contested sacred space on maoshan

Maoshan Temple

In May 2010 I had the opportunity to visit Maoshan, an important Daoist site in Jiangsu province (see here for my earlier post). One result of my fieldwork was that it gave a deeper insight as to the way Daoism and nature are represented together in contemporary Chinese culture. The evidence suggests that just as Daoist organizations are competing and also collaborating with local governments and other enterprises for control of the natural spaces in which monasteries are located, they are also engaged in ideological conflict over the meaning of these spaces. The battle over administrative control over natural spaces where Daoist sites are located is an ideological contest over the meaning of nature. This suggests that in contemporary China, as in the West, the meaning of nature is contested in part by means of its association with concepts such as “the sacred.”

Evidence of ideological conflict can be seen in the use of signs that aim to offer visitors to Maoshan the “correct interpretation” of the natural spaces through which they are travelling. Two examples of this can be found in the Huayang Cave 华阳洞 and the Feichang Path 非常道.

Huayang Cave Sign

The Huayang cave was a site for Daoist meditation, associated in particular with the Highest Clarity Patriarch, Tao Hongjing 陶弘景 (456-536), who took as his epithet “Hermit of Huayang” (Huayang yinju 华阳隐居). The main entrance to the Huayang Cave, however, makes no reference to the religious significance of this sacred space, noting it only as a cultural relic famous for its wall carvings dating from the Tang (608-906) to the Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. Presently, however, it no longer functions as a living sacred space, but as a “cultural relic” under the “protection” of the Jiangsu Province Cultural Relics Protection Unit. Another sign close gives a geological explanation for how the cave came to be formed. The uninformed observer will thus be educated solely as to the secular, scientific value of the space, whose sacred quality exists solely as a cultural memory.

Entrance to the "feichang dao"

A slightly different story can be found in the Feichang Path. The term “Feichang Way” or “Feichang Dao” comes from the first line of the Daode jing, which states: “The Way that can be told is not the constant Way.” In Chinese, “not constant” is “Feichang 非常,” and the “Feichang Way 非常道” is a newly resurfaced twisting footpath that leads from the base of the mountain to the temple on top. At regular intervals along the path, verses from the Daode jing are carved onto wooden panels, beginning with chapter 1 at the bottom, and ending with chapter 81, the last, at the top. As climbers makes their way to the summit, they are thus engaged in a meditative encounter with the text of the Daode jing, reputed to have been authored by Laozi, the mythical sage of Daoism, later revered as a high god. The space through which the traveller passes is thus textualized and sacralized and, through the encounter with the text, a firm association between the natural beauty of the mountain and the traditions of Daoism is established in the visitor’s experience.

This association is, however, not entirely unambiguous. Along the way it is possible to see evidence of earlier texts carved in rock which have not been restored and are difficult to read. Moreover, there are several small shrines along the path which appear to have fallen into disrepair whether through deliberate neglect or otherwise. Although the mountain path is a sacred path, its sacred quality comes not from the maintenance of tradition, but rather from the presentation of a modernized form of Daoism, one that de-emphasizes concrete, material religion in favor of the more mystical and abstract verses of Daoist literature. Although Daoism and nature are represented and experienced together, it is a particularly modern, “Protestant” version of Daoism that is emphasized, in particular, a version that finds authenticity in a single founding text, rather than in the complex layers of institutional history.

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