Kyoto Journal (The Cult of Site & Representation)

Dec  24, 1993

Huang Shan: The Cult of Site (Sight) & Representation

James Robson

         A mountain has water as blood, foliage as hair, haze and clouds as its spirit and character. Thus, a mountain gains life through water, its external beauty through vegetation and its elegant charm through haze and clouds.

         Guoxi (1lth century landscape painter) l Paintings of Huang Shan, the range of bare, precipitous, pine-clad and mist-hung peaks in southern Anhui province, are seen everywhere in China today, climbing the mountain is nearly obligatory for Chinese landscapists, most of whom have done pictures of it, some of them virtually devoting careers to it.2

         For hundreds of years mountains in China have been the objects of widely divergent practices, ranging from religion to art and politics; in short, mountains were one of the places where nature and culture met. The earliest dictionary in China, from the second century, tells us that mountains were believed to "exhale vital breath [Ch. qi Jpn. ki ], giving birth to the myriad of things." This understanding of mountains was most likely inspired by those local communities that lived at the foot of various mountains and who saw clouds coalesce on their peaks and drop rain that collected in rivers that in turn flowed down to irrigate their fields. Mountains, rising up solidly from flat surrounding plains, also became symbols of stability and durability and were integrated into imperial rituals as delineators and protectors of the imperium. These mountains, located at the cardinal directions, came to be known as the Five Marchmounts (wuyue[ ).

         During the third and fourth centuries CE Daoists began to frequent mountains which they considered the abodes of immortals and as repositories of the necessary ingredients for their alchemical endeavors. As Buddhism took root in China it copied the native Chinese classificatory scheme and developed its own mountain cultic system that considered four mountains as the abodes of bodhisattvas, these mountains came to be known collectively as the Four Famous Mountains (sida mingshan). In addition to these nine mountains, classified by their religious affiliation (Imperial. Daoist or Buddhist), there is one mountain in China that has become the most well known solely on the basis of its sublime beauty: Huang Shan.

         Huang Shan, located in Huizhou prefecture of Anhui province in southeastern China, is often referred to as a single mountain but is actually comprised of thirty-six peaks, the highest being 1800 meters. Among these peaks. four stand out as the main peaks: Lotus Flower Peak. Old Man Peak, Start-to-Believe Peak, and Heavenly Citadel Peak. AII of these highly suggestive toponyms were meant to reflect the unique shapes of Huang Shan's peaks, and they preserved hints of its prior religious affiliations.

         Huang Shan's religious history stretches back into China's hazy mythical past, when it is believed that the legendary Yellow Emperor went there in search of the elixir of immortality; upon completing his quest he established that this mountain was to be a dwelling place for Daoist immortals. Hung Shan also became inhabited by Buddhists who built their first temple at the base of the mountain in the eighth century. The Buddhist presence on the mountain was memorialized in the toponomy of the moun tain, with the prominent Manjusri Terrace, and Lotus Flower Peak.

         In spite of these vestiges of religion, Huang Shan, in con tradistinction to the Five Marchmounts and Four Famous Mountains, did not achieve its renown on the basis of pious pilgrims. but primarily through the works of Chinese artists who were captivated by the sublimity of the mountain's natural topography.3 Indeed, Huang Shan became a cult of site that inspired a cult of sight .

         Xu Xiako's (1588-1641) record of his visit to Huang Shan in 1618 is an example of how a traveler experienced the mountain with an aesthetic sentiment rather than a religious piousness: "There I looked down the vale where peaks and rocks enfolded each other in all kinds of postures and feasted my eyes on their many tints."4 Those who came to Huang Shan were drawn by its natural features, not its religious associations. Huang Shan was the product of a more secular piety, attracting pilgrims, poets. artists and essayists to explore and gaze upon its craggy pine scattered peaks. rather than strive for ecstatic visions of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

         The two main aspects of Huang Shan's unique landscape which attracted these artists were the mountains propensity for the coalescence of clouds and cliffs and its combination of scabrous rocks and gnarled pines. In response to these images, later generations came to refer to the four main peaks of the Huang Shan massif as the "Huang Sea," referring to the sea of clouds floating and surging about the midriff of the craggy peaks that jut up out of the clouds as if islands in the sea.5 Huang Shan's rocky cliffs, interspersed with pines that seem to be clinging tenuously to its vertical faces. were the models for works that became famous thought China (and the world for that matter) as the epitome of Chinese landscape painting of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

         James Cahill, the noted art historian of Chinese landscape paintings. has noted that the landscape paintings of Huang Shan are indicative of a shift from the religiously inspired monumental landscapes of the Song dynasty (960-1278) to the predominantly secular, even literati, landscape renditions of seventeenth century artists like Shitao, Meiqing, Hungren, and Chengmin.6 Under the influence of these painters a new movement in Chinese painting was born. This new school, which took its name Tiandu (Heavenly Citadel) from one of the main peaks of Huang Shan, painted in a style that Cahill suggests, "reflects a shift of emotional commitment from the world of human affairs to the natural world."7

         Those artists who later came to Huang Shan were often in a quandary, it seems, as to how they might be able to represent the vast magnificence of the mountains unique topography. The Ming dynasty poet and critic Yuan Zhongdao (1570-1623) commented from his perch on the Refining Cinnabar Terrace on Huang Shan, "even Wu Tao-tzu or Ku K'ai-chihgreat painters of the eightlt and fifth centuries respectivelycouldn't describe one ten-thousandth of this."8

Despite this admonition. Huang Shan still continues to capture the attention of artists, and essayists. who try in their own unique ways to express the mountain's unparalleled natural grandeur. Wu-sheng, a contemporary Chinese landscape photographer, is heir to the long tradition of artists inspired by the landscape of Huang Shan. Although Wu-sheng captures images of Huang Shan with a different medium than his ancient predecessors, his large-format black and white photographs evoke scenes reminiscent of landscape paintings from the seventeenth century. The cult of site, and sight. continues.

1 . Trans. by Susan Bush and Hsiao-yen Shih, 'The Landscape Texts," in Early Chinese Texts on Painting. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), pp. 167. 2. James Cahill, "Huang Shan Paintings as Pilgrimage Pictures," in Susan Naquin and Chun-Fang Yu eds., Pilgrims and Sacred Sites in China. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), pp. 246. 3. See Joseph McDemott, "The Making of a Chinese Mountain, Huangshan: Politics and Wealth in Chinese Art," in Asian Cultural Studies, (Tokyo, 1989). 4. Quoted in Cahill 1992: 252-253. 5. Harriet T. Zurndorfer, Change and Continuity in Chinese local History: The Development of Hui-chou Prefecture 800-1800. (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1989), pp.220. 6. Cahill 1992. 7. Zurndorfer 1989: 219. 8. Cahill 1992: 252.