The mountain has been famous in Taoism history starting from 153BC. Most of the historical temples have been destroyed. On the top the main temple, rebuilt and renewed is still well known a place for prayer.
The Maoshan mountain is in fact a stretch of hills located in Jiangsu province on the way from Nanjing to Shanghai. This is not the kind of place refered in the tourist guidebooks about China. Nevertheless, locally, in Nanjing, Changzhou, or even Wuxi this is a quite famous location. The name of Maoshan is well know over China but except in Jiangsu, few people know its exact location.
Maoshan was the retreat of the first leader of one of the Taoist school (The Shangqing School). During Yuan dynasty this part of Taoism was even named as “Maoshan”. Today this Taoism is pretty much alive but it evolved a lot and is now distant from the initial practice. The history of the Maoshan is full of events and even if the location is now a classical mix of touristic attraction and real prayer location, the place has a very special atmosphere. Initial temples have been destroyed during war against japan and Cultural revolution.
I entered the site from the valley, by a short hike through a pine forest. It was actually quite nice and wild until the first building – a ba qua labyrinth – that marks the official entry of the Maoshan temple. From that point, I met several monks at a regular pace all along on the stairs leading to the top; some of them were quite talk active, eager to present their belief and introduce the principles of the Maoshan Taoism.
From these short discussions, it is hard for me to decide weather they run a business, trying to sell as much as they can using the ancient belief, or, if they were really sincere. The other visitors, mostly Chinese seems also to stand in the middle between pure amusement and strong ancestral techniques. Is all of this just an exotic carnival fortune teller or do these monk master the alchemy recipes leading to immortality ? For instance, if you want to understand the relation and influence of the elements that are linked to your birth you can choose to donate at a starting amount of 198 RMB (around 18 euros); of course, the more you give the more accurate are the result but also (I guess) brighter will be your future. Once at the top, the stairs merge with the main road and the crowd of visitors arriving by car and buses. Then is the entry to the main temple; there, the scene is a bit crazier. After a few minutes I think I understand the basic principle, the more money you spend in burning incent, the luckier you and your family will be. This result in unreal scene where rich families are buying as much as they can carry of huge incent stick. For safety reason, monks are helping them to light this payload with a huge fire and sticks are finally thrown in a huge furnace. For the one with less income, candles are a reasonable good deal as their lights last longer; they are installed in a smoky room with walls dark of soot.
Among this crowd, there seems to be (at least) some visitors that are truly followers of the local Taoism, they actually know some of the prayers and get into advanced discussions with the monks. Deeper inside the temple, there are other activities that remain mysterious to me, some monks are into calligraphy enriched with loads of comments – I was not able to understand anything from these mysterious sermon.
I will probably come back one day, I captured part of the atmosphere using both medium format and 135. This is an amazing place for weird encounters and, photography-wise, nobody was really noticing me and I was able to get close, really close.
More about modern Tao and Maoshan in this excellent article of NyTimes – ( here )