In a display of one of China’s many baffling paradoxes, hallowed Wudang Shan is not actually considered one of China “Five Sacred Taoist Mountains,” but it is somehow known as the nation’s number one Taoist Mountain (perhaps this is meant to reflect the dual nature of yin and yang). In any case, mighty Mount Wudang is one of Hubei’s most sacred gems.
Renowned as the birthplace of tai chi and sacrosanct in martial arts communities around the planet, Wudang has one of the most venerated histories in all of China, and its legends of martial arts masters, quirky hermits and wandering immortals has made its mysticism beyond comparison. That’s why the mountain’s blatant and seemingly unrepentant commercialism is so disappointing. There’s little doubt that Wudang is worth your visit while in Hubei, espeicially if you have any inclination towards Chinese metaphysics, Taoism or martial arts, just be ready for hordes of souvenir hawkers to all but outnumber the chanting Taoists here.
Most of the tourism in Shiyan County is geared towards Wudang Shan, but if you’re looking to avoid some of the crowds and want to find your own mountain, Shiyan has a few other choices. As for Wudang Mountain, it’s split into seven individual zones, each with a dozen or more sites. Viewing all seven zones in one day is impossible, so give yourself three to four days if you want to tackle them all.
The following is a list of the best Wudang has to offer.
Laoying is considered a zone, but it functions as the town closest to the foot of the mountain and home to the closest train station. There are some old structures here, but for the most part, Laoying is the site of most of the expensive hotels and is where you will want to buy supplies (water, food, etc) before tackling the mountain. The prices of these necessities rise rapidly as you go up the mountain.
From here you can take the sight-seeing bus. This option may feel like cheating to some, but for others it can give you more time and energy to explore the sights. The sight-seeing bus will also allow you to catch shows and other cultural performances at temples that have scheduled times. There are two bus lines:
1) Mountain Gate of Mt Wudang – Taizipo – Xiaoyaogu – Zixiaodian (Purple Cloud Palace) – Wuyaling (Crow Ridge)
2) Mountain Gate of Mt Wudang – Taizipo – Qiongtai
If you decide to hike the entire way to the top, then remember the Ming’s “Sacred Way” is shorter but steeper, and the Qing’s “Sacred Way” is longer (2 km or 1.2 mi from Nanyan).
And now a word from your mother: Be safe! Wudang isn’t Mount Everest, but narrow paths, steep drops and crowded tourist sites have hurt or killed more people than you would like to think.
With 13 sights, most of which date back to the Ming emperor Zhu Di’s days, Jinding is a must see area of Wudang Shan. The structures here at the top of Wudang Shan were designed with the same purpose as the Forbidden City in Beijing: to elevate the emperor beyond a political position to a sacred place above all else.
As you enter Jinding, you’ll pass The Gate of Pilgrimage. It’s said that from here ancient monks would become more solemn as each step brought them closer to Zhenwu, a Taoist god whose shrine sits near the top of the mountain. The Gate of Pilgrimage is the last of four gates marking the path to the top. It was customary for the monks to yell and shout as they passed the gate, partly to celebrate their journey but also to absord the eerily prolonged echoes bouncing around Wudang and the surrounding mountains. The gate was rebuilt in the 10th year of Zhu Di’s reign (1422) from a previous Yuan Dynasty gate.
Next up the mountain is The Worship Hall (Cháobài Diàn; 朝拜殿). This was the highest point pilgrims were allowed to travel, and served as a place where they could worship Zhenwu. Check out the center of the hall for a statue of the god himself, as well as those of the Golden Boy and the Jade Maiden – Zhenwu’s divine servants – by his sides.
During the Qing Dynasty, the hall was renamed The Grand Hall of the Palace of Harmony, and many of the statues and interior art were added during this period. Outside the hall is a bell tower with a bell that was said to be so powerful those at the base of the mountain thought it was thundering when the bell was struck. Although pilgrims were not allowed past this point, they were able to step outside for a look up at the home of their sacred imperial authority. Today, you too can look up to see the Golden Palace.
On the way up to the Golden Palace is The Heavenward Palace (Cháotiān Gōng;朝天宫), once believed to be the dividing line between the mortal realm and the heavens. Only high-ranking monks were allowed to enter the Heavenward Palace, which contains statues contributed by various generations of Ming and Qing emperors. The site is an ideal spot to sit and rest before attempting the rest of the hike.
Just past the Heavenward Palace is The Palace of Harmony (Tàihé Gōng; 太和宫), the premier site of Wudang Mountain and the sacred home away from home for the Ming Emperor. Built on the craggy peak of Wudang, the palace is an architectural wonder and was such a marvel it prompted Emperor Zhu Di to proclaim Wudang the greatest mountain in all of China (and thus the world). Later, emperor Jiajing would outdo Zhu Di’s architectural accomplishment by adding more than 520 rooms to the palace. Thanks to their contributions, modern visitors, weary from the long hike, will be rewarded with a spectacular view of both the mountain’s man-made and natural wonders.
