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  • Power of Place: The Religious Landscape of the Southern Sacred Peak (Nanyue 南嶽) in Medieval China
  • Michael Saso (bio)
James Robson. Power of Place: The Religious Landscape of the Southern Sacred Peak (Nanyue 南嶽) in Medieval China. Harvard East Asian Monographs 316. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2009. xx, 506 pp. Hardcover $90.00, isbn 978-0-674-03332-0.

This text contains descriptions and illustrations of the Southern Sacred Peak, Nanyue, and other locations classified under the Nanyue (Southern Peak) name. Robson uses a wealth of Confucian, Buddhist, and Daoist sources for identifying the Five Sacred Peaks. Sources include the Zhou dynasty Shang Shu, the Zhou Li (redacted in the Han dynasty), and the Han dynasty (206 b.c.e. to 200 c.e.) composition Shanhai Jing 山海經 from the pre-Tang and Tang dynasty (618–906) Buddhist canon, and Daoist canonical texts from the Ming dynasty Zhengtong edition, 1436–1445 (compiled from earlier sources).

This splendid, groundbreaking study contains a wealth of historical and textual references. It shows that a single religious or spiritual cultivation resource does not suffice in order to understand the full significance of the Five Sacred Peaks as they have been explained in Western sources up to the present, which have been limited by a single disciplinary approach to a wealth of cultural and internal cultivation materials. The profundity of James Robson's years of painstaking research must be read and thoroughly digested to understand fully his careful description of the complicated process involved in writing dynastic and local histories, which include imperial, scholarly, religious, as well as Confucian political interests involved in naming and identifying China's Sacred Peaks (chapter 1).

The actual position of Nanyue (the Southern Sacred Peak) differed during various periods of Chinese history for Daoist, Buddhist, Confucian, and imperial convenience. The earliest reference, from the Shi Jing Book of Odes, in the Mao Heng commentary (dates uncertain, ca. 3–2 b.c.e.), names only four peaks: Mount Dai (Tai) 岱 in the east, southern Mount Heng 南岳橫, western Mount Hua 西嶽 [End Page 562] 華, and northern Mount Heng 北岳恆. The name of the fifth, Central Peak, appears in texts influenced by the Yinyang Five Element Cosmology, especially those texts influenced by the early Han dynasty New Text school. The various place names given to the location of the Southern Sacred Peak were sometimes decided according to the whims of emperors, who sought a spatially or politically convenient place to offer worship. The Han dynasty redacted Book of Rites required that emperors worshipped at each of the five sacred peaks. The addition of Mount Song, the zhongyue 中岳嵩 central peak, was added to ensure that the imperial rule would last forever. Worshiping at the five peaks was believed to correspond to the cycling of the five elements/spirit protectors over a twelve-month period. Worshiping at the peaks would ensure the protection of the spirits for an everlasting rule. (The Mingtang altar was erected within the imperial courtyard so that the emperor could perform the annual worship at home, in the palace, without the need to travel continually throughout China. See chapter 2, "Moving Mountains.")

The first part of the study ends with a discussion, in chapter 3, on how the Southern Peak was seen in literary, religious, and popular devotional sources. It was visited by the great emperors and rulers of the past, including China's first three mythical rulers: Yao, Shun, and Yu the Great (China's Noah, who stopped the floods by sacred dance, instead of building an ark). Part 2 of Robson's work contains the most colorful and (for the reviewer) interesting and useful accounts of Heng Shan's image from Daoist and Buddhist sources. All of the great Daoists, men and women, as well as Buddhist masters, from the North-South period through the Tang dynasty, are commemorated in shrines found within the huge mountain complex that comprises the Southern Peak today.

Among the most important of these enshrinements are: (1) Xi Wang Mu 西王 母, the mythical goddess of Mt. Kunlun in western China; (2) the historically real woman Daoist Wei Huacun 魏華存, to whom is attributed the founding of Mao Shan Shang Qing 上清 "Highest Purity" contemplative Daoism (chapter 6...