China's Sacred Sites

The five peaks (wu-yueh) sacred to Taoism in China were considered power spots that corresponded to the cardinal directions. The different energies of these mountains influenced the spiritual traditions that grew on each of them. The mountains were thought to be great storage cells of energy with huge caverns deep inside of them. For thousands of years people heard the call to retreat from society and live in these mountains and cultivate their spiritual abilities. 

As far back as the Warring States period intellectuals were told that in the sea there were three Hsien Shan, or immortal mountains where spiritual beings resided. They were called Tung-lai, Feng Chang, and Yin Jou. On these mountain islands it was said there were hsien, or immortal beings with special spiritual powers, and many strange herbs for immortality. There were unusual white animals and palaces built of gold and silver. Six different Emperors sent ships to find the elixir of immortality in the eastern sea, but they never found it. Some stories said that the islands sank beneath the sea after the last ice age but the Chinese were looking for them up through the 1400’s.

The early Taoists believed there were originally San Hsien Shan, three spirit mountains, and they later found many more, not at sea but in the mountain ranges in each part of China. When they climbed them the view from the top looked out over the top of the clouds and the other mountains in the distance looked like islands. The Taoist scriptures refer to ten magical continents each with special herbs, fruit, or spring water that could infer immortality or at the least extremely long life.

There were many famous sacred caves associated with early Taoism. In the beginning the Taoists lived on the mountains in caves. Some of these caves were man made but most were natural. Other monks lived in straw huts at the bottom of the mountain. These were called “quiet rooms.” The monks lived very simply in seclusion and protected the wildlife and plant life on the mountain. There are at least nine sacred cave sites in different provinces. There are thirty-six smaller caves considered sacred to the Taoists.

There were said to be seventy two “fortune lands” that were open areas on the plains, usually farm land, where the feng-shui was very good. Because of interaction between humans and spirits at these sites [these interactions with the immortals were often at a spring or at the edge of the woods in a clearing] the Taoists consider these places sacred.

Emperors during the first six dynasties believed in Taoism and sought Taoist sages to be their counselors. They began to build monasteries for the monks. Some were built on the mountains and called kuan, or observatory, and monks were directed to observe nature for omens, from the flights of birds and meteorological events, and report to the Emperor. Other monasteries and temples were built on the paths to big cities.

Starting in the Tang dynasty [618-907] Taoist monasteries were built in the royal architecture style and called “palace monasteries.” These “Tao Palaces” were built so that they were divided into two sections with the main hall built like a palace that honors the deity associated with the particular site. The other part was simple quarters for the monks.

After the Song dynasty [960-1279] many Taoist monasteries had a main hall called the Sanching Ssu where each room has a different statue or depiction of the controlling deity. For example Wudangshan has many halls with statues and paintings of the deity, Jen Wu. All other Taoist saints and deities are subordinate to the controlling spirit of each site. These monasteries could also be named after a particular spiritually powerful Taoist master, or the place where the monastery was built. Monasteries were sometimes named Chang Tao, meaning “always adhering to Taoism.” Some names pertaining to the controlling deity of the site, or it could have a name like Bai Yu, White Cloud, which implies that it is removed from the ordinary world.

 These medical, technological, and spiritual breakthroughs from a thousand years ago still form the backbone of Chinese culture today and this method of learning is vitally important for personal growth and cultivation.

Only a few of these sacred sites remain intact and they are precious treasures in and of themselves. They are the primary source for research into ancient Chinese building techniques. The artifacts and scrolls, which continue to be found into the modern era, are priceless for research. More is being discovered about the history of  ancient Taoist practices: martial arts, meditation, and medicine on these sacred peaks. The Taoist monks who inhabited these sacred places for so long gave each a special feeling.


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Scholars disagree on which five mountains they were. Different Taoist traditions listed different groups of mountains as the five sacred peaks in different historical eras.
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