- Stairway to Heaven: A Journey to the Summit of Mount Emei
An increasingly common approach to the study of Chinese religion is to explore local manifestations of discrete beliefs, traditions, and practices. Close attention to specific sites or localized manifestations of religiosity facilitates the unearthing of germane data and the development of fresh perspectives, thereby adding nuance and texture to our understating of the intricacy and richness of religious life in traditional (and modern) China. When properly contextualized, localized studies nicely supplement the many works that reflect a traditional focus on classical texts, paradigmatic thinkers, and mainstream schools of thought or practice, typically subsumed into one of the three main religious traditions in China, namely Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism. Within that context, especially fertile topics of study are the various mountains with rich religious associations and close links to Buddhism or Daoism, or sometimes a combination of both.
Within the context of Chinese Buddhism, especially noteworthy are the four major Buddhist mountains, which over successive dynastic epochs grew into important pilgrimage sites, thriving centers of cultic activity, and key points in the sacred geography of China. The four Buddhist mountains are strategically located in different parts of China, and each is associated with a popular bodhisattva: Mt. Wutai 五台山 (in Shanxi) with Wenshu 文殊 (Mañjuśrī), Mt. Putuo 普陀山 (off the coast of Zhejiang) with Guanyin 觀音 (Avalokiteśvara), Mt. Jiuhua 九華山 (in Anhui) with Dizang 地藏 (Kṣitigarbha), and Mt. Emei 峨嵋山 (in Sichuan) with Puxian 普賢 (Samantabhadra). James Hargett’s informative and well-researched book is a comprehensive study of the history and position in Chinese culture of the last of these important mountains.
With its breathtaking scenery, longstanding and illustrious history, and copious presence in Chinese literature, Emei has exerted a notable impact on the popular Chinese imagination. The mountain has elicited—and still continues to bring out—an array of responses and sentiments, both religious and secular. The book provides a wealth of materials that document the multifaceted developments that facilitated Emei’s gradual emergence as a famous mountains and a place renown for its sublime beauty—including its early reputation as an abode of Daoist immortals and its evocations by famous poets and writers—and details its rich history as a Buddhist pilgrimage site. Thorough his account of Emei’s history, the author contextualizes the intricate patterns of human interactions with the mountain. He also relates the growth of its iconic image, with its peculiar physical features and assorted properties, that secured its exceptional place in traditional Chinese culture. [End Page 101]
In the introduction, the author informs us of his decision to structure the book as a guided journey on the mountain, from the monastery at its foothills up to its summit. This approach is adopted by him with the expressed intent of involving the reader and making the narrative more interesting. Instead of presenting himself as a guide, Hargett uses a travelogue written by Fan Chengda 范成大 (1126–1193), the noted Song dynasty (960–1279) literatus and official. Fan’s descriptions of his visit to Emei in 1177, along with the reflections on his experiences there—expressed by means of prose and poetry—are accompanied by the author’s extensive background information and commentary. I am not sure if that is the best way to structure the books as a whole; at any rate, Hargett uses Fan’s travel narrative with mixed results.
To begin with, the basic structure articulated by the author is not really applied to the whole book, but only to chapters 3–6, which constitute less than half of the text. Moreover, in these chapters the combination of travelogue with commentary is not used with equal success. On occasions, they work pretty well together (e.g., chap. 6); at other places, however, the narrative flow is interrupted as the travelogue disappears for long stretches, and the reader faces page upon page of general or tedious historical detail and background information. For instance, after citing a passage in which Fan...