The Golden Palace (Jīn Diàn; 金殿) was built by Zhu Di to promote Taoism. Its prominent position close to his own palace was not only meant to convey the Ming’s connection to Taoism, but also more specifically to Zhenwu. The most notable feature of the structure is its golden roof, which still shines as brightly today as it did when they were first gilded (thanks to regular restoration). Besides the awesome architecture, there are tons of worthy relics to check out inside, and in the back is a temple devoted to Zhenwu’s parents.
On the hike down, make sure to stop by The Southern Sky Entrance (Nán Tiānmén;南天门). You’ll immediately notice its three-gated royal purple wall. The one on the far left was the Ghost Gate (Guǐ Mén;鬼门) and has been closed since its construction in order to prevent bad spirits from entering the peak. The middle gate is the Holy Gate (Shén Mén; 神门) and was traditionally only opened when the emperor was around. The last gate is the Human Gate (Rén Mén;人门); this was the gate reserved for all rest of the visitors. The wall and the gates are made out of impressively large stones and were designed to mimic the purpose and function of Tiananmen Tower in Beijing (the gate that sits out front of the Forbidden City).
A custom for many Chinese tourists is to visit the Hall of Fate-turning (Zhuǎnyùn Diàn; 转运殿) and walk in a clockwise circle between the Hall of Copper and the Hall of Bricks and Stones. This action is believed to change the directions of your fate, essentially changing bad to good and darkness to brightness. Take some time to evaluate your condition, however, because there is no word on whether the opposite effect could just as easily come about...
Besides being a good place to stop for the night, Nanyan is dominated by Taoist sites of mystical importance, the first of which is the South Heaven Gate (Nán Tiānmén; 南天门), the first of the gates of heaven. Built by Zhu Di, it was the lowest of the imperial structures. Near the gate you’ll find a stele garden with mystical bixi (half tortoise, half dragon creatures) bearing large slabs written with imperial decrees.
The South Heaven Gate connects The Praying for Rain Pavilion (Qíyǔ Tái; 祈雨台) and the Thunder God Hole (Léishén Dòng; 雷神洞), both used by Taoists to encourage favorable weather. The Thunder God Hole is the only temple on the mountain devoted to the Taoist thunder god, Deng. Head inside to the center of the temple for a peak in the stone hall and its gigantic statue of Deng. This is the largest statue on Wudang Mountain, and you should keep an eye out for his bird-like face and feet. Behind the Thunder God Hole is a natural wellspring that locals are convinced is magical because its strange temperature control system allows it to be cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
Next along the way, Taichang Temple (Tàicháng Guàn;泰常观), or the temple of cloud and fog, was built to commemorate a monk who once cured the emperor’s mother of a disease and refused to accept a reward for this feat. A statue of Laojun, one of the manifestations of Lao-tzu (founder of Taoism), sits cloaked in gold.
Taichang Temple is also the place to pray to Xi Wangmu, who is fabled to be the mother to the goddess of the Big Dipper. She has four heads and four arms and is flanked by weapons carved with the sun and the moon.
On the way up to the South Cliff Palace is Nanyan’s best known building, the Dragon and Tiger Palace (Lónghǔ Diàn; 龙虎殿). This beautiful structure runs on a theme of – that’s right – dragons and tigers, which are often considered to be metaphorical representations of yin and yang. This palace and Wudang itself were said to have been inspirations for the movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
From the Dragon and Tiger Palace, you’ll soon come across the Taoist Temple Yard, which leads to the crumbling ancient steps and pillars of the South Cliff Palace (Nányán Gōng; 南岩宫), the glorious and sprawling destination for most hikers on this side of the mountain.
One of the main sub-complexes in the South Cliff Palace is Tianyi Zhenqing Palace (Tiānyǐ Zhēnqìng Gōng; 天乙真庆宫). Legend says that after Zhenwu ascended, he lived in a palace of the same name, inspiring monks and engineers to build one of China’s most impressive architectural feats. Although almost completely made of green stone, Tianyi Zhenqing was built in a painstaking effort to mimic the look of wood.
The main attraction in the Zixiao Zone is the Purple Cloud Palace (Zǐ Xiāo Gōng;紫霄宫), but there are also accommodation options here worth considering. One of the best options is a temple stay for ¥20, but bring an extra blanket if you’re interested in staying in the monastery, because the monks’ iron austerity usually means some chilly nights. Note: the respectful form of address for Taoist priests is Dàozhǎng (道长). Besides its superb sights, Zixiao is the base for Taoist and scholarly research on the mountain.
