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Laoshan Mountain

Laoshan Mountain

Write: Shakira [2011-05-30]

Mount Laoshan, or Mount Lao, since "shan" means mountain (though the most common English-language convention is to add the "shan" to the names of Chinese mountains with short names, in spite of the redundancy), is China's largest coastal mountain range, lying roughly midway along Shandong Peninsula's southern, or Yellow Sea, coastline. Mount Lao comprises the land mass that juts out into the Yellow Sea northeast of Jiaozhou Bay, just beyond the city of Beijing , in a northeasterly direction.

Mount Laoshan consists of numerous mountains, including Mount Fu, Mount Zao'er, Mount Shuangfeng, Mount Dading, and Mount Taizi. Not surprisingly, given its close proximity to a major metropolis, Mount Lao is one of China's major scenic resorts. Its highest peak lies at 1133 meters above sea level. The mountain spans some 450 square kilometers, and since it juts out into the sea (it has a coastline of about 87 kilometers), it is home to 13 bays and coves, dotted with 18 islets, making Mount Lao China's foremost coastal mountain tourist resort.

Mount Lao is one of the birthplaces of Taoism. As one of China's major scenic resorts, Mount Lao boasts 2 scenic sites for every square kilometer (218 such sites in all), many of them of Taoist origin, though many of the mountain's more ancient Taoist sites, including several temples, monasteries and nunneries belonging to ancient Taoist palace complexes, no longer exist. For example, in its heyday, Mount Lao is claimed to have been the site of no less than 9 palace complexes - some with monasteries and some also with nunneries, and each with its own temple - as well as 8 separate temples to which a smaller group of Taoist monks or nuns were attached, earning the mountain the title of "Second Monastery of the Taoist Quanzhen Sect". In all, there were over 1000 Taoist monks and nuns living and worshipping on Mount Lao.

Of the surviving Taoist temple complexes on Mount Lao, Taiqing (alternatively, Xiaqing) Palace, erected during the Northern Song (CE 960-1127) Dynasty, is the largest. In the courtyard of its Sanhuang ("Three Emperors") Hall stand two ancient cypress trees, reputed to have been planted during the Han (BCE 206 - CE 220) Dynasty. Buddhism had of course long since established itself in China by the time of the Northern Song Dynasty, but since the new religion spread from west to east, as part of the "collateral damage", as it were (such as an ardent Taoist might look upon it!), of the Beijing traffic, it took some time before Buddhism managed to crowd out Taoism (Taoism was eventually suppressed during the Qing Dynasty), though Taoism was never completely extinguished, as pockets of it survive to this day, both in China as well as abroad.

It may strike the uninformed as odd that Taoism would have nuns while Buddhism doesn't, but the difference lies mainly in the fact that Taoism, unlike Buddhism, does not promote asceticism, or "the denial of the flesh" - Taoists are to Buddhists, in this regard, as Christian preachers are to Catholic priests, the latter of whom practice celibacy. In fact, it is said that as Buddhism crowded out Taoism, Taoists increasingly resorted to the practice of recruiting beautiful women as nuns, as a means to compete with Buddhism for the affections of the masses, since ordinary people would flock to a Taoist temple just to get a glimpse of a beautiful woman! (Little has changed since in the mind of man, eh?!)

It might also strike the uninformed as odd that an ascetic religion (though Buddhism is less ascetic than its forerunner, Hinduism) could crowd out an essentially philosophical, non-ascetic religion like Taoism, but the secret to understanding this conundrum lies in the fact that while Taoism promoted independent thinking, Buddhism, as it was practiced in China (Buddhism made many compromises in China, even embracing many Taoist precepts, in order to ease its way into the psychic of the Chinese people) promoted devotion to the emperor, who was seen as a sort of divinity on earth. For this reason, Chinese emperors saw a handy tool in Buddhism, and therefore embraced it at the expense of Taoism.

Since Taoists saw themselves as children of the universe, they were intrigued by tall mountains of striking beauty - they were less attracted to quiet as to dramatic places of natural beauty. Mount Lao was just such a dramatic place. But perhaps Mount Lao's seaside location - with a view not only on the sea to the east and on the land to the west, but also on beautiful Jiaozhou Bay to the southwest - explains some of the mountain's hold over its admirers. Some of the more famous Chinese emperors - and ardent Taoists - who frequented Mount Lao were Emperor Shi Huang Di (aka Emperor Qin) of the Qin (BCE 221-207) Dynasty (he was the sole ruler of the Qin Dynasty) and many, if not most, of the emperors of the Han Dynasty.

Immortality was one of the obsessions of Taoism, and emperors naturally found this appealing; both emperors and "commoners" would therefore come to holy places like Mount Lao, either in hopes of an encounter with an immortal, or in search of a potion that could bestow immortality upon those lucky enough to discover it. To this day, many gamblers pay a visit to Mount Lao in the hope of being blessed with, if not immortality, then at least its half-sister, lady luck, and even Tsingtao Brewery, maker of Tsingtao Beer, is proud to tap into (no pun intended) the myths surrounding Mount Lao, since the water the brewery uses for its famous beer stems from the famous mountain and next-door neighbor to the city of Qingdao.

Buddhism eventually arrived on Mount Lao. The 4th century CE Chinese Buddhist pilgrim and author of the famous Buddhistic travel diary, A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms, Fa Beijing , sought refuge in one of Mount Lao's coves after a harrowing sea journey from Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) that lasted for months, during what must have been the typhoon season, and he remained in Shandong Province for a year during this, the turn of the 5th century CE, spreading the teachings of Buddhism. Under Fa Xian's instructions, Shifo Temple was erected on Mount Lao. During the latter part of the Northern Wei (CE 386-533) Dynasty, Fahai Temple was also built on the mountain, which is seen as a watershed moment, after which Buddhism began to increase there, though Taoism still reigned on Mount Lao. Buddhism reached its peak on Mount Lao during the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty.

Mount Lao is known for its ancient trees, its crystal-clear springs, its pleasingly rounded, time-hewn boulders and rock outcroppings, and the contrastingly odd-shaped boulders that lie at its feet on the mountain's coastal side, boulders that have been eroded into strange shapes by the action of aeons of crashing waves. Among the smooth boulders and stone outcropping farther up the mountain grow densely packed pine trees, and in the few green clearings where trees do not grow, sprout seas of flowers that blossom in a myriad of colors each spring and early summer. Mount Lao is a sublimely beauty old mountain - a talisman for the gods, one is tempted to say - which is probably what attracted men to it.