Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text
Mongol Pilgrimages to Wutai Shan
Isabelle Charleux, National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS)
JIATS, no. 6 (December 2011), THL #T5712, pp. 275-326
Section 2 of 6 (pp. 277-279)

Popular Wutai Shan

If the imperial patronage of the mountain has attracted the attention of past and present scholars – see the numerous publications on the imperially-founded temples and the steles and poems written by emperors – the activities of ordinary pilgrims are comparatively poorly documented. I will try here to move away from the imperial center and focus on the ordinary Mongols who undertook the pilgrimage to Wutai Shan: why, how they came, and what they did there. These pilgrims did not write travelogues about their journeys, but had stone inscriptions carved to commemorate their donations. About 340 Mongolian stone inscriptions still stand at Wutai Shan and have not been published. Some were carved on very bad quality stone, so they are now completely illegible, but the majority has been well preserved. They generally inform us on the date of the donation, the name and origin of pilgrims, and the amount of donations.10

[page 278]

Travelers’ accounts also inform us about the Mongol pilgrims’ practices.11 European explorers, scientists, diplomats and missionaries, as well as Chinese officials, scientists and pilgrims who went to Wutai Shan in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries give us some vivid descriptions of the Mongol pilgrims. At last, a useful source is the 1846 wood-block map made by a Mongol monk of the Cifu Si. As shown by Chou Wen-shing, the map is not only a religious record of monasteries, miracles and apparitions, but also an ethnographic document that gives a glimpse of the daily life of merchants, pilgrims and monks, the roads and paths they took, and the gestures they made in front of temples.12

These sources tell us about sacred features of the landscape – grottoes, springs, ponds, strange rocks, as well as ritual practices associated with them, suggesting the popular appropriation of the mountain. Some of these popular practices, such as crawling through the cave of initiatory rebirth, which will be the object of the third part of this paper, are not documented by official records, probably because they do not belong to any learned tradition and because the eminent monks never considered them as important compared, for instance, to the manifestations of Mañjuśrī. The clerical views of the mountain differ from the pilgrims’ ordinary experiences.13 These popular practices and narratives reveal the transformation of the mountain as a Tibeto-Mongol pilgrimage site, and inform us, in a different way than the Tibetan and Mongol gazetteers, about how the Tibetans and Mongol monks and pilgrims reshaped the mountain.

I will thus raise a few questions about how the reconfiguration of Wutai Shan as a Tibeto-Mongol pilgrimage site supported by the Qing emperors for the Mongols was adopted and reshaped by them. What did Wutai Shan really mean for the Mongols, how could it compare and compete with Tibetan pilgrimages, and how did the Tibetans and Mongols transplant and superimpose Tibetan pilgrimage [page 279] traditions onto the preexistent Wutai Shan landscape and narrative by creating new sites, legends and rituals?

I will begin with a presentation of how Wutai Shan became a popular destination among Mongols during the late Qing dynasty, and then try to give an overview of their peregrinations and daily religious practices. The third part of the article will focus on pilgrims’ practices at natural holy sites, and particularly, caves. Many questions will remain unsolved and demand further studies, in particular whether the Mongol pilgrims observed certain vows, certain taboos, and in what ways their pilgrimage was different from that of Chinese devotees.


[10] The names, dates and authors of 249 stone inscriptions are listed in Zhongguo Menggu wen gu ji zong mu bian wei hui, ed., Zhongguo Menggu wen guji zongmu (Beijing: Beijing tu shu guan chu ban she, 1999), 2141-47, n. 12610-47, and 2178-211, n. 12786-996. I thank Vladimir Uspensky and Johan Elverskog for this information. I found 91 more stone inscription on Wutai Shan.
[11] I mostly used the following accounts: Gilmour, Among the Mongols, and Rev. Joseph Edkins, Religion in China; containing a brief account of the three religions of the Chinese: with observations on the prospects of Christian conversion amongst that people (London: Trübner & Co., 1893 [1878]), who traveled together in 1872; D. Pokotilov, “Der Wu T’ai Schan und seine Klöster,” trans. from German by W. A. Unkrig, Sinica-Sonderausgabe (1935): 38-89 (U-taj, Ego prošloe I nastojaščcee, Zapiski Imp. Russk. Geogr. Obščestva po obščej geografii 22 [Saint-Petersbourg, 1893]: 2), who traveled in 1889; William W. Rockhill, “A Pilgrimage to the Great Buddhist Sanctuary of North China,” The Atlantic Monthly 75, no. 452 (June 1895): 758-69, who traveled in 1887 and 1908; Emil S. Fischer, The Sacred Wu Tai Shan in connection with modern travel from Tai yuan fu via Mount Wu Tai to the Mongolian border (Shanghai: Kelly and Walsh, 1923); John Blofeld, The Wheel of Life. The Autobiography of a Western Buddhist (London: Rider & co, 1959), who traveled in 1935-36; Gao Henian, Ming Shan youfang ji (Beijing: Zong jiao wen hua chu ban she, 2000 [repr.; first ed. 1949]), who traveled in 1903 and 1912; Jiang Weiqiao, “Wutai Shan jiyou,” juan 10, 1918, in Gujin youji congchao 3, ed. Lao Yi’an (Taibei: Taiwan Zhonghua shu ju, Minguo 50 [1961], 48 juan: 15-26); and Zhang Dungu, “Wutai Shan can fo riji,” Dixue zazhi 3, no. 1 (1911): 17-28, who traveled in 1911.
[12] Chou Wen-shing, “Ineffable Paths: Mapping Wutaishan in Qing Dynasty China,” The Art Bulletin 89, no. 1 (March 2007): 108-29, and this volume.
[13] The “gap” which exists between a pilgrim’s mundane experience of a holy place and visionary accounts of an environment’s sublime features has been explored by specialists of Tibetan pilgrimages (Alexander W. Macdonald, “Foreword,” in Pilgrimage in Tibet, ed. Alex McKay [Richmond (Surrey) & Leiden: Curzon Press, International Institute for Asian Studies, 1998], x).

Note Citation for Page

Isabelle Charleux, “Mongol Pilgrimages to Wutai Shan in the Late Qing Dynasty,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): , http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5712 (accessed ).

Note Citation for Whole Article

Isabelle Charleux, “Mongol Pilgrimages to Wutai Shan in the Late Qing Dynasty,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): 275-326, http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5712 (accessed ).

Bibliography Citation

Charleux, Isabelle. “Mongol Pilgrimages to Wutai Shan in the Late Qing Dynasty.” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 6 (December 2011): 275-326. http://www.thlib.org?tid=T5712 (accessed ).