China // The Yangzi basin //

Wudang Shan

Hubei’s river plains extend well into the province’s northwest, where they reluctantly cede to mountain ranges butting up against Henan, Shaanxi and Sichuan. The region’s peaks are steeped in legends surrounding Wudang Shan (武当山, wŭdāngshān), the Military Mountain, known for its Taoist temples and fighting style. A relatively easy ascent, coupled with the mountain’s splendid scenery and the availability of transport from Wuhan, Xi’an and Yichang, make this an appealing trip.

Wudang Shan’s 72 pinnacles have, since Tang times, been liberally covered in Taoist temples. Those that survived a wave of thirteenth-century revolts were restored following proclamations for the development of religion under the Ming emperor Cheng Zi in 1413 – the work took three hundred thousand labourers ten years to complete – and the mountain is currently enjoying another bloom of tourist-funded religious fervour, with many of the temples emerging fabulously decorated after decades of neglect.

To foreigners, Wudang Shan is most famous for its martial arts, which command as much respect as those of Henan’s Shaolin Monastery. It’s said that the Song-dynasty monk Zhang Sanfeng developed Wudang boxing – from which tai ji is derived – after watching a fight between a snake and a magpie, which revealed to him the essence of neijia, an internal force used (in typical Taoist manner) to control “action” with “non-action”. Fighting skills would also have come in handy considering the vast number of outlaws who’ve inhabited these mountains over the centuries. The rebel peasant Li Zicheng amassed his forces and eventually deposed the last Ming emperor from here – there’s a tablet recording the suppression of the Red Turbans on the mountain by Qing troops in 1856. More recently, the Communist Third Front Army found sanctuary here in 1931, after their march from Hong Lake in southern Hubei.

On a more peaceful note, Wudang Shan was also the retreat of Emperor Zhen Wu, who cultivated his longevity in these mountains during the fifteenth century, and whose portly statue graces many local temples. His birthday is celebrated locally on the third day of the third lunar month, a good time to visit the mountain. Wudang’s valuable plants later attracted the attention of the sixteenth-century pharmacologist Li Shizhen, who included four hundred local species among the 1800 listed in his Materia Medica, still an important reference work on the medicinal use of Chinese herbs.