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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

Mongolian pilgrimages to Wutaishan

Isabelle Charleux

Texte intégral

1December 2010

2Wutaishan, otherwise known as the Mountain of the Five Terraces, is situated in the Chinese province of Shanxi. It is home to Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of wisdom for Mahayana Buddhists, and has been attracting Buddhist pilgrims from all over the world for centuries. Since the 13th century, Chinese and Tibetan Buddhists have lived there together. Owing to its proximity to the Great Wall of China and the Mongolian border, Wutaishan and its sacred peaks have fast become a cosmopolitan meeting place for people from Tibet, Mongolia and the Han and Manchuria regions. During the Republican era, Wutaishan was a sure place to find Tibetan Gelpugpa Buddhists and Chinese Buddhists deep in conversation with one another. Today, Wutaishan has become one of the most active centres for Buddhists in China, with over a hundred monasteries that have either been preserved or rebuilt over the years. Wutaishan receives generous donations not only from China, but also from countries such as Korea, Japan and Nepal. In 2009, it became a UNESCO world heritage site and today continues to attract tourists, pilgrims, hikers and Buddhists on retreat.

3Thousands of Mongolian pilgrims came to Wutaishan each summer, particularly towards the end of the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century. Although there does not appear to be any written account of this, over 340 stelae in Mongolia commemorate the donations made by these pilgrims. The stelae, which remain standing in the monasteries, have not yet been studied or transcribed. In preparation for writing a book about the pilgrimages made by the Mongolians, I have created a database of the stone inscriptions, with the names of those who donated and where they had come from, including the amount donated, the type of donation and the date that the donation took place. These stelae also provide us with information on specific rituals, requested by the pilgrims and their expectations. The inscriptions also show that although Mongolians financed the Tibetan monasteries predominantly, large sums of money, statues and land were also donated to the great Chinese monasteries.

4Chinese pilgrims, scholars, visiting foreign dignitaries and travellers from the West (particularly from Russia), marvelled at the exotic nature of Wutaishan. They wrote about the generosity of the Mongolians, who donated jewellery, money and livestock to the monasteries. They described lines of camels owned by aristocrats, women with elaborate hairstyles, and penitents bowing in prayer. Many Mongolians were known to have carried the bones and ashes of their dead parents to Wutaishan in order for them to be buried under sacred soil. Mongolian cemeteries can also be seen on the slopes of the mountain.

5In addition to its numerous monasteries (25 of which were Tibetan Gelugpa monasteries, whilst approximately a hundred were traditional Chinese monasteries by the 19th century), Wutaishan boasts over a hundred sacred natural sites. These sacred places include a host of mysterious caves, springs and pools said to be full of water with healing properties, and strangely shaped trees and stones. The history of the monasteries and tales of its legends are passed on by word of mouth and pilgrimage guides, which advise pilgrims on the sites to visit. These are sites, made holy by the relics of the Buddha, Shakyamuni, Manjushri and a number of saints, or by sacred artefacts such as miraculous icons, which were not made by man, or the Buddha’s footprints in stone. What the pilgrims are particularly hoping to see, however, are the strange and luminous phenomena sometimes seen from the peaks or apparitions of Manjushri among the clouds. Many stories have been told about pilgrims who had became lost on the mountain, being led to safety by an enigmatic old monk, a young girl or even a fox; reincarnations of none other than Mansjushri. Today, the Mongolians and the Chinese come to Wutaishan to pray to the Dragon King, a guardian of the places where Manjushri appeared in the past, and also helper of pilgrims lost or in difficulty. Wutaishan is home to sacred relics, sites, miraculous icons, scriptures and temples; all of which contribute to the mountain’s role as a sacred centre. It is the pilgrims themselves, however, who make Wutaishan a place for pilgrimage.