The Purple Cloud Palace has been the center of Taoism on Mt Wudang since it was first built in the 800s during the Tang Dynasty .Most of the architecture you see here today comes from the Ming Dynasty, however, and the palace has been renovated dozens of times by Ming and Qing emperors. The name Purple Cloud Palace comes from its blue glazed tiles and walls, and in 1994 UNESCO added it to their heritage list, noting it as an outstanding representative of Ming wooden architecture. The palace is the largest wooden structure on the mountain.
The first hall inside the complex is the Hall of the Green Dragon and White Tiger (Lónghǔ Diàn;龙虎殿). Don’t miss the two clay statues – one of a dragon and one of a white tiger – that are attributed to the famous Yuan Dynasty sculpturer, Liu Yuanyi.
The hall leads to a third set of stone stairs that guide travelers to Shifang Hall (Shífāng Táng;十方堂), the Purple Cloud Palace’s worshiping Hall. Shifang in Chinese means “from all directions,” and this revered hall was once a pilgrimage for monks from all over the ancient Chinese realm.
Connected to Shifang Hall, the Grand Hall of the Purple Cloud Palace (Zǐxiāo Diàn; 紫霄殿) was built for the royal family and acted as his private realm for the worship of Zhenwu.
From here you can head to the back of the palace for The Parent Hall (Fùmǔ Diàn;父母殿), a three-story building of brick and wood devoted to Zhenwu’s celestial parents. Although first built during Zhu Di’s reign, the original structure was destroyed, and what you see now was the product of the Qing.
The best place for culture on Wudang Mountain, Zixiao is where you can eat, sleep, meditate and contemplate the Tao with the monks and priests of the mountain. Meat lovers beware: the path to Taoist enlightenment at Wudang is only achievable via a strict vegetarian lifestyle!
Taizipo means “Prince’s Cliff” and it is one of the lower-level zones on the foot of the mountain. It’s also one of the largest areas on the mountain, but has fewer ancient buildings than the other zones.
The first structure along this route is the Revelation Temple (Fùzhēn Guàn;复真观), which has paintings depicting Zhenwu’s cultivation of immortality. The temple was first built under the orders of Zhu Di and later expanded by Ming Emperor Jiajing. Unfortunately most of the temple was destroyed after the Ming Dynasty, but a revival during the Qing saw new structures added, mostly through generous donations by local officials. The temple that you see today is a mixture of architecture from both periods. The large wooden statues of Zhenwu and his companions inside the main hall are remarkably well preserved.
The Crown Prince’s Hall (Tàizǐ Diàn;太子殿) at the highest point of the Fuzhen Temple (Revelation Temple) complex is also worth checking out. Compared to many of the other structures around the mountain, this hall is quite small, but what it lacks in grandiosity it makes up for with fantastically intricate details. What’s more, the hall’s greatest draw may be the spectacular, sweeping vistas you can catch from its edge.
For the kung fu enthusiast, Taizipo is also home to The Eight Immortal Temple (Bā xiān Guàn; 八仙观). Because tai chi gets all the press for Wudang’s martial arts, it’s sometimes easy to forget the mountain is home to many other forms as well, including ones that use weapons. Head up to the untouched temple to watch a sword or staff demonstration, or meet a local master or student.
Wulong derives its name from the Five Dragon Palace. Once a bustling area of Taoist temples, it was long the area known for cultivating the most accomplished Taoist priests. Unfortunately, it is also the area whose temples, halls, and palaces have undergone the most destruction. That being said, it is still a particularly scenic area and is the only place on the mountain that has a forest reserve. The cliffs here are quite spectacular, too.
Five Dragon Palace (Wǔlóng Gōng;五龙宫) is one of the earliest structures on Mt Wudang. Construction started during the Tang Dynasty in 630 CE, and at its peak the structure had more than 800 rooms, at least six different halls and a complex underground system for defense and drainage. The worn down pillars of a once grandiose palace, overrun with vegetation and filled in with fog or mist, remind you how it earned its nickname “Mysterious Mountain.”
Hikers in Wulong should not miss the breathtaking cliffs, either. One of the most renowned and most interesting is The Hermit Cliff (Yǐnshì Yán; 隐士岩), which was known for being a hotbed of enlightenment for meditating ascetics. The cliff is home to an old stone palace built during the reign of Zhu Di, and a collection of old Taoist statues can still be found inside. For quite some time the stone statues inside the palace could not be identified, but recent discoveries of these ancient texts has revealed that two of the largest statues represent the Taoists gods of the sun and moon.
Although you won’t be effortlessly flying through groves of bamboo like in the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, after a few classes at the Wudang Kung Fu School, you’ll still have the opportunity to study with a bona fide kung fu master. Check out Zixiao to find a master, or for more details, go to their website and get ready to learn tai chi, bāguà zhǎng (八卦掌), qìgōng (气功), liǎngyí quán (两仪拳), xíngyì quán (形意拳), weapon training and meditation.
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