How God tested temple in the sky
Quake broke mountain-top, but shrine clung on
By THANE BURNETT, TORONTO SUN
Mon, June 16, 2008
QINGCHENG SHAN, China — Reaching the now forbidden Taoist temple, which teeters uneasily on the mountain, takes only the will of an optimistic Master.
For the past 1,800 years, the mystical and high retreat has perhaps been the most famous spiritual centre in China. For the earliest followers of Tao — who believe in a connection between people and nature — the city-like collection of palaces, temples and a meditation cave was considered the fifth most famous mountain under the sun. Now, it’s very peak is broken.
The May 12 earthquake that struck the Sichuan region not only became history, it tried hard to erase some of the most important symbols of China’s celebrated past. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than 1,280 metres up the mountain, in what’s known as the Master’s own temple on top of Qingcheng Shan. The quake cracked the peak of the mountain, cutting through the old temple of Laojun Ge. The building clung stubbornly to the mountain, but now suffers a 25-degree list.
As China mourns the dead and missing, it’s said here that they also cry for Laojun Ge’s current distress.
Taoist faithful, and the tourists who come to the complex, are now prevented from trying to ascend the slippery steps to the Master’s upper domain. In fact, a newer trail has also dangerously fallen away in places.
No journalist has been up to see it since the mountain tried to break in two. Which is why we’ve come here.
To be permitted to reach what’s left of one of the most revered temples on Earth, one must ask permission from the Master herself.
Mingqing Zhang is a small woman, somewhere in her 50s, who watches over the birthplace of Taoism with gentle eyes and a forceful voice which is obeyed without question by more than 200 followers.
We meet in the great open Hall of the God of Wealth, tucked in one of the lower temples. A light misting rain makes nearby incense, sticking up from pots of ancient ash, hiss slightly. A gong sends a prayer ricocheting from the old stone walls around her.
Her blue robe, thanks to a trick of the light, makes her seem like she’s gliding more than slowly walking.
A dragon and a tiger — at least their mystical symbols — guard her gate, just outside.
A nearby vase of flowers didn’t even move during the quake, she explains. Some parts of the roof were broken, but that’s about all down here. But far up there, she continues, there was a more brutal struggle between what man had made and what nature decided.
“God gave us a test,” she explains.
They have passed the test, and so has China, the Master decided. To understand what all that means, our climb to the top of their world seems right, she says. Though she’ll stay at the bottom, and wait for our return at dusk.
We leave her and begin to move upward, from one temple to another — linked by modern steps. An hour later, we are sweating at the last temple before the final stretch to the Master’s desecrated home above.
Priests and guards meet us at the mid-way point. And while their dominion has the ornate, postcard trappings of an ancient philosophical and religious sanctuary — watched over by a 2,000 year old gingko tree — most of its occupants are busy watching a television variety show, piped into the main courtyard from a small satellite dish which rests near an altar.
From here, we have to take the old route up, using a ladder of tiny mossy steps which at points teeters over the edge of the valley below. Birds, hidden in the plum and palm trees, announce our arrival. In places, the steps are reduced to ancient gravel.
Higher and higher — one switchback leading to another against the steep wall of Qingcheng Shan. Then, at the top, what remains of Laojun Ge is opened wide for our eyes alone.
Entire sections of a lower house have been ripped away. A crooked gash breaks the mountain and runs under the temple, making it seem like it could simply slide off into the deep valley, far below. The only things untouched seem to be thousands of locks, left in the hope of binding bad luck during the birth of a child or a marriage.
All that bad luck suddenly poured out on May 12. Statues have been assaulted. Holy books tossed into debris.
But two red candles burn in a large holder.
Laojun Ge itself — a tall reddish building that pokes up and can be seen from the valley below — is a no-man’s land. It’s held in place by its own weight and threads of the strained mountain peak.
We are only allowed ten minutes at its door — our guides staying below.
It will take hours to get down to the bottom, where Master Mingqing Zhang waits with green tea and plates of noodles.
She believes in the hand of fate, she explains as we sit together in the growing dark. How their highest temple could be reborn is still a mystery to her, though.
But tell Canadians a good story of survival, not just destruction, she asks. The temple still clings to the peak, and they to their past.
Nothing on Earth has ever been able to destroy the things Taoist masters before .
And she insists, nothing that happens below the surface now can ever break that Chinese will.