Thirteen Chinese dynasties established their capitals in today’s Xi’an, Shaanxi province, Mount Wutai sits in northeastern Shanxi province between Wutai and Fanshi counties, Xinzhou city. A scenic area combining natural scenery, ancient architecture, historical relics, Buddhist culture, folk customs, and a summer resort into a single tourist attraction, Mount Wutai was inscribed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 2009 as a Cultural Landscape Heritage. It is the third World Heritage site in Shanxi province, the thirty-eighth World Heritage site and the second Cultural Landscape in China.
Situated in the birthplace of Chinese civilization, the Yellow River valley in northern China, Mount Wutai’s proximity to the political and cultural center contributed to it becoming a holy site for Buddhism and folk culture. Among many of the mountain’s legends, the foremost one is about its origin. Mount Wutai, together with Mount Emei, Mount Putuo, and Mount Jiuhua, are the Four Sacred Mountains of Buddhism in China. At each of the mountains one of the four great Bodhisattvas—Wenshu (Manjusri), Puxian (Samantabhadra), Guanyin (Avalokitesvara), and Dizang (Ksitigarbha)—practiced and taught. It is said that Wenshu lived on Mount Wutai. Naturally there are numerous tales about him and his practice. There is a story about the Shunzhi emperor (r. 1644–1661) converting to a Buddhist monk at Mount Wutai; it is often told with great gusto and several different versions of the story are known.
Many emperors have visited Mount Wutai. The first one was Emperor Xiaowen (r. 471–499) of the Northern Wei followed by Yang Guang (569–618)—Emperor Yang (r. 604–617) of the Sui dynasty. As a young man, the title of Duke of Yanmen commandery was conferred on Yang Guang. At that time, the Yanmen commandery oversaw five counties: Yanmen, Fanshi, Guoxian, Wutai, and Lingqiu. As Emperor Yang, he also enjoyed making inspection tours. He opened the Grand Canal to tour the southern reaches of the Yangtze River (although, this came at the expense of human and material resources). Mount Wutai, being close by, was naturally included in his tour.
Although Empress Wu Zetian (r. 690–705) was also deeply attached to Mount Wutai, she was too involved in political affairs to ever visit the mountain personally.
Zhao Guangyi (939–997), known as Emperor Taizong (r. 976–997) of the Song dynasty, was the third emperor who visited Mount Wutai. Zhao was born at Yingtian Academy in the Western Capital (modern Xi’an). He became a Buddhist disciple at an early age and followed in the footstep of his brother, Emperor Taizu (r. 960–976), by showing special favors to Buddhism.
During the Yuan dynasty, two emperors visited Mount Wutai: Temür (1265–1307), known as Emperor Chengzong (r. 1294–1307), and Shide Bala (1303–1323), known as Emperor Yingzong (r. 1320–1323).
During the Qing dynasty, the flourishing of Buddhism on Mount Wutai reached its golden age. Four Emperors—Kangxi (r. 1662–1722), Yongzheng (r. 1723–1735), Qianlong (r. 1736–1795), and Jiaqing (r. 1796–1820)—all went numerous times. The Qianlong emperor visited the mountain more times than any of the other emperors.
Mount Wutai is a world-renowned Buddhist sacred site, and was Bodhisattva Manjusri’s bodhimaṇda (seat of enlightenment), where a galaxy of eminent monks came to the fore. Ranking first among the Four Sacred Mountains of Buddhism, Mount Wutai is known for its long history and grand scale.
There are ninety-five relatively intact monasteries on Mount Wutai; six of them are listed national protected cultural sites: Nanchan Monastery, Foguang Monastery, Xiantong Monastery, Guangji Monastery, Yanshan Monastery (Fanshi county), Hongfu Monastery (Dingxiang county); fifteen of them are provincial-level protected cultural sites: Tayuan Monastery, Pusading Lamasery, Yuanzhao Monastery, Luohou Monastery, Shuxiang Monastery, Bishan Monastery, Nanshan Monastery, Longquan Monastery, Jinge Monastery, Zunsheng Monastery, Yanqing Monastery, Gongzhu Monastery (Fanshi county), Sansheng Monastery (Fanshi county), Huiji Monastery (Yuanping city), Shifo Monastery (Fuping county, Hebei). The rest are county-level protected cultural sites.
From the perspective of religious activities, there are eleven listed as nationally important monasteries: Xiantong Monastery, Tayuan Monastery, Pusading Lamasery, Luohou Monastery, Shuxiang Monastery, Bishan Monastery, Jinge Monastery, Guangzong Monastery, Guangren Monastery, Dailuoding Temple, and Guanyin Cave.