A place of worship for fifteen hundred years, JIUHUA SHAN (九华山, jiǔhuá shān; also known as Nine Glorious Mountains, a name bestowed by the Tang man of letters Li Bai on seeing the major pinnacles rising up out of clouds) has been one of China’s sacred Buddhist mountains ever since the Korean monk Jin Qiaojue (believed to be the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva Dizang, whose doctrines he preached) died here in a secluded cave in 794 AD. Today, there are more than seventy temples – some founded back in the ninth century – containing a broad collection of sculptures, religious texts and early calligraphy, though there are also plenty of visitors (many of them overseas Chinese and Koreans) and some outsized building projects threatening to overwhelm Jiuhua Shan’s otherwise human scale. Even so, an atmosphere of genuine devotion is clearly evident in the often austere halls, with their wisps of incense smoke and distant chanting.
Just inside the village gates, Zhiyuan Si (执园寺, zhíyuán sì) is an imposing Qing monastery built with smooth, vertical walls, upcurving eaves and a yellow-tiled roof nestled up against a cliff. Despite a sizeable exterior, the numerous little halls are cramped and stuffed with sculptures, including a fanged, bearded and hooknosed thunder god bursting out of its protective glass cabinet just inside the gate. Head for the main hall, in which a magnificently gilded Buddhist trinity sits solemnly on separate lotus flowers, blue hair dulled by incense smoke, and ringed by arhats. This makes quite a setting for the annual temple fair, held in Dizang’s honour on the last day of the seventh lunar month, when the hall is packed with worshippers, monks and tourists. Make sure you look behind the altar, where Guanyin statuettes ascend right to the lofty wooden roof beams.
If you follow the main road around through the village, the next temple of note is the new and garish Dabei Lou (大悲楼, dàbēi lóu), which sports some hefty carved stonework; more or less opposite, Huacheng Si (化城寺, huàchéng sì) is the mountain’s oldest surviving temple, which may date as far back as to the Tang, though it has been comprehensively restored. The stone entrance is set at the back of a large cobbled square whose centrepiece is a deep pond inhabited by some giant goldfish. Inside, Huacheng’s low-ceilinged, broad main hall doubles as a museum, with paintings depicting the life of Jin Qiaojue from his sea crossing to China (accompanied only by a faithful hound) to his death at the age of 90, and the discovery of his miraculously preserved corpse three years later.