Tai Shan (泰山, tàishān) is not just a mountain, it’s a god. Lying 100km south of Ji’nan, it’s the easternmost and holiest of China’s five holy Taoist mountains (the other four being Hua Shan, the two Heng Shans and Song Shan), and has been worshipped by the Chinese for longer than recorded history. It is justifiably famed for its scenery and the ancient buildings strung out along its slopes. Once host to emperors and the devout, it’s now Shandong’s biggest tourist attraction: the ascent is engrossing and beautiful – and very hard work.
The small town of Tai’an lies at the base of the mountain, and for centuries has prospered from the busy traffic of pilgrims coming to pay their respects. You’ll quickly become aware just how popular the pilgrimage is – on certain holy days ten thousand people might be making their way to the peak, and year-round the town sees over half a million visitors.
More so than any other holy mountain, Tai Shan was the haunt of emperors, and owes its obvious glories – the temples and pavilions along its route – to the patronage of the imperial court. From its summit, a succession of emperors surveyed their empires, made sacrifices and paid tribute. Sometimes, their retinues stretched right from the top to the bottom of the mountain, 8km of pomp and ostentatious wealth. In 219 BC, Emperor Qin Shi Huang had roads built all over the mountain so that he could ride here in his carriage under escort of the royal guards when he was performing the grand ceremonies of feng (sacrifices to heaven) and chan (offerings to earth). Various titles were offered to the mountain by emperors keen to bask in reflected glory. As well as funding the temples, emperors had their visits and thoughts recorded for posterity on steles here, and men of letters carved poems and tributes to the mountain on any available rockface. Shandong-native Confucius is also said to have made a trip here, and there is a temple in his honour in the shadow of the highest peak.
In recent years, this huge open-air museum has mutated into a religious theme park, and the path is now thronged with a constant procession of tourists. There are photo booths, souvenir stalls, soft-drinks vendors and teahouses. You can get your name inscribed on a medal, get your photograph taken and buy medicinal herbs from vendors squatting on walls. Halfway up, there’s a bus station and cable car. Yet Tai Shan retains an atmosphere of grandeur; the buildings and the mountain itself are magnificent enough to survive their trivialization.
It is surprising, though, to see that numbering among the hordes of tourists are a great many genuine pilgrims. Taoism, after a long period of communist proscription, is again alive and flourishing, and you’re more than likely to see a bearded Taoist monk on the way up. Women come specifically to pray to Bixia Yuan Jun, the Princess of the Rosy Clouds, a Taoist deity believed to be able to help childless women conceive. Tai Shan also plays an important role in the folk beliefs of the Shandong peasantry (tradition has it that anyone who has climbed Tai Shan will live to be 100). The other figures you will see are the streams of porters, balancing enormous weights on their shoulder poles, moving swiftly up the mountain and then galloping down again for a fresh load; they may make three trips a day, six days a week.