CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 18, June 2009


Landscape, Culture and Power | China Heritage Quarterly

Landscape, Culture & Power: The View from Seventeenth-Century Yellow Mountain

Stephen McDowall, University of Warwick

Fig. 1
Fig. 1 'World-famous spring', a signed calligraphic inscription by Deng Xiaoping dated 16 July 1979.

Deng Xiaoping's 鄧小平 (1904-1997) deliberately informal ascent of Yellow Mountain (Huangshan 黃山) in 1979, with 'T-shirt hanging loose over black Bermuda shorts and long white socks bunched around his ankles' as the Financial Times put it,[1] contrasted starkly with the ritual tours of empire made by his imperial predecessors. Deng had chosen the mountain to deliver the last of his five addresses on the future direction of Chinese tourism, and to promote the particular landscape of Huangshan as a key site for the revitalised industry. On the day after he had delivered his 'Huang Shan Speech' (for more on this, see '1979: Selling Scenery to the Bourgeoisie' in the Features section of this issue), however, one small but highly significant act placed him very much within that imperial tradition. He wrote a calligraphic inscription consisting of the words 'World-famous spring' (Tianxia mingquan 天下名泉) at the hot springs complex in the foothills of the mountain.[Fig.1]

Fig. 2
Fig. 2 'The Imperial Tour of Inspection at Tai Shan' (Xunshou Daizong tu 巡守岱宗圖). Woodblock print from Sun Jianai 孫家鼐, ed., Qinding Shujing tushuo 欽定書經圖說, Beijing: [Jingshi] daxuetang, 1905.

Such inscriptions had a long history in imperial-era China. Mountains had early come to represent stability and permanence, and they were inextricably linked to the ruling house both as delineators and as protectors of the imperial realm. Most important in this regard were the mountains that made up the system of Marchmounts (yue 嶽), which at various times consisted of Mounts Tai 泰, Huo 霍, Heng 衡, Hua 華, Heng 恒 and Song 嵩, representing the limits of the habitable world, and the sites of the ritual tour of the emperor.[2][Fig.2] Even after the performance of the feng 封 and shan 禪 sacrifices documented in the Historical Records (Shiji 史記) had fallen out of favour with later emperors, mountains continued to function as important markers of power, with calligraphic inscriptions literally carved into cliff faces making very public and lasting statements of possession. The 1748 inscription of the Qianlong 乾隆 Emperor (r.1736-1796) at Tai Shan, some twenty metres in length, presents even today an extremely potent visual symbol of imperial authority.[3]

Yellow Mountain was relatively late to be incorporated into the unofficial system of culturally- and politically-significant landscapes. When the great northern-Song landscape artist Guo Xi 郭熙 (?1020–?1100) listed seventeen 'famous mountains and magnificent massifs of the empire' in his 'Collection of Lofty Ambitions in Forests and Springs' (Linquan gaozhi ji 林泉高致集), Yellow Mountain had not rated a mention.[4] The first explicit connection between the mountain and the imperial house occurred in the reign of the Wanli 萬曆 Emperor (1573-1620), and writing some years later, in 1642, Qian Qianyi 錢謙益 (1582-1664) clearly viewed the Wanli period as something of a golden age:

The Temple of Compassionate Radiance is situated on a branch ridge of Heavenly Capital, nestled up against Peach Blossom and Lotus Blossom Peaks. Cinnabar, Blue Phoenix and Amethyst Peaks stand on its left, while to its right, Folding Screen and Cloud Gate Peaks are both poised facing outwards. Pumen 普門 [1546-1625], the Master of Tranquillity, who had previously established a monastery at Bracing Mountain [Wutai Shan 五臺山], achieved a vision of Yellow Mountain while at meditation, and so from Bracing Mountain moved to this site [in 1606]. When [in 1610] he entered the gates of the capital, with powerful resolve and in touch with the unfathomable realms, the Empress Dowager Cisheng 慈聖 [1546-1614] opened up the imperial treasury to the shaven-headed ones, and presented them with purple robes, pennants and staffs. The Emperor Shenzong 神宗 [Wanli] bestowed a name-tablet inscribed with the words 'Compassionate Radiance' [Ciguang 慈光], and issued a decree of protection and support.[5][Fig.3]

Fig. 3
Fig. 3 Zheng Zhong 鄭重 (fl. 1590–1630), Yellow Mountain 黃山. Woodblock print from Mingshan tu 名山圖 (1633).

