Stairway to Sichuan

hargettBook Review
Stairway to Heaven: A Journey to the Summit of Mount Emei
By James Hargett

In this monograph, James Hargett attempts to provide a comprehensive picture of Mt. Emei 峨嵋山, located in Sichuan province, near Chengdu, in China. From the beginning, he lays out how mountains have three types of properties: place (location, flora and fauna), space (natural and man-made), and (human) interaction. Hargett also identifies four kinds of human activity on Mt. Emei:

1. Myths about Emei’s religious origins
2. Legends of Daoist immortals associated with Emei
3. The arrival and development of Buddhism on Emei
4. The development of the tourist industry on Emei

In terms of method, Hargett draws inspiration from Edouard Chavannes’s Le T’ai chan (1910) and Edward Schafer’s Mao Shan in T’ang Times (1980), focusing on annotated translations of primary materials (especially travel records, local gazetteers, and poetry). He hopes to trace how perception of the mountain changed over time, and to use the study of mountains as a way to bridge the gap between Buddhist studies and Daoist studies.

Structurally, the work begins in earnest with chapter 2, which describes literati depictions of Emei and its surrounding area (Shu 蜀) in the Tang and Song. Chapters 3-6 translate portions Fan Chengda’s 范成大 (1126-1193) travel account of visiting Mt. Emei, called Diary of a Boat Trip to Wu (Wuchuan lu 吳船錄), interrupting the narrative to elaborate on the various sites and features of the mountain. Chapter 7 is the most historical, attempting to explain how and why Mt. Emei became a famous Buddhist mountain. Chapter 8 rushes through 600 years of history, summarizing developments from the Ming dynasty to the present.

Chapter 7 is by far the best, explaining how the “Four Great Buddhist Mountains” (Wutai 五台, Emei 峨嵋, Putuo 普陀, and Jiuhua 九華) came to considered as such. Drawing on the works of Raoul Birnbaum (on Wutai) and Yü Chün-fang (on Putuo), he tells us that Wutai was the first of the mountains to become “converted” to Buddhism, and that the other mountains followed Wutai’s model. He then gives a list of essential elements of the “Buddhaization” of a mountain (which began in the mid-9th century for Emei):

1. The mountain is identified as having extraordinary physical features, thus making it well-suited to retreat.
2. The mountain initially attracts Daoists.
3. The mountain’s Daoist space is later reordered into a Buddhist configuration.
4. Creation myths are made in order to explain the mountain’s Buddhist history.
5. Buddhist scriptures are interpreted to establish the mountain as the home of a major bodhisattva.
6. Imperial patronage and support is given, which enhances the mountain’s legitimacy.
7. Sightings of bodhisattvas appear in literary works, then are reproduced in gazetteers, which then attract pilgrims.
8. Continual imperial patronage and development in the Ming dynasty leads to the classification of “Four Great Buddhist Mountains” in the 17th century.

Hargett then speculates that Mt. Emei might have been established as a second Buddhist mountain in the early Song dynasty in order to create an alternate center of Buddhism in China (besides Wutai).

While I found this volume full of interesting facts and information, it is all very uneven, obviously a patchwork. It seems like Hargett combined several different articles about Mt. Emei and shoehorned them into a single narrative. Much of Chapter 2 was previously published as an article,* and the travel record of Chapters 3-6 is the subject of two other books by Hargett.** It is really only Chapter 7 that provides any sort of historical argument. It seems to me that the rest of the book could have been cut or summarized, and the book would have been better for it.

Also, because Hargett focuses primarily on travelogues and gazetteers, we get a limited picture of Emei. While he brings out many numbers (such as the number of temples on Emei at a given time) and scientific data (the varieties of plants and animals on Emei), he does not provide other kinds of information. Inscriptions are briefly mentioned, but not consulted. The same is true of visual art. How did commoners view Emei? What kind of rituals were performed once a pilgrim arrived there? What was its relationship to the emerging print culture of Chengdu? None of these questions are sufficiently answered.

*“Li Bo (701-762) and Mount Emei,” Cahiers d’Éxtrême-Asie 8 (1995): 67-85.

**On the Road in Twelfth Century China: The Travel Diaries of Fan Chengda, 1126-1193 (Weisbaden: Franz Steiner, 1989), and Riding the River Home: A Complete and Annotated Translation of Fan Chengda’s (1120-1193) Diary of a Boat Trip to Wu (Wuchuan lu) (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2008)

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