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Stairway to Heaven

A Journey to the Summit of Mount Emei

James M. Hargett

Publication Year: 2006

Located in a remote area of modern Sichuan province, Mount Emei is one of China’s most famous mountains and has long been important to Buddhists. Stairway to Heaven looks at Emei’s significance in Chinese history and literature while also addressing the issue of “sense of place” in Chinese culture. Mount Emei’s exquisite scenery and unique geographical features have inspired countless poets, writers, and artists. Since the early years of the Song dynasty (960–1279), Emei has been best known as a site of Buddhist pilgrimage and worship. Today, several Buddhist temples still function on Emei, but the mountain also has become a scenic tourist destination, attracting more than a million visitors annually. Author James M. Hargett takes readers on a journey to the mountain through the travel writings of the twelfth-century writer and official Fan Chengda (1126–1193). Fan’s diary and verse accounts of his climb to the summit of Mount Emei in 1177 are still among the most informative accounts of the mountain ever written. Through Fan’s eyes, words, and footsteps—and with background information and commentary from Hargett—the reader will experience some of the ways Emei has been “constructed” by diverse human experience over the centuries.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xiii

This is a study about a famous mountain in southwest China called “Emei” (pronounced “Uh-may”; sometimes spelled “Omei”). Although few people in America and Europe have ever heard of Mount Emei, its reputation in East Asia is legendary. The landscape on Emei is spectacular and breath-taking, which is one reason that human activity on and around the ...


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pp. xv-xvii

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1. Introduction

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pp. 1-19

Since first conceiving the idea to write a book about Mount Emei, I have been concerned about the context in which to present such a study. There are certainly enough primary and secondary sources available to produce a general history of the mountain organized along chronological or dynastic lines. I also considered adopting a framework that would present...

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2. Land of Shu

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pp. 21-43

Sichuan is China’s second largest province in land area. Comprising 487,000 sq km/301,940 sq mi, it is roughly the size of France. As for population, today it ranks third with 86.5 million people.² The heartland of the province comprises a fertile, low-lying basin. The alluvial farmland in this area, sustained by a warm, moist, central-tropical climate and...

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3. A Journey of Ten Thousand Miles

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pp. 45-60

When Fan Chengda arrived in Chengdu in the summer of 1175 to assume his new official post, the city already had a history of about fifteen hundred years. Since its founding around the fourth century BC, Chengdu has served as the cultural, commercial, and transportation center of southwest China. In Han times, the city hosted about half a million...

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4. Within Sight of Mount Emei

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pp. 61-88

When Fan Chengda stepped off his boat in Jiazhou on July 14, 1177, he had reached the principal government administrative center near Emei. If the weather was favorable that day he probably saw the lofty peaks of Mount Emei rising in the distance, some twenty-five miles away. Jia county has a long and distinguished history. First, it was close to Emei...

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5. The Ascent

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pp. 89-118

Following the customary itinerary of travelers heading to Mount Emei from Jia county, Fan Chengda now departs for Emei town, some 33 km/20 mi to the west. Those accompanying him include his younger brother Chengji and several friends, along with a staff of porters carrying Fan’s bamboo sedan chair and trunks of personal belongings. The first...

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6. The Summit

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pp. 119-135

Although titled “Luminous Light Monastery,” this poem has nothing to do with the famous temple of that name on the summit of Mount Emei. Instead, after reporting on some of the physical oddities he observed on the summit (snow in mid-summer, deformed trees, and so on), Fan Chengda uses the verse as a vehicle to reflect on his life and career. Now perched...

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7. How and Why Did Mount Emei Become a “Famous Buddhist Mountain”?

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pp. 137-164

Based on the sources we considered in the previous chapter, especially information preserved in the Fozu tongji, it is certain that Mount Emei received substantial amounts of imperial patronage in the late tenth century. The most important result of this support was that the mountain became described almost exclusively in Buddhist terms by writers in the...

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8. The Ming, Qing, Republican, and Modern Eras

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pp. 165-192

In 1236, less than sixty years after Fan Chengda climbed Mount Emei, Mongol troops surrounded and attacked Chengdu. This military operation was part of a general campaign to conquer all of China, beginning in Sichuan and then moving eastward into the heartland of the country. By January 1237 “fifty-four counties in Sichuan had been...

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Closing Thoughts

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pp. 193-198

The magistrate of Emei xian, Zhao Mingsong, writing in his preface to Dryden Linsley Phelps’s Omei Illustrated Guide Book, mentions that he visited Mount Emei twice. In preparation for each ascent the magistrate looked over various “writings of the past.” Here is how he describes his reaction to those...


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pp. 199


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pp. 201-247

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 249-261


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pp. 263-294

E-ISBN-13: 9780791482186
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791466810
Print-ISBN-10: 0791466817

Page Count: 312
Illustrations: 2 maps, 5 figures
Publication Year: 2006