The inscription of the name 'Compassionate Radiance' implied here both the compassion of the Buddha and that of the Empress Dowager Cisheng as mother of the Ming state. The imperial sponsorship of Buddhist projects had already reached lavish proportions by the end of the sixteenth century, and had continued more or less unchecked after the death of Grand Secretary Zhang Juzheng 張居正 (1525-1582), who, on financial grounds, had been a vocal critic of such patronage. When Qian Qianyi visited the temple in 1641 it still housed the decorated boxed set of sūtras in 678 cases (han 函), which had been presented as a gift to the monks by the Empress Dowager towards the end of her life. Indeed, these remnants from an era of prosperity on the mountain cause Qian to reflect on the landscape before him, and reading the mountain as an index for the health of the state, he worries about its unmistakeable decline:

These days, with military unrest daily more worrying, and famines raging year after year, the tolling of the great fish bells [that announce meals to the monks] has all but ceased, and there is barely even enough coarse grain to go around. Recalling the drums and bells that would ring out from the Palace of Eternal Faith,[6] and counting up the monasteries that once stood in Luoyang,[7] one cannot but sigh for one's own ruined and disordered age. Such, indeed, was the cause of Li Gefei's 李格非 [?1041-1101] lament over the famous gardens.[8]

Fig. 4
Fig. 4 Yang Erzeng 楊爾曾, Yellow Mountain 黃山圖. Woodblock print from Hainei qiguan 海内奇觀 (1609).

Qian was right to worry. As he sat down to compose his travel account in 1642, the great Jiangnan epidemic had already begun to decimate a population weakened by repeated crop failure and famine. These were unmistakable signs that the Mandate of Heaven was no longer with the Ming ruling house, and the violent transition to Qing rule that soon followed would prove difficult for Qian and many of his contemporaries. For Qian, indeed, the Ming-Qing transition continued to cause problems long after death, and his posthumous denunciation by the Qianlong Emperor for disloyalty threatened to erase him completely from the literary canon.[9] While his works eventually survived, Qian's omission from the Complete Library of the Four Treasuries of Literature (Siku quanshu 四庫全書) collection, initiated in 1772, did consign him to a rather dubious place at the margins of the literary world, a place from which he has only recently begun to emerge.

Such concerns could not yet be imagined. In 1642, a more immediate reason for anxiety was the loss of the mountain's mingsheng guji 名勝古跡, those 'sites famous for their surpassing beauty and where linger the traces of antiquity', as Duncan Campbell puts it,[10] and the apparent inability of the textual record to prevent these losses from occurring:

The Thirty-six Peaks of Yellow Mountain were all carefully recorded in the Topographical Classic of Yellow Mountain [Huangshan tujing 黃山圖經], but these days, scholars and officials are unable to settle on all of their names, while monks and shepherds are unable to point out all of their locations. Those peaks that are known, such as Heavenly Capital, Lotus Blossom, Alchemists' and Cinnabar, number no more than ten or so. Stone Man Peak has been mistaken for Old Man Peak, Cloud Gate Peak for Scissors Peak, Folding Screen Peak for Surpassing Lotus Peak, and then there is that tiny mound of earth that has simply assumed the name—Start to Believe Peak. There is a poem by Li Bai 李白 [701-762] titled 'On Seeing Wen the Recluse Back to Yellow Mountain's White Goose Peak,' but today this peak is not even listed as one of the Thirty-six.[11][Fig.4]

A peak written into poetry by the great Li Bai should by rights have been the pre-eminent literary site of the entire mountain, and the breakdown in cultural transmission that had allowed for its disappearance was, for a man like Qian Qianyi, a worrying possibility. The subsequent publication of the Qing-era gazetteers did not cast any light on the whereabouts of White Goose Peak, and the site would remain lost until its inclusion, without editorial comment, in the 1988 edition of the Gazetteer of Yellow Mountain (Huangshan zhi 黃山志),[12] a rediscovery (one is tempted to say reinvention) that makes an articulate statement on the ability of text to map, inscribe and possess the landscapes of the empire. From this perspective, W. J. T. Mitchell's argument that we should consider not what landscape is, but what it does as an instrument of cultural power, seems all the more compelling,[13] and Deng Xiaoping's thirty-year-old inscription at Yellow Mountain becomes much more than just some characters written on a wall.


All quotations from Qian Qianyi here are taken or adapted from my forthcoming book, Qian Qianyi's Reflections on Yellow Mountain: Traces of a Late-Ming Hatchet and Chisel, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009, in which I use the version of the essay 'You Huangshan ji' 游黃山記 found in the Sibu congkan 四部叢刊 edition of Muzhai chuxue ji 牧齋初學集, Shanghai: Shangwu yinshuguan, 3:483-90 as my base text.

[1] Lailan Young, 'Why Deng was Ahead of the Game', Financial Times 14 (June 1997): 17.

[2] For a useful discussion in English on the development of this system, see Aat Vervoorn's 'Cultural Strata of Hua Shan, the Holy Peak of the West', Monumenta Serica 39 (1990–91):1–30 (esp. pp.1–13). I follow here Edward H. Schafer's translation of the term yue 嶽 as 'Marchmount,' explained in his Pacing the Void: T'ang Approaches to the Stars, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977: 'My version is based on the ancient belief that these numinous mountains stood at the four extremities of the habitable world, the marches of man's proper domain, the limits of the ritual tour of the Son of Heaven. There was, of course, a fifth—a kind of axial mount in the center of the world' (p.6).

