A SACRED MOUNTAIN
By G. Lowes Dickinson
A SACRED MOUNTAIN, from Appearances: Being Notes of Travel, by G. Lowes Dickinson, published by G. Allen.
Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson （1862-1932）, English philosopher who spent a lifetime as fellow at King’s College, Cambridge University. Dickinson rose to international fame with his Letters from a Chinese Offcial: Being an Eastern View of Western Civilization（1901）. He called himself a socialist in that he was moved by a profound dislike of the existing social disorder, but he looks rather to the past than to the future, to things of the spirit rather than to continued material progress. The views of such a man upon the Orient was certain to be sympathetic and penetrating; sent thither by the trustees of the Albert Kahn Traveling Fellowships, he made a striking brief report upon the spiritual and cultural estates of India, China, and Japan in An Essay on the Civilizations of India, China, and Japan.
It was midnight when the train set us down at Taianfu. The moon was full. We passed across fields, through deserted alleys where sleepers lay naked on the ground, under a great gate in a great wall, by halls and pavilions, by shimmering, tree-shadowed spaces, up and down steps, and into a court where cypresses grew. We set up our beds in a veranda, and woke to see leaves against the morning sky. We explored the vast temple and its monuments—iron vessels of the T‘ang age, a great tablet of the Sungs, trees said to date from before the Christian era, stones inscribed with drawings of these by the Emperor Chien Lung, hall after hall, court after court, ruinous, overgrown, and the great crumbling walls and gates and towers. Then in the afternoon we began the ascent of Tai Shan, the most sacred mountain in China, the most frequented, perhaps, in the world. There, according to tradition, legendary emperors worshiped God. Confucius climbed it six centuries before Christ, and sighed, we are told, to find his native state so small. The great Chin Shih Huang was there in the third century B. C. Chien Lung in the eighteenth century covered it with inscriptions. And millions of humble pilgrims for thirty centuries at least have toiled up the steep and narrow way. Steep it is, for it makes no detours, but follows straight up the bed of a stream, and the greater part of the five thousand feet is ascended by stone steps. A great ladder of eighteen flights climbs the last ravine, and to see it from below, sinuously mounting the precipitous face to the great arch that leads on to the summit, is enough to daunt the most ardent walker. We at least were glad to be chaired some part of the way. A wonderful way! On the lower slopes it passes from portal to portal, from temple to temple. Meadows shaded with aspen and willow border the stream as it falls from green pool to green pool. Higher up are scattered pines. Else the rocks are bare—bare, but very beautiful, with that significance of form which I have found everywhere in the mountains of China.
To such beauty the Chinese are peculiarly sensitve. All the way up, the rocks are carved with inscriptions recording the charm and the sanctity of the place. Some of them were written by emperors; many, especially, by Chien Lung, the great patron of art in the eighteenth century. They are models, one is told, of calligraphy as well as of literary composition. Indeed, according to Chinese standards, they could not be the one without the other. The very names of the favorite spots are poems in themselves. One is “the pavilion of the phœnixes”; another “the fountain of the white cranes.” A rock is called “the tower of the quickening spirit”; the gate on the summit is “the portal of the clouds.” More prosaic, but not less charming, is an inscription on a rock in the plain, “the place of the three smiles,” because there some mandarins, meeting to drink and converse, told three peculiarly funny stories. Is not that delightful? It seems so to me. And so peculiarly Chinese!
It was dark before we reached the summit. We put up in the temple that crowns it, dedicated to Yü Huang, the “Jade Emperor” of the Taoists; and his image and those of his attendant deities watched our slumbers. But we did not sleep till we had seen the moon rise, a great orange disk, straight from the plain, and swiftly mount till she made the river, five thousand feet below, a silver streak in the dim gray levels.
Next morning, at sunrise, we saw that, north and east, range after range of lower hills stretched to the horizon, while south lay the plain, with half a hundred streams gleaming down to the river from the valleys. Full in view was the hill where, more than a thousand years ago, the great T‘ang poet Li Tai-p‘o retired with five companions to drink and make verses. They are still known to tradition as the “six idlers of the bamboo grove”; and the morning sun, I half thought, still shines upon their symposium. We spent the day on the mountain; and as the hours passed by, more and more it showed itself to be a sacred place. Sacred to what god? No question is harder to answer of any sacred place, for there are as many ideas of the god as there are worshipers. There are temples here to various gods: to the mountain himself; to the Lady of the mountain, Pi Hsia-yüen, who is at once the Venus of Lucretius—“goddess of procreation, gold as the clouds, blue as the sky,” one inscription calls her—and the kindly mother who gives children to women and heals the little ones of their ailments; to the Great Bear; to the Green Emperor, who clothes the trees with leaves; to the Cloud-compeller; to many others. And in all this, is there no room for God? It is a poor imagination that would think so. When men worship the mountain, do they worship a rock, or the spirit of the place, or the spirit that has no place? It is the latter, we may be sure, that some men adored, standing at sunrise on this spot. And the Jade Emperor—is he a mere idol? In the temple where we slept were three inscriptions set up by the Emperor Chien Lung. They run as follows:
“Without labor, O Lord, Thou bringest forth the greatest things.”
