Mount Heng (衡山) is one of China’s most sacred mountains. It is in Hunan Province, about 100 kilometers from the provincial capital. In Chinese, the mountain is called Nanyue (南岳 – the Southern Marchmount). Like Wudang Mountain, Nanyue is is not a single mountain, but a mountain range. The highest part of the range is Zhurong Peak (祝融峰) which stretches 1300 meters above sea level.
The legends surrounding Nanyue can be traced back to pre-imperial China, when the area belonged to the Chu Kingdom (楚国). The rulers of Chu were all considered to be the descendants of Zhurong (祝融) the ancient fire god. The main peak of the mountain was named in his honor.
Nanyue is part of China’s Five Marchmount (五岳) system which was developed by the imperial court during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE). Under this system, Wudang Mountain, with the tortoise and snake Xuanwu figure as its symbol, represented north and the element water. The Southern Marchmount, with the Vermilion Bird (朱雀) as its symbol, represented south and the element fire.
By the fifth century, Nanuye was a major center for hermits and alchemists. Temples on the mountain have been used by female Daoists for the worship the Queen Mother of the West (西王母). The mountain has also been used to honor the founder of the Upper Clarity (上清) Daoist lineage, Wei Huacun (魏华存). Legend has it that when Wei Huacun came south seeking refuge from war, she stayed on the mountain until she left her mortal body at the age of eight-three. In modern times, the Academy of Female Daoists (坤道学院) is located at the foot of the mountain. The Academy offers a two-year program of studies for female Daoists. It was founded by the Chinese Daoist Association in 1990 and graduated its first cohort of 38 students in 2007. Nanyue does not have its own martial arts style. Currently, one of my brothers from Wudang Mountain is teaching martial arts to the Daoist community there. Nanyue uses a form of chanting that differs from that used in other parts of China.
Nanyue is also a sacred site for Buddhists. Buddhists began arriving at Nanyue in the fifth century, settling in the central part of the mountain range, some distance from the main center of Daoist activity in the northern part of the range. The first Buddhist to build a large Buddhist community at Nanyue was Huisi (惠思, 515-577 CE). During the eighth century Nanyue was also an important site for Pure Land Buddhism. Buddhists and Daoists still co-exist on the mountain. Currently, the largest temple building on the mountain, the Nanyue Grand Temple (南岳大庙) is a shared space, with Buddhists and Daoists using it for worship on alternating days! The temple is a popular pilgrimage site and Buddhists and Daoists come not only from Hunan and Guangdong, but also from Hong Kong, Macao, Southeast Asia and Japan.
The beauty of Nanyue has also inspired many of China’s famous poets. Li Bai (李白), one of the greatest Tang Dynasty poets, wrote:
Hengshan vast hazy
a purple netherworld,
Here at the southern extreme
the star Canopus floats.
Often violent tempests howl
scatter it far down
over Dongting Lake.
-Translation by Dongbo