Standing approximately to the north, south, east and west of China’s northern plains, four sacred mountains mark out the ancient heartland of the Middle Kingdom. But Chinese ritual also acknowledges a fifth direction—the cosmic “centre”—in addition to the usual four, so there are not merely four sacred peaks but five. The fifth and central mountain is Mount Tai or Taishan, the “Great Mountain”. It has been China’s holiest mountain and a pilgrimage site for as long as 3,000 years.
Mountains are revered in China as places of special power, the abodes of the Blessed Immortals and symbols of stability, strength, power and eternity. Where someone in the West might describe something as being “steady as a rock”, the Chinese will say it is as “steady as Mount Tai”. Rulers and ordinary people alike have come to worship at this peak. Over the centuries some 72 emperors made the pilgrimage to Mount Tai, where they worshipped the gods and prayed for prosperity at the imperial Dai Miao Temple at its foot. Now surrounded by the city of Tai’an, the temple was built to resemble an imperial palace and covers nearly 300,000 square feet.
There are many other shrines along the pilgrim paths that snake from Tai’an up the mountain’s slopes, such as the Divine Rock Temple, known for the many statues in its Thousand Buddha Hall. But auspicious red streamers and countless other small offerings bear witness to the holiness of the entire mountainside. Not only are its temples, shrines and inscribed memorial tablets considered significant, but also natural features such as a 2,200-year-old tree and the Bridge of the Immortals, a cluster of boulders that forms precarious looking stepping stones across a vertiginous ravine.
One of the world’s longest flights of steps—around 7,000 of them—leads to the mountain’s highest temple, known as the Azure Cloud Temple. The views from the top are breathtaking. Here, on the peak of Mount Tai, it is easy to imagine—as thousands of Chinese pilgrims have believed before you—that you have reached the abode of the Jade Emperor, the ruler of heaven itself.