Step into a Chinese painting at Shanxi's Mt. Mian

By Sarah Bellemare
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, September 10, 2014
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Looking west from Beehive Spring along the road into Mount Mian Scenic Area. The sandstone cliffs of Mount Mian, carved out of the Shanxi plateau by water over 2.5 billion years ago, tower 1815 meters (5954 feet) above the plain below. []

Rising in an almost sheer cliff that towers nearly 6000 feet (1800 meters) above Shanxi Province's vast central basin, Mount Mian (Mianshan) stands at the literal peak of Chinese history and culture. The area has been a sacred spot for the practice of Daoism, Chinese Buddhism and Chinese folk religion for more than a thousand years, and many of Mount Mian's iconic landmarks have been immortalized in Chinese art and literature. Those who visit Mount Mian are also walking in the footsteps of emperors and key figures from almost every period in recorded Chinese history.

Visitors take a winding, steeply climbing road to the northern face of the 2.5 billion-year-old gorge, where a magnificent landscape awaits. Gravity-defying temple complexes that date back over a millennium cling to cliffs thousands of feet above the valley floor, looking out on over 100 square miles (294 square kilometers) of lush green mountains and a commanding view of the broad plain to the west. The chirping of swallows echoes across the valley as the birds swoop in and out of innumerable small caves and crags, and a light scent of incense drifts through the canyon on a cool breeze. The deep blue sky and wispy clouds in summer and winter, or the swirling mists gathering in the ravine below in spring and fall only add to the sense of having stepped into a Chinese painting.

Mount Mian is known throughout China as the birthplace of Qingming Festival, or Tomb Sweeping Day. Qingming, a major holiday in the Chinese lunar calendar which typically takes place in early May, evolved from the practice of honoring the legendary Jie Zitui, an advisor to Duke Wen of Jin who resided in seclusion on Mount Mian during China's Spring and Autumn period in the 7th century BCE. Jie Zitui and his family eventually died in a forest fire set by the duke, and as a way of expiating his guilt over Jie's death, Duke Wen ordered the members of his court and his subjects to not light any fire for three days in order to commemorate Jie's sacrifice and death. Duke Wen also built an ancestral temple in the cave where Jie Zitui lived in Mianshan, and he would venerate Jie there at the same time every year. The temple, which was burned by the Japanese occupiers of Mianshan in 1940, was reconstructed in 2001 and now holds colossal statues of Jie and his family and incredibly detailed wall carvings depicting scenes from Jie's life. Over the centuries, the festival of Jie Zitui spread throughout China, acquiring new customs and meanings along the way, eventually becoming a folk holiday to celebrate the arrival of spring and honor one's ancestors.

The Yunfeng Temple complex, which holds the oldest original structures on Mount Mian, has its own claim to fame. It is home to the "true body statue" (baoguzhenshen) of the Kongwang Buddha, the first Han Chinese to become a Buddha, who lived at Yunfeng Temple in his earthly form as the monk Tian Zhichao during the Sui and early Tang dynasties. "True body statues" are statues constructed around the actual physical remains of a holy person. Mount Mian has a large number of these rare "true body statues," all of which hold the remains of Chinese bodhisattvas who lived between the Tang and Ming dynasties and practiced their beliefs at the area's temples. Twelve statues are located in another part of the Yunfeng Temple, 12 more (including the statue of the founder of Pure Land Buddhism, Tan Luan) are located at the Zhengguo Temple, and one particularly fascinating example which displays all of the holy man's original teeth and a bit of his exposed skull is located in the basement of the Lingying Pagoda.

In addition to Mount Mian's many fascinating cultural sites, there are also several natural areas to explore. Thrill seekers can follow the path Jie Zidui took to his mountain hermitage by climbing hanging stairways over waterfalls and tiptoeing along narrow ridges that snake up a deep ravine. Those who prefer something more relaxing can take the gondola up towards the summit of Mount Mian, or take a long leisurely stroll through Shui Tao Gully, which has over one hundred waterfalls.

There are six hotels and a variety of restaurants located within the scenic area, many of which are also built into the cliffs and offer amazing views. Be sure to sample some of Shanxi's famous hand-shaved noodles (daoxiaomian) doused in the province's renowned vinegar. For even more local flavor, wash your meal down with a few rounds of steaming hot huangjiu, or "yellow liquor." Although this clear, golden beverage is made from millet, it has a light and fruity wine-like flavor in addition to a lower alcohol content that won't interfere with your hiking abilities.

The Mount Mian Scenic Area is conveniently located on the main rail line between the tourist meccas of Beijing and Xi'an, and it is less than an hour's drive from Pingyao Ancient Town and the Wang Family Compound. The area is a must-see stop on any tour of central China. Just be sure to leave yourself enough time to explore – it would take almost a week to see all the amazing sights Mount Mian has to offer!

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