“Thou leadest Thy company of spirits to guard the whole world.”
“In the company of Thy spirits Thou art wise as a mighty Lord to achieve great works.”
These might be sentences from the Psalms; they are as religious as anything Hebraic. And if it be retorted that the mass of the worshipers on Tai Shan are superstitious, so are, and always have been, the mass of worshipers anywhere. Those who rise to religion in any country are few. India, I suspect, is the great exception. But I do not know that they are fewer in China than elsewhere. For that form of religion, indeed, which consists in the worship of natural beauty and what lies behind it—for the religion of a Wordsworth—they seem to be preëminently gifted. The cult of this mountain, and of the many others like it in China, the choice of sites for temples and monasteries, the inscriptions, the little pavilions set up where the view is loveliest—all go to prove this. In England we have lovelier hills, perhaps, than any in China. But where is our sacred mountain? Where, in all the country, the charming mythology which once in Greece and Italy, as now in China, was the outward expression of the love of nature?
“Great God, I’d rather be
A pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, Standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn.”
That passionate cry of a poet born into a naked world would never have been wrung from him had he been born in China.
And that leads me to one closing reflection. When lovers of China—“pro-Chinese,” as they are contemptuously called in the East—assert that China is more civilized than the modern West, even the candid Westerner, who is imperfectly acquainted with the facts, is apt to suspect insincere paradox. Perhaps these few notes on Tai Shan may help to make the matter clearer. A people that can so consecrate a place of natural beauty is a people of fine feeling for the essential values of life. That they should also be dirty, disorganized, corrupt, incompetent, even if it were true—and it is far from being true in any unqualified sense—would be irrelevant to this issue. On a foundation of inadequate material prosperity they reared, centuries ago, the superstructure of a great culture. The West, in rebuilding its foundations, has gone far to destroy the superstructure. Western civilization, wherever it penetrates, brings with it water-taps, sewers, and police;but it brings also an ugliness, an insincerity, a vulgarity never before known to history, unless it be under the Roman Empire. It is terrible to see in China the first wave of this Western flood flinging along the coasts and rivers and railway lines its scrofulous foam of advertisements, of corrugated iron roofs, of vulgar, meaningless architectural form. In China, as in all old civilizations I have seen, all the building harmonizes with and adorns nature. In the West everything now built is a blot. Many men, I know, sincerely think that this destruction of beauty is a small matter, and that only decadent æsthetes would pay any attention to it in a world so much in need of sewers and hospitals. I believe this view to be profoundly mistaken. The ugliness of the West is a symptom of disease of the soul. It implies that the end has been lost sight of in the means. In China the opposite is the case. The end is clear, though the means be inadequate. Consider what the Chinese have done to Tai Shan, and what the West will shortly do, once the stream of Western tourists begins to flow strongly. Where the Chinese have constructed a winding stairway of stone, beautiful from all points of view, Europeans or Americans will run up a funicular railway, a staring scar that will never heal. Where the Chinese have written poems in exquisite calligraphy, they will cover the rocks with advertisements. Where the Chinese have built a series of temples, each so designed and placed so as to be a new beauty in the landscape, they will run up restaurants and hotels like so many scabs on the face of nature. I say with confidence that they will, because they have done it wherever there is any chance of a paying investment. Well, the Chinese need, I agree, our science, our organization, our medicine. But is it affectation to think they may have to pay too high a price for it, and to suggest that in acquiring our material advantages they may lose what we have gone near to lose, that fine and sensitive culture which is one of the forms of spiritual life? The West talks of civilizing China. Would that China could civilize the West!
Taianfu， 泰安府，山东省，a city in Shantung Province, at the foot of Tai Shan（泰山）, the sacred mountain.
alleys, very narrow streets.
shimmering, trembling, quivering, or faint, diffused light.
court, or courtyard, a space inclosed by walls or buildings; quadrangle.
cypresses， 柏树，straight, coniferous tree with shuttle-shaped mass of dark foliage. In the West, cypresses are usually associated with graves;in our country they grow in temples or around graves.
veranda, open portico or colonnade along the side of a house with roof supported on pillars.
T‘ang age， 唐朝，the golden age of Chinese literature and art, under the rule of the T‘ang dynasty （618-907）.
the Sungs， 宋朝，a later dynasty （960-1126）, note for its philosophers.
before the Christian era, before the birth of Jesus Christ; any time before Christ, B.C.
Chien Lung， 乾隆（1736-1796）, perhaps the most illustrious of the emperors of the Ching dynasty （清朝，1644-1911）. Chien Lung was a great patron of the arts; he himself wrote a vigorous calligraphy.
legendary emperors, emperors who are famous or exist only in legends.
his native state, the province in which he was born, Shantung.
