Itinerant Creeds: The Chinese Northern Frontier by Paola Demattè

Cults of Place: Mountains, Rivers and Beyond

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China is an ideal place to study the interaction of the sacred with territory, as many of its belief systems from the state and ancestral rituals associated with Confucianism to Taoism, Buddhism and related folk practices – have consistently placed great emphasis on the spiritual valence of natural features and on the role of human interaction with the landscape (Munakata 1991). The practices include both the worship of landscape elements, like mountains and rivers and their spirits, as well as the analysis and coding of spatial relationships (fengshui) and structured movements, such as cosmological or ritual pilgrimage (Naquin and Yu 1992).

Often, the epicenter of all these spiritual concerns is the mountain, which can be either an actual physical entity where the sacred is found or enacted, or a representation, realistic or symbolic, of a sacred peak (Munakata 1991). If the mountain is the obvious fulcrum of sacrality, the river and water in general are constant counterparts. Sacred sites are always in the vicinity of water, be they rivers, creeks, lakes or waterfalls. Powerful spirits were thought to inhabit water; foremost among them was the Yellow River, a spiritual entity worshipped at the imperial level (source). This concern for the territory and its natural and sacred features is well reflected in the Shanhaijing (Classic of Mountains and Seas, or more properly Lakes), an ancient text that offers systematic descriptions of places, peoples and spirits and can be understood as a spiritual geography of China (Yuan Ke 1985).

In China, cults associated with mountains, rivers, and even lakes and seas can be traced back to the most ancient times. Sacred mountains abound and figure prominently in worship, where they are associated with a variety of cults, from ancient spirit and nature worship, to state rituals of Confucian nature, to Buddhism and Taoism (Little 2000). Originally, some mountains, such as Mount Tai (Taishan) in Shandong, were probably centers of worship for local cults, which originated in the prehistoric period. However, with the centralization of political power by the early empire in the third century BCE, these sacred mountains entered the national spiritual geography, acquiring further cosmological significance. Eventually, the most important were organized in groups, such as the Five Marchmounts (wuyue å‹äx), which mark the five cardinal directions (north, south, east, west and center) of Chinese imperial ideology (Kleeman 1994). In Taoism, mountains were seen as the abode of immortals or the seat of something akin to a paradise. Among the best-known legendary seats of immortals are the Kunlun mountains, home to the immortal Xiwangmu (Mother Queen of the West) and her grove of longevity peaches. Another abode of immortals is Penglai, a mountainous island floating off the eastern coast of China where those who had achieved deathlessness subsisted on morning dew (Cahill 1993).

When Buddhism reached China around the first century of the common era, new concepts became attached to this native stratum of nature cults. Thus, the mountain as the center of Taoist and other Chinese spiritual concerns was blended into Mount Sumeru, the sacred mountain of Buddhism that functioned as axis mundi and as the abode of some Buddhist deities (Sadakata 1997:26, 38). As a consequence, many of the mountains that were originally dedicated to the worship of local gods and spirits also acquired a Buddhist spiritual dimension and often also a prominent temple.

With time, the mountain (and landscape in general) became the locus of a representational and literary tradition that signals the progressive idealization of a lost landscape by both urban elites and agricultural communities. In landscape painting from the Song dynasty (960-1279 C.E.), the mountain often appears imposing and remote, overlooking a river. In a successful attempt to convey the power of the sacred, tiny human figures are represented roaming in scene, but they appear completely overpowered by the peaks and rivers and the collective force of nature (Munakata 1991). The creation of landscape replicas in city gardens or even on trays, which became popular in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties (1644-1911), points to further idealizations of the sacred character of the mountain and of the ‘natural’ landscape in general (Ledderose 1983).

Physical reminders of these ancient and modern practices and beliefs are found throughout the Chinese territory, from the heart of China in the Yangzi and Yellow river valleys to the most remote locations at the northern, western or southern margins. This interconnection between different cults and beliefs systems suggests that there is uniformity in choice of places between organized religions and less codified expressions of belief. As I will show below, this is confirmed the material evidence on the terrain.
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Itinerant Creeds: The Chinese Northern Frontier
Cults of Place: Mountains, Rivers and Beyond
→ Case Studies: Inner Mongolia: Yinshan
→ Case Studies: Ningxia: Helankou
→ Case Studies: Gansu: Heishan
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