Mount Zhongnan

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The Purple-Cloud-from-the-East Lookout Tower (Ziqidonglai Louguantai 紫气东来楼观台) is at the foot of Mount Zhongnan (Zhongnan Shan 终南山), 25 km southeast of Zhouzhi County town in Shaanxi Province.

Mount Zhongnan (终南) is also known as Mount Taiyi, Mount Difei, Mount Zhongnan (中南) and Mount Zhounan and is known for short as Mount Nanshan or the Southern Mountain. It is part of the Qinling Mountains, the Zhongshan section starting in Wugong County in the west and reaching Lantian County in the east. Mount Zhongshan’s green peaks rise higher and higher and its secluded and beautiful views have earned it such accolades as “capital of the immortals,” the “best grotto heaven,” and the “first blissful realm under heaven.” Its main peak, in Zhouzhi County, is 2,604 m above sea level.

Mount Zhongnan is one of the birthplaces of Daoism. Legend has it that, during the reign of King Kang of Zhou (1046-221 BC), the astrologist Yin Xi, who was the Hangu Pass keeper, built a straw tower on Mount Zhongnan to observe the constellations and clouds every day. One day, he suddenly caught sight of a purple cloud coming from the east and an auspicious star moving west. He had a sense of foreboding that a sage would travel through the pass, so he waited there. Soon after came an old man wearing colorful clothes and riding a black ox. It was Lao Zi, who was traveling west through Shaanxi. Yin Xi quickly invited Lao Zi to the tower, saluted the sage and asked him to expound on the scriptures and to write a book. Lao Zi lectured him on the 5,000-word Dao de jing (Tao Te Ching, or Classic of the Way and Virtue) on the high hillock to the south of the tower, and then floated off. It is said that Lao Zi expounded on Daoist texts on the Lookout Tower’s Platform for Expounding Scripture. After Daoism came into being, Lao Zi was worshiped as its founder, Yin Xi as Perfect Man Wenshi and the Dao de jing as a cardinal classic text.

After Yin Xi established the Lookout Tower, various buildings were built on Mount Zhongnan during different dynasties, finally leading to the formation of a whole group of buildings centering on the Platform for Expounding Scripture.

The Platform for Expounding Scripture has four major halls – the Lao Zi Temple, the Hall of the Big Dipper, the Hall of Salvation from Misery, and the Hall of the Divine General. A carved stone dragon-head tap in the Highest Good Pond (Shangshan Chi 上善池), the spring-water pond not far west of the gate, pours out water all year round. Legend has it that in 1283, during the second year of the Zhiyuan reign period of the Yuan Dynasty, an incurable pestilence attacked the Zhouzhi area, killing numerous people. Zhang Zhijian, the Lookout Tower’s supervisor, heard the words of the Supreme Master in a dream one night: “I have made pills and hidden them in the spring under the stone plate in front of the monastery gate. The spring can cure people of the disease.” Supervisor Zhang ordered young Daoists to look for the pills in front of the gate and, as expected, they dug out a spring under the stone plate to the west. People from far and near eventually had their illness cured with the water. On his surprise at hearing this story during a visit, Zhao Mengfu, a member of the Imperial Academy, asked for paper and a writing brush to write the pond’s name in three large Chinese characters, taking the name from the line “The highest good is like that of water” (shang shan ruo shui 上善若水) found in the Dao Te Ching (Chapter 8). Nowadays, pilgrims still strive during each temple fair to drink the water to eliminate disease and prolong life.

It is said that the Eight Trigrams-shaped elixir oven on the lofty peak south of the Platform for Expounding Scripture was used by Lao Zi to make immortality pills. He used to forge iron and temper it in the Revering Heaven Pool southeast of the platform. Qizhen Pavilion (Qizhen Ting 栖真亭) close to the pond is where the sage nourished his true nature. Lao Zi lectured his disciple Xu Jia at the Transforming Woman Spring (Huanü Quan 化女泉) to the west of the platform. Legend has it that, on his journey west, Lao Zi used magic to transform a skeleton into a handsome young man called Xu Jia. After reaching Hangu Pass, Lao Zi transformed sweet grass into a beautiful lady to test Xu Jia. Failing to resist the temptation, Xu Jia was about to act when the sage pointed at him and turned Xu Jia back into a skeleton. Luckily, Yin Xi interceded on behalf of Xu Jia. Lao Zi transformed the bones into Xu Jia again and angrily touched the ground with his walking stick. The beauty then turned into a clear spring, whose water can still be drunk today.

The ruins of the Ancestral Sage Palace (Zongsheng Gong 宗圣宫) are situated one kilometer north of the Platform for Expounding Scripture. When one looks at the ruins from the platform, the first things to greet one’s eyes are nine luxuriant and hardy thousand-year-old cypresses, which local people respectfully call the “nine venerable trees of the Lookout Tower.” The tree to which Lao Zi tied his ox is called the “cypress for tying up the ox” and underneath there is a carved stone ox from the Yuan Dynasty.

Quite a few valuable inscriptions have been collected in the tower, such as “Tablet Records of the Ancestral Sage Palace of the Great Tang Dynasty” written by Ouyang Xun, and “The First Mountain” by Mi Fei of the Song Dynasty. Of course, the most famous is the inscription of the Dao de jing on the Liangtong tablet, whose bold, vigorous and splendid characters look like flowers from a distance, with a style somewhere between that of the inscriptions on drum-shaped stone blocks from the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) and the ancient dazhuan greater seal script current in the Zhou Dynasty (circa 1100-221 BC). Later generations called the tablet the “tablet of the plum-blossom seal characters.” The seven rarely used characters on each side of the tablet, which are not recorded in common dictionaries, are said to form the Supreme Master’s 14-character formula for health preservation and to mean: “The medicine for prolonging life is extracted from the jade oven; the pills for lengthening one’s life are made in the correct way.”

According to ancients, “Mount Zhongnan is the most beautiful of the 120 rivers and mountains in the Central Shaanxi Plain, while the Lookout Tower is the best scenic spot on the thousand-li Mount Zhongnan covered by downy greenery.” The Lookout Tower has attracted a lot of believers and visitors from ancient to modern times with its long Daoist history, moving fairy stories and legends, and numerous ruins.