The Mount Wangwu grotto is the first of Daoism's Ten Great Grotto Heavens. As for the origin of its name, one explanation says: "There is a deep cave in the mountain that is like a king's palace, so it was called Wangwu (king's house)." Another explanation says: "The mountain has three layers, just like a house (wu 屋), which is how it got its name." On top of the mountain's main peak is a stone altar where the legendary Yellow Emperor offered sacrifices to gods. It is said that the Mysterious Maiden of the Nine Heavens and the Queen Mother of the West were moved by the Yellow Emperor's sincerity and went down to impart to him the Book of the Divine Elixir of the Nine Cauldrons (Jiuding Shendan Jing 九鼎神丹经) and the Discourse on Secret Correspondences (Yinfu Ce 阴符策). The Yellow Emperor then used these to defeat the tribal leader Chi You. Mount Wangwu is thus also known as the Heavenly Altar Mountain (Tiantan Shan 天坛山).
It is difficult to verify when Daoism spread on Mount Wangwu. Daoism thrived on Mount Wangwu during the Tang Dynasty, when many Daoists lived and cultivated themselves there. Sima Chengzhen was the most famous of them. Sima Chengzhen, who styled himself Ziwei, was born into an official's family. He went to Mount Songshan at the age of 21 and formally acknowledged Pan Shizheng as his master to learn Daoist doctrine. Later he lived in seclusion on Mount Tiantai (Heavenly Terrace Mountain) and went by the Daoist monastic name of Baiyunzi (Master White Cloud).
In 711, the second year of the Tang Dynasty Emperor Ruizong's Jingyuan reign period, he was summoned to the imperial palace. Emperor Ruizong inquired about the art of Yin and Yang and the administration of a country, and then gave Sima Chengzhen a valuable qin (a zither-like instrument) and an embroidered shawl as a gift. When Sima Chengzhen was about to return to Mount Tiantai, Lu Zangyong – who was then a high-ranking official but who used to be a Daoist living in seclusion on Mount Zhongnan – pointed at Mount Zhongnan and asked: "This mountain has plenty of beautiful scenery. Why would you go back to Mount Tiantai?" Sima Chengzhen answered: "From what I have observed, it is just a shortcut to high office." Lu Zangyong looked ashamed when he heard this. This story spread among the people, and the phrase "Zhongnan shortcut" became an idiom.
In 721, the ninth year of the Tang Dynasty's Kaiyuan reign period, Emperor Xuanzong sent an emissary to summon Sima Chengzhen to the capital (Chang'an, today's Xi'an). The emperor then accepted the Daoist records in person and gave Sima Chengzhen a handsome gift. In the 15th year of the Kaiyuan reign period, Emperor Xuanzong again summoned Sima Chengzhen to the capital and ordered him to set up Solar Platform Palace (Yangtai Gong 阳台宫) on Mount Wangwu as an imperial residence. Daoism then began to flourish on Mount Wangwu, and the mountain became a center of Daoist activity in northern China. However, Daoism gradually declined in the Ming and Qing dynasties, so most palaces and temples on Mount Wangwu were deserted.
Mount Wangwu boasts three big Daoist temples: the Solar Platform Palace, Pristine Emptiness Palace (Qingxu Gong 清虚宫) and Purple Subtlety Palace (Ziwei Gong 紫微宫).
The Solar Platform Palace is the most influential and best-preserved of the three temples. It stands on a hillock called “Red Phoenix Facing the Sun” (Danfeng Zhaoyang 丹凤朝阳) in front of the Peak of Overwhelming Glory (Huagai Feng 华盖峰) on the southern side of the Heavenly Altar Mountain (Tiantan Shan), and so the temple is called the Solar Platform Palace. The hillock's name comes from the terrain: behind it, the Heavenly Altar Mountain towers like the head of the phoenix; opposite it, the Ridge of Nine Glossy Ganoderma Mushrooms (Jiuzhi Ling 九芝岭) spreads like the tail; and the Solar Platform Palace is right on the back of this golden phoenix. When tourists stand on the platform at the front of the palace and clap their hands, the echo sounds like birds singing, so the terrace is called the Phoenix Singing Platform (Fengming Tai 凤鸣台).
