Wutai Shan’s name means “five terraces,” which accurately describes the five flat peaks of this sacred spot – north, east, south, west and central peak. In the quiet valleys between the peaks lay a smattering of ancient temples, twisting trails and awe-inspiring views.
The major sights at Wutai Shan are rather spread out, forcing one to view the gorgeous scenery that surrounds the five terraces. Wutai Shan’s temples are an eclectic mix of Han Buddhist and Tibetan and Mongolian Lamaist traditions, making the mountain one of the best places in China to view Buddhist architecture.
The shrines on Wutai Shan date back to the Eastern Han dynasty, the second Buddhist temple in China was built here at a time when Taoism dominated the area. A legend goes that a Buddhist monk begged the emperor to construct the Xiantong Temple (xiǎntōng sì显通寺) on the mountain and suggested that a Taoist and Buddhist book be put into a fire to test which religion was true. The Taoist book was burned to ashes, but miraculously the Buddhist scroll remained undamaged, and the temple was built. Later, Wutai Shan became a popular pilgrimage destination as more monasteries and temples were built in succeeding dynasties.
During the Sui and Tang dynasties, when Buddhism held imperial favor, over 360 temples were built. The mountain also became an international destination point for Buddhists from other countries as they were drawn to the many temples as centers of learning. Lama Buddhists began to settle on the mountain during the Qing dynasty. Today there are 47 temples and monasteries and they continue to draw devotees and curious sightseers.
Most of the temples are located around Taihuai, a small temple inundated town nestling in the valleys 1,700m above sea level. The temples on Wutai Shan are dedicated to Wenshu Pusa (Manjusri), the Bodhisattva of Wisdom and Virtue. A visiting Indian monk had a vision of Wenshu in the 1st century AD and concluded Wutai Shan to be the mystical abode of Buddha’s most important assistant. Numerous legends speak of how apparitions of Wenshu riding on the back of a blue lion have been sighted high above the monasteries.