Chin Shih Huang， 秦始皇，the founder of the Chin dynasty （246-206 B.C.）.
pilgrims, persons who journey to sacred places as an act of devotion.
detours, roundabout ways; roads that depart from and then rejoin the direct route.
bed of a stream, bottom of a stream; the ground over which a stream flows.
ravine, deep, narrow gorge; deep, narrow opening between hills; a depression in the ground worn out by running water, larger than a gully and smaller than a valley.
sinuously mounting, going upward in winding curves.
precipitous face, cliff or rock-face that is or looks so steep that one could fall headlong from top to bottom.
daunt, frighten into giving up his purpose.
to be chaired, to be carried in sedan chairs.
aspen， 摇白杨树，trees of the poplar family with tremulous leaves.
border, be a border or edge to.
significance of form, expressiveness of form; form that is very significant or expressive.
sanctity, sacredness or saintliness.
calligraphy, beautiful handwriting.
poems, metrical or beautiful sounding in themselves.
quickening spirit, spirit that animates or inspires.
prosaic, suitable for prose, which is commonplace or dull or unromantic as compared to poetry, so it is commonly assumed.
mandarins, formerly, Chinese offcials.
converse, chat or talk.
crowns, sits on the top of the mountain, just as a crown is on the head of the king.
Taoists， 道教徒，followers of one of the chief religious sects of our country.
disk, circular object.
Li Tai-p‘o， 李太白（701-762）, famous poet of the T‘ang dynasty.
symposium, ancient Greek drinking party, now more commonly used to denote a philosophical or other friendly discussion.
Pi Hsia-yüen， 碧霞云．
the Great Bear， 北斗，Ursa Major, the Dipper, a northern constellation of stars seven in number, two of which point to the Pole Star.
Psalms, a book of the Old Testament of the Bible, often called the Psalms of David, because they are the songs chanted by King David in praise of his God.
Hebraic is the adjective of the noun Hebrew, Jew. Hebraic here refers to the religion of the Jewish people, to the Holy Bible of the Christians, which is a history of the aspirations of the Jewish people. King David, author of the Psalms, Jesus, all the people of the Bible are Hebrews.
retorted, said by way of answer.
Wordsworth, William （1770-1850）, English romantic poet, worshiper of Nature.
cult, study and pursuit of worship.
mythology, body of myths or primitive tales imaginatively describing or accounting for natural phenomena, especially by personification.
suckled,fed from the breast or udder. A pagan is a person who does not acknowledge Jehovah, Christ, nor Allah. The poet says that he would much rather be a pagan brought up in a religious creed that is out of fashion, that is out of date, . . . .
forlorn, forsaken; in pitiful condition.
“pro-Chinese,” a foreigner who favors or sides with the Chinese.
candid, unprejudiced; free from dissimulation or reserve.
insincere paradox. A paradox is a statement that is contrary to the generally accepted opinion, that conflicts with preconceived notions of the reasonable or possible. When Mr. Dickinson makes the statement that China is more civilized than the modern West, he states an opinion that seems to be contrary to the generally accepted opinion that China is not as civilized as the modern West. People suspect that he is not sincere when he makes such a statement.
unqualified. You qualify statement by putting limitations to or modifying it. An unqualified sense is a meaning that has not had this limitation or modification put on.
irrelevant, not concerned with the matter in hand; not pertinent to.
superstructure, what rests on a foundation; a building in relation to its foundations.
water-taps, the tubular plug with internal valve by which the flow of water from a pipe can be allowed or checked.
sewers, covered underground drains for carrying off the refuse of houses or towns.
the Roman Empire, established by Augustus （27 B.C.）, divided by Theodosius （A.D. 395） into western and eastern. Western down till 1806.
scrofulous,the adjective of the noun scrofula, a constitutional disease with glandular swellings.
corrugated iron roofs, iron sheetings bent into wavy ridges, used to cover the roofs of buildings, especially buildings for manufacturing and other industrial purposes.
blot, blemish; something that spoils or mars the beauty and perfection.
decadent æsthetes, lovers or appreciators of beauty who cling to theories that are declining or dying.
Western tourists, holiday travelers from the West; Occidental travelers.
funicular railway, railway worked by cable and stationary engine.
advertisement, billboards with pictures and writing painted or printed on, in glaring colors, to advertise a particular kind of goods.
paying investment, a business investment that pays profits in return for the capital that you have put into the project.
affectation, artificial or studied display of modesty.
- How was the way wonderful?
- How do the Chinese show that they are peculiarly sensitive to such beauty?
- When men worship the mountain, what is it that they worship?
- For what sort of religion do the Chinese seem to be pre-eminently gifted ?
- On what did we Chinese rear the superstructure of a great culture? What does Western civilization bring?
- Is the destruction of beauty a small matter? What have we Chinese done to Tai Shan? What would the West do to Tai Shan, given the inducement?
- Why does the author say, “Would that China could civilize the West!”