The existing Solar Platform Palace was built during the Ming Dynasty. Its principal buildings are the Hall of the Three Pristine Ones and the Pavilion of the Jade Emperor, both on the central axis. The Hall of the Three Pristine Ones is a five-room building with a single-eaved gable and hip roof. It was repaired in the Ming Dynasty but its major beams and bracket set have survived since the Song Dynasty. Under the colored bracket set stand 30 vertical and horizontal stone pillars, carved with exquisite and vivid pictures such as “Coiled Dragon and Phoenix,” “The Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea,” “Altar of the Wind God, Rain God, Thunder God and Lightning God” and “Lord Yellow Stone (Huangshi Gong) and Zhang Liang.” In the covered corridor stand 20 Ming Dynasty stone peripheral columns, carved with lifelike relief sculptures such as the cloud dragon sweeping along the grass, a hundred birds paying homage to the phoenix, and Su Wu (139-60 BC, a Han Dynasty official, was sent by the court on a mission to Xiongnu and detained in todays Lake Baikal region tending sheep for 19 years without submission. He has been known ever since as a symbol of national integrity.) tending sheep. The Solar Platform Palace also boasts old trees, including a thousand-year-old pipal that is said to have been planted by Sima Chengzhen and Princess Yuzhen.
Built in the Tang Dynasty, the Purple Subtlety Palace has been expanded and renovated by later generations. It is now the biggest of Mount Wangwu’s temples and palaces and it has many exquisite and magnificent buildings. After conducting an on-site investigation in 1931, the famous architect Liang Sicheng said he considered the palace a pearl of ancient Chinese architecture. Unfortunately, the palace was damaged in the decade of turmoil that was the “cultural revolution” of 1966-76 and now all that remains of it is a mass of broken walls. However, more than 30 ancient steles are still preserved in the courtyard, the most precious of which is a stele with Chinese and Mongolian inscriptions made by order of a Yuan Dynasty emperor.
Opposite the Purple Subtlety Palace stands an old ginkgo with luxuriant foliage and spreading branches. The tree is nourished by the Spring that Doesn’t Age (Bulao Quan 不老泉) and is said to be more than 2,000 years old. One of China’s five most famous ginkgoes, it is 9 meters in circumference and 4.5 meters tall, so it is called the “seven-rake eight-turn tree” (qilou baguai zhang 七楼八拐杖) (symbolizing its long circumference).
On Mount Wangwu is the famous Numinous Capital Temple (Lingdu Guan 灵都观), which was built by Tang Emperor Xuanzong for his younger sister, Princess Yuzhen. The temple’s extant buildings are the Tower of the Jade Emperor and a theater building, which are not the Tang Dynasty originals but buildings from the Qing Dynasty. In the temple are some steles from the Tang to the Yuan dynasties that are still well preserved. One is a carved stone with “A Detailed Record of Princess Yuzhen Being Enlightened on the Altar” inscribed by Emperor Xuanzong in the official script (lishu) style. This stele was made in the second year of Emperor Xuanzong’s Tianbao reign period (AD 743). It features an article composed by the Daoist Cai Wei and inscribed by the official Xiao Cheng. The calligraphy on this stele enjoys the reputation of being the best example of Tang Dynasty running script (xingshu).
Also on Mount Wangwu is the grave of Sun Simiao, the King of Medicine. Sun Simiao was a famous Daoist and doctor in the Tang Dynasty. Although he was from Yaoxian County in Shaanxi Province, he liked to visit famous mountains and great rivers. In his late years, he lived in seclusion on Mount Wangwu, gathering medicinal herbs and practicing medicine, and the local people spoke highly of him.
At the foot of the Heavenly Altar Pinnacle, Mount Wangwu's main peak, sits the Queen Mother of the West's Grotto. The cave is famous as "the First Grotto Heaven" and is also known as the Small Fairyland of Pristine Emptiness. The cave lies at the foot of the Hanging Hairpin Peak (Chuizan Feng 垂簪峰). It is said that the cave may lead to Jasper Lake (where the Queen Mother of the West lives) and that it was where the Queen Mother cultivated herself. About one li (half a kilometer) west of the cave is an isolated peak called Numinous Mountain (Ling Shan 灵山), which rises abruptly. Seven natural caves stretch around and halfway up the mountain. They intersect with each other and link up to form nine junctions and six natural stone gates. Since one cave lies inside another or links with another one, all crisscrossing like streets and lanes, this outstanding Chinese cave landscape is commonly known as the "48 streets." It is warm in winter and cool in summer inside the caves. They are also well ventilated and lit, so Daoists have always used them as places where they can live in seclusion.