Mount Hengshan, in central Hunan Province, is the most beautiful of the Five Sacred Mountains. It is characterized by towering peaks, picturesque scenery and a tranquil environment and is rich in cultural relics. Comprising 72 peaks, it stretches for 400 kilom, starting from Huiyan Peak and ending with Yuelu Peak, the highest peak being Zhurong Peak. Standing on the summit and looking into the distance, the visitor has an awesome view of the silky smooth Xiangjiang River meandering in the east, the dragon-like undulating Five Ridges in the south, the screen-like towering Xuefeng Mountains in the west, and the vast, misty Dongting Lake in the north.
Mount Hengshan has been a sacred Daoist (Taoist) site since ancient times. The Great Temple of the Southern Mountain, situated at the southern foot, is the largest and most magnificent on the mountain and also the largest and best-preserved ancient complex in south China. Covering an area of 98,500 sq. m and with a total floor space of 25,800 sq. m, it is composed of nine rows of buildings with four courtyards along the central axis, eight monasteries on the east side and eight temples on the west side. The orderly layout and beautifully decorated buildings are rich in Chinese style.
In the fourth row is Imperial Stele Pavilion, which houses an imperial stele inscribed with the words “Record of Repairs to the Great Temple of the Southern Mountain” and erected during the Qing Emperor Kangxi’s reign. The pavilion’s architraves bear 200 examples of the ancient Chinese seal character shou (寿), meaning “longevity,” implying that Mount Hengshan is a mountain of longevity.
In the seventh row is the Shengdi (Saintly Emperor) Hall. Standing 24 m high, it has richly decorated interior, upturned double eaves, and colorfully painted clay statues. The 72 stone pillars inside and outside the hall symbolize the 72 peaks of Mount Hengshan. On a stand in the hall is a 6.3-m-high seated statue of the Great Emperor of the Sacred Mountain of the South, flanked by standing statues of his six ministers: Zhongzai, the minister of heaven; Situ, the minister of the earth; Zongbo, the minister of spring; Sima, the minister of summer; Sikou, the minister of autumn; and Sikong, the minister of winter. On either side of the hall is also a statue of General Jin Wu. The stone railing around the hall is decorated with 144 white marble plates with relief carvings on both sides of birds, animals and rare herbs and flowers, as well as scenes from fairy tales.
One major feature of the carvings in the Great Temple of the Southern Mountain is the dragon images. Carvings of dragons can be found everywhere: on beams and pillars, eaves, stairways, plinth stones, stands, gate frames, bracket arches, and the ends of roof ridges. A survey showed the total number exceeds 800. They derive from the ancient legend of 800 flood dragons (mythical creatures capable of invoking storms and floods) guarding Mount Hengshan.
The legend says that, in remote times, a man called Zhu Rong lived on Mount Hengshan and taught people how to use fire and rear animals. The people held him in high esteem. To prevent the kindling from being extinguished, he buried it beneath Mount Hengshan. What he did not expect was that, after he died and became a deity, the kindling burned and turned Mount Hengshan into a sea of fire. In response to a request from the God of Mount Hengshan, who lived on the summit of Zhurong Peak, the Dragon King immediately summoned clouds and poured rain over the mountain, only to find the water boiled due to the high temperature, causing the local people more suffering. The alarmed Dragon King hastily sent 800 capable flood dragons to make a channel between the South Sea and Mount Hengshan, thus extinguishing the fire. Later, the Dragon King stationed flood dragons in the pools and springs around Mount Hengshan. In summer, the dragons extinguished the heavenly fire underground with cool water. In winter, they let the heavenly fire rise gently to thaw the ice and snow on the ground. Since then, the springs and pools around Mount Hengshan have made the place warm in winter and cool in summer, and all the plants and animals there have thrived. To express their appreciation of the 800 flood dragons, the local people carved their images all over the Great Temple of the Southern Mountain.
There were once many Daoist palaces and monasteries on Mount Hengshan, but most of them have been destroyed. The Nine Immortals Temple, which was more than 1,000 years old, was demolished and submerged by a reservoir. The eight monasteries on the east side of the Great Temple of the Southern Mountain are now in ruins and overgrown with grass. The Yellow Court Temple, once an altar used by Madam Wei Huacun during the Jin Dynasty (265-420), now provides accommodation to local farmers. Other sites have changed hands, such as Xuandu Monastery, Zushi Hall and Purple Bamboo Grove. In 1978, some Daoists went to live on Mount Hengshan and rebuilt the temples. To date, a network of Daoist buildings has been formed, which extends from the summit to the foot of the mountain. The restoration of Daoist temples has provided sites for Daoist activities and restored the mountain’s long-standing Daoist tradition.