[3] On inscriptions at Tai Shan see Robert E. Harrist's The Landscape of Words: Stone Inscriptions from Early and Medieval China, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008, especially chapter four. A photograph of Qianlong's inscription is included as plate 20.

[4] Guo Xi, 'Shanshui xun' 山水訓, translated as 'Advice on Landscape,' in Victor Mair, Nancy S. Steinhardt and Paul R. Goldin, eds, Hawai'i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2005, pp.380-7.

[5] The Yellow Mountain Gazetteer: Definitive Edition (Huangshan zhi dingben 黃山志定本) of 1686 records the tablet as having been bestowed in the autumn of the xinhai 辛亥 year (1611). Such a decree probably involved an understanding whereby prayers and readings would be performed regularly for the health of the state in general and individuals in the imperial family in particular, in exchange for the financial support the temple received.

[6] The Palace of Eternal Faith 長信宮 served as the residence of the Empress Dowager during Han times.

[7] The city of Luoyang was the Northern Wei capital between 493 and 534 CE, and at its peak the home to over a thousand Buddhist monasteries, later recorded in Yang Xuanzhi's 楊衒之 (d. ?555) Account of Monasteries in Luoyang (Luoyang qielan ji 洛陽伽藍記), completed in 547 CE. For a full English translation see that of Yi-t'ung Wang, A Record of Buddhist Monasteries in Lo-yang, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.

[8] Li Gefei's 李格非 (?1041-1101) Account of Famous Gardens in Luoyang (Luoyang mingyuan ji 洛陽名園記) of 1095 is a treatment of nineteen celebrated gardens of the former capital, to which is added an important commentary: 'Luoyang lies at the centre of the world. It holds the strategic pass between Mount Yao and Min Lake, and sits astride the access point to Qin and Long; and was the old stamping ground of Zhao and Wei. So it is a place that is bound to be contended over from all quarters. When the situation in the world is normal, then this all ceases, but if there are disturbances Luoyang is the first to experience war. This is why I hold that the prosperity or decline of Luoyang is an indication of whether the world is well governed or in chaos. For in the Zhenguan (627-49) and Kaiyuan (713-41) periods of the Tang dynasty there were reputed to have been more than a thousand residences and palaces built by senior ministers and imperial relatives in the Eastern Capital (of Luoyang). When chaos and disruption set in, and these continued in the miseries of the Five Dynasties (907-60), the lakes and pools, bamboos and trees were trampled by the carriages of war, and abandoned to become a wasteland. The high pavilions and great gazebos were consumed in smoke and fire and turned to ashes. They were annihilated and destroyed with the Tang dynasty itself, and not a wrack remained. That is why I hold that the rise and fall of these gardens is an indication of the prosperity or decline of Luoyang. So if the good government or chaos of the world may be known since they are indicated by the prosperity or decline of Luoyang; and if the prosperity or decline of Luoyang may be known since they are indicated by the rise and fall of its gardens, then my writing of this "Record of Famous Gardens" has surely been to some purpose.' See Philip Watson, 'Famous Gardens of Luoyang, by Li Gefei: Translation with Introduction', Studies in the History of Gardens and Designed Landscapes 24.1 (2004): 38-54.

[9] 'Now Qian Qianyi is already dead…', the emperor fumed in 1769, 'and his bones have long ago rotted away. We will let him be. But his books remain, an insult to right doctrines, and a violation of [the principles of] loyalty. How can we permit them to exist and be handed down any longer? They must early be done away with. Now therefore let every governor-general and governor see to it that all the bookshops and private libraries in his jurisdiction produce and send [to the yamen] his [collected works]. In addition let orders be despatched to small villages, country hamlets, and out of the way regions in mountain fastnesses for the same purpose. The time limit for this operation is two years. Not a volume must escape the burning.' See Luther Carrington Goodrich, The Literary Inquisition of Ch'ien-Lung, New York: Paragon Book Reprint Corp., 1966, pp.102-3 (romanisation altered).

[10] See Duncan Campbell's discussion of his new project, 'Orchid Pavilion: An Anthology of Literary Representations' in China Heritage Quarterly, Issue 17 (March 2009).

[11] For Li's poem, 'Song Wen chushi gui Huangshan Baiefeng jiuju' 送溫處士歸黃山白鵞峰舊居 (the final two characters are omitted by Qian here) see Wang Qi 王琦, ed., Li Taibai quanji 李太白全集, Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1977, vol.2, pp.770-3.

[12] Huangshan zhi 黃山志, Lü Qiushan 呂秋山 et al. comp., Hefei: Huangshan shushe, 1988, p.17.

[13] W. J. T. Mitchell, 'Introduction' in idem, ed., Landscape and Power, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994, pp.1-4.