China is a gargantuan nation where even the smallest municipalities can have larger populations than many a European or American city.With so much space to cover and so many stories to tell, it's all too easy to just focus on the next big adventure and trying to discover the "real China," but sometimes the real China is what's right in front of you, down the alley where you might head out to buy water and toilet paper every other day, and not on that 12-hour hard seat trip through the jungles of Guangxi.>>>
The peaks of Jiuhua Shan rise up from a green blanket of foliage, with bare-rock peaks and stones breaking cover just as the mountains themselves break through the clouds that often settle around them. Previously known by a number of names, including the "Nine Son Mountains," the peaks were renamed after a poem by famed Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai (Lǐ Bái, 李白), or "Li Po," compared them to nine flowers or "jiǔ huá" (九华).
For many, however, the draw of these mountains isn't the scenery, but their importance to East Asian Mahayana Buddhism. Considered one of the four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China, Jiuhua Shan is considered holy to the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, known in Chinese as Dàyuàn Dìzàng Púsà (大願地藏菩萨). The area was once covered with hundreds of temples, though the number has been reduced to under a hundred by the march of history. The remaining temples have been restored or rebuilt and continue to attract believers and sight-seers alike.
Little Jiuhua Shan Village is located part way up the mountain where many of Jiuhua Shan's temples are located. Stone brick streets are hemmed in tightly by whitewashed buildings with the flying eaves and overhanging second stories typical of traditional Chinese architecture. The smell of incense wafts around corners along with the chanting of worshipers and religious music from shops and temples.
During holidays and weekends, the village can attract a large number of believers and some who've just come to witness the beauty of the place. Around the village, many street signs are labeled in Korean in addition to English and Chinese, attesting to the number of South Koreans who come to see Jiuhua Shan's temples.
Active nunneries and monasteries in Jiuhua Shan mean a large number of monks and nuns join the rest of the faithful in filling the little mountain village. One of the larger temples, Zhiyuan Temple (sometimes referred to as Qiyuan Temple) is the site of many of the larger Buddhist festivals, including the birthday of Dayuan Dizang Pusa, often referred to simply as the Dizang, on the last day of the seventh lunar month. During the festival, worshipers pack into the main hall beneath three giant Buddhas flanked by a number of arhats.
The oldest temple in Jiuhua Shan, Huacheng Temple, sits in front of a calm "liberation pond" where people can release fish, turtles or frogs that might otherwise end up in someone's stomach. Founded in the Tang Dynasty, different parts of the temple were actually built during different eras and the overall structure has been restored. Dedicated to the Dizang, it houses a number of sutras and cultural artifacts, some dating back to the Ming and Qing dynasties, roughly the time many of the other temples and monasteries date from.
Behind Zhiyuan Temple, a sheer cliff rises up to where Tiantai Temple sits spanning two twin crags. Steep paths lead up the mountain near Zhiyuan Temple, leading past ancient, crooked pines like the Pheonix Pine (Fènghuáng Sōng, 凤凰松), rock formations compared to Buddhist deities and other smaller temples to the sky-high Tiantai Temple. While its peak is not the highest, it is a two-hour hike up from the town and offers incredible views. A cable car is also available for those who'd rather get there a little quicker.
Buddhists have been coming to Jiuhua Shan since at least the beginning of the fourth century, when an Indian monk established a small temple where Huacheng Temple stands today. Since then, the mountain has come to be revered as the domain of Dizang, a Bodhisattva said to have reached enlightenment, who chose not to leave everything behind for Nirvana until every soul has been delivered from hell.
For believers, the most important moment in the mountain's history came when a Korean monk known in Chinese as Jīn Qiáojué (金桥觉) arrived on the mountain in the early eighth century. Born Kim Kiao Kak, Jin was a prince of the Korean Silla kingdom who came to China by sea with his dog as his only companion, and made his way to the mountains. Like Buddha, the former prince left behind the luxury of his former life for one much simpler, living as an aesthetic atop Tiantai Peak. Villagers from nearby built a temple in his honor and he preached there for a time before his death at 99. His body, placed in a cave after his death, was said to have miraculously remained in good condition for three years after his death.
It may not have been until the Ming Dynasty, however, that people believed Jin to be a reincarnation of the Dizang. During the reign of Ming Emperor Shenzong (1572-1619), the mountain was added to the list of sacred Chinese mountains, which includes those dedicated to both Buddhism and Daoism. Also during the emperor's reign, the monk Haiyu, later known as Wu Xia (Wú Xiá, 無瑕), came to Jiuhua Shan after traveling to Emei Shan from his home in Beijing. Long-lived like Jin, Wu Xia is said to have died at 110 and his body, too, was said to have defied decomposition. Reverent monks covered the body in gold leaf and placed it within the Star-Picking Nunnery near where the monk once lived, which became Baisui Gong, the "Longevity Temple." He was posthumously declared a Bodhisattva by Chinese imperial decree in 1630.
Getting to Jiuhua Shan
Tucked among the jumbled mountain landscape of Anhui Province, Jiuhua Shan is easier to reach today than it ever was. While the Jiuhua Shan Airport has yet to open (a previous date set it to be ready in October of this year), direct buses from a number of cities go to Jiuhua Shan, including Huang Shan, Nanjing, and Hefei. For those not in the vicinity of those cities, fly to Huang Shan, take the one-hour bus ride to Jiuhua Shan and get two iconic mountains into your China itinerary.