With a catchy name like Dragon-Tiger Mountain (龙虎山), you would expect a historical Daoist site like Longhu Shan to be pretty popular. This is, after all, where the nonbeliever Marshal Hong (“you Daoists are always making up stories to make a penny off the common folk”) accidentally set free the 108 demons in the 14th-century classic Outlaws of the Marsh. This is also where the founder of religious Daoism (Zhang Daoling) is said to have attained the Dao in the 2nd century CE. Those are pretty major cultural markers, even if you don’t care a whit about Chinese history.
But Jiangxi has had other priorities in the past two decades, and it was only this year that the province managed to revamp the famous Longhu Shan into a decent tourist site. Okay, there are miniature trains here, and you have to ride them to get around. And the original temples and monasteries, which once numbered over 100, have been reduced to a mere one and a half. But the cicada-filled countryside is beautiful (the park encompasses about 200 sq km) and once you get beyond the welcome center (and the miniature train ride), there’s nothing to stop you from tramping around and exploring.
On my own trip here earlier this June, I started out by visiting the main remaining temple, the Residence of the Celestial Masters (天师府). This was once the center of the Daoist Zhengyi sect, which claimed to represent the teachings of religious Daoism’s founder, Zhang Daoling (34-156). Together with the Quanzhen sect, Zhengyi Daoism was one of the most prominent schools of Taoism in late imperial China. Zhengyi Daoists were active in society, selling protective talismans (still for sale) and performing religious services for the general populace.
This video portrays what could be described as a “star walk” (步罡踏斗). Between conversations with the guy ringing the gong and a diagram I found on a nearby wall, I was able to make out that each point on the ground represents either a star (Taoists believe that immortals who transcend life on earth become or inhabit stars) or one of the eight trigrams used to form the hexagrams in the Book of Changes. Basically, by walking from one point to the next you pass from one fundamental state to another – a form of internal alchemy. For example, one possible order for walking this particular map is Wind→ Thunder→ Earth→ Water→ Fire→ Mountain→ Lake→ Heaven. In another star diagram that I came across at the neighboring Shangqing Temple, there were 64 possible ways to complete the walk, equivalent to the number of hexagrams in the Book of Changes.
Now you may be tempted, like the born skeptic Marshal Hong, to say, “What a bunch of superstitious nonsense.” But the great thing about the eight trigrams is that no matter how you lay out them out, you can always find a pattern of some kind. Anyone who has a mind for math, puzzles or Jungian archetypes can look at these for hours trying to find some sort of hidden meaning. (In the above case the order would look like this: ☴ ☳ ☷ ☵ ☲ ☶ ☱ ☰ Generally what people consider important is the change from a solid (yang) line to a broken (yin) line or vice versa.) Like the labyrinth in a medieval cathedral, this method of achieving an inner transformation is rooted in ancient myth (according to legend, the eight trigrams come from Fu Xi, who brought civilization to the Yellow River basin) and, it could be argued, represents something that is simply a fundamental part of the human psyche. So, ready to see where it will take you?
How to get here: Longhu Shan is located outside the city of Yingtan (鹰潭) in Jiangxi province and is served by two express trains a day from Shanghai South (4.5 hours). A bus runs from in front of the train station to directly to Longhu Shan.