this “history” later.
So what is it like to visit? Walking the 20,000 steps (!) up the mountain is one of the most spiritual things I have ever done, but not perhaps in the way that you might imagine. We came to Wudang half way through our journey in China and before our journey into Japan. Since we were basically on a spiritual journey around the world in general, and Buddhist journey in particular, the effect of Wudang took a long time to settle into my bones. However, my muscles ached like hell the very next day! Also, this was still China in 2009 and Daoism is a very strange and illusive beast to get a grasp on. So what the hell happened? This is something I will have to go into far more depth about at a later time, but essentially the contrast between this strange and very foreign way of life gave me the space to consider my own thrown into sharp relief. When you meet people and visit places that are so different to your experiences and your life, then you have two choices. You scoff. Or you stop and think. Mount Wudang is one of the best places I have ever visited for making time to stop and think. To, in fact, go beyond thinking and be able to sublime the nature of your existence. It is a fair thing to say that I walked down Wudang a different person than when I walked up, but that I didn’t realise it until much later.
So, here is the (small) film about that day. I hope that I managed to, at least a little, capture some of the feeling of the place and time.