Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Meizan of the mainland

Why meizanologists must start their researches in the Middle Kingdom

Sumimasen, but, when writing up the introduction for One Hundred Mountains of Japan, I didn’t delve far into the origins of the word "meizan”. The Japanese characters 名山 are often translated as “famous mountain”, but as you’ll learn from Craig McGinty’s pioneering study on the meaning of meizan, “famous” might overstate the case. But let’s not go there right now.

Ur-Meizan: The Purple Heaven Palace on Mt Wudang, China

Suffice it to say, the introduction to the English version of Japan’s most famous mountain book does not add much to McGinty’s findings. It takes a brief look at Tachibana Nankei and Tani Bunchō, two Edo-period luminaries who respectively wrote up and painted a selection of Japanese "meizan", before it moves on to Japan’s modern period of mountain exploration.

Recently, I was reminded that the origins of the meizan concept go back a long way further than the Edo period. Indeed, they go back further than Japan itself. A few weeks ago, Marcus Hall, who teaches environmental history at the University of Zurich, was kind enough to point me towards an essay on the famous mountains of China by Mei Xueqin and Jon Mathieu. Their scholarly dialogue opens up a perspective on the mainland origins of meizan.

Any truly authoritative study of meizan, it seems, would have to start with China’s Five Great Mountains (五岳), a grouping that dates back to the Warring Countries period (475-221 BC). It would also have to take in the hardly less venerable Four Sacred Mountains of Buddhism (四大佛教名山), and the Four Sacred Mountains of Taoism (四大道教名山). And this is to say nothing of mountains that may have acquired their fame more recently.

China must have a lot of meizan. Like Japan, only bigger, it is a country of mountains; some two thirds of its surface is corrugated. So the study of its meizan would probably take a lifetime. On second thoughts, it’s probably as well that the introduction to One Hundred Mountains of Japan limits itself to the home country. If we’d attempted to trace the origins of famous mountains back to classical China, I suspect the book would never have been published.

Fortunately for any meizanologist who wants to pursue that line of research, there exists a Gazetteer of China’s Famous Mountains (中国名山志), published by the China National Microfilming Center for Library Resources. This provides a comprehensive overview of research on the history of China’s meizan. In case you're thinking about climbing all of them, though, please note that this resource runs to sixteen printed volumes.


Mei Xueqin and Jon Mathieu, “Mountains beyond Mountains: Cross-Cultural Reflections on China”, in Crossing Mountains: The Challenges of Doing Environmental History, edited by Marcus Hall and Patrick Kupper, April 2014.

Photo of Mt Wudang, courtesy of Wikipedia.

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