6Numerous questions regarding Wutaishan have become a subject of debate, such as why and how Wutaishan has become the main pilgrimage site for Mongolian Buddhists. In David Farquhar’s thesis (“Emperor as Bodhisattva in the Governance of the Ch’ing Empire,” in 1978), it is suggested that the Mongolians pilgrimages to Wutaishan originated in the 17th and 18th century, after having seen the same journey being made by the Manchus. There does not seem to be sufficient evidence to support this theory. In fact, Mongolian Buddhists fiercely devoted to Manjushri, had even expressed an interest in Wutaishan well before the rise of the Manchu dynasty. Yet, it was not until the 19th century that the pilgrimage to Wutaishan almost became obligatory for all true Buddhists. From the 1840s, having lost the financial support of the Manchurians in the midst of an economic crisis, the monasteries became extremely concerned about their lack of funding. To combat this, monks would set off on expeditions travelling from yurt to yurt all over Mongolia as far as Buryatia, in order to collect donations. The monks would return to Wutaishan laden with gold and silver, carried by herds of livestock, offered to them also by the Mongolians. In return for their generous donations, certain agreements would be made with a particular monastery. A warm welcome would be given to those who had, in turn, previously donated to the monastery. For example, if the monks heard news of any royals wishing to visit Wutaishan, they would travel to the border to greet them personally and accompany them on their visit. In doing so, this took care of many problems otherwise encountered by those who wished to pay homage to the mountain. For an ordinary pilgrim, monk or traveller, in addition to those who came on horseback, bringing with them livestock to offer, their journey to the monasteries was a different story. These people inevitably became easy targets for Chinese merchants. In 200 km separating Wutaishan from the Mongolian border, places to sleep and eat would charge astronomical amounts of money.

7Wutaishan, like most pilgrimage sites around the world, was also an important economic centre for the region. Mongolians would come every year to sell their horses, mules and cattle to buyers from all over the north of China. Livestock, fattened up by grazing on the rich mountain pastures during summer, would be sold for high prices and made all the more expensive by the fact that these cattle had grazed upon sacred ground. Far from being remote, Wutaishan became an important meeting place for monks, pilgrims and businessmen, but also for members of high society and emperors. In winter, however, temperatures would plummet and the snow, leaving monks and villagers isolated, would cut off mountain passages.

8Being a pilgrimage site for various nationalities and for different communities of monks, Wutaishan has witnessed conflicts, tension and attempts of ownership (for example, when the Puji school of monks tried to lay their claims on ancient Tibetan monasteries at the end of the Qing dynasty). Despite this, Wutaishan has also been a place of sharing, tolerance and exchange. The very same Wutaishan has also witnessed the traditional Gelpugpa Han Buddhism flourish during the 20th century. With all of this in mind, can we really speak of communitas, to quote Victor Turner, whereby a sense of unity is experienced by all those taking part in the pilgrimage; from the Mongolians to the Chinese and Tibetan pilgrims, from aristocrats to farmers and from religious leaders to penniless monks?

9Did the Mongolian, Tibetan and Chinese pilgrims all make the same pilgrimage? For the period that we are interested in, the stone inscriptions, the pilgrimages made today and memories from elderly Mongolians have all helped to shed light on the matter at hand. All pilgrims came to Wutaishan for similar reasons. For Buddhists, this pilgrimage is made to gain merit for both themselves and their deceased relatives, in the hope that they will have a better reincarnation and in a pure land, if possible. For others, the pilgrimage to Wutaishan has been made for prosperity, good fortune or for more specific reasons, such as atonement for sins committed, recovery from illness (either for the individual making the pilgrimage or for a loved one), or for the birth of a male heir. Some come to the mountain to ask for favours whilst others make an offering. Both Mongolian and Chinese pilgrims used to – and often still do – spend the whole journey in prostration, begging along the way, taking several years to complete the pilgrimage. Differences can be seen in terms of their dress, religious customs, and the way in which they organise the pilgrimage, the places visited and popular rituals. One such ritual involved Mongolian pilgrims weaving their way through a “matrix of caves”. Furthermore, I am looking to understand how ordinary Mongolian pilgrims adopted and transformed the pilgrimage, and how their practices were brought to Wutaishan.

10Since the 1990s, Mongolians from China have once again started to make their way to the mountain, but find themselves lost in a sea of Chinese visitors. The presence of Mongolian stelae and cemeteries remain a testament to the important role that Wutaishan has played, and still plays, in Mongolian Buddhist culture.


Centre national de la recherche scientifique

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