Closed Circuit Daoism

by James Dinneen

I hopped off the bus and looked up at the white granite rising into the mist. Hua Shan, one of the most sacred mountains in China, began defiantly at the edge of the town. The sooty, concrete buildings ended abruptly at a band of thick, dripping forest clinging to the steep, stony grade. My pack would be too unwieldy for the climb, so I left it with a friendly shopkeeper and headed to the Daoist temple at the base. On the way, I found a few bedraggled mystics, a jade spring and the black, bulbous underbelly eye of a closed circuit television camera.

In the crowded spiritual history of China, Daoism is one of the most important traditions. It emerged in China around 700 BCE, centuries before Buddhism made its way from India to the Middle Kingdom. Though its practitioners have dwindled in the 20th and 21st centuries due to a number of forces, including violent suppression under Mao Zedong, its roots are deep in the spiritual and intellectual heart of China. The Five Sacred Peaks of Daoism, one for each cardinal direction—in Feng Shui the center is considered a direction—have played an important symbolic role in that long spiritual history. Hua Shan is the westernmost of the five peaks.

The sacred status of Hua Shan has a lot to do with the humbling struggle up its side. Once, a pathetically human trail of thinly sliced steps and muddy ledges ran up the mountain’s vertical karst walls. Hermits escaping the flawed authorities of society came to meditate in the caves that line the treacherous path to the top. On the hard-earned summit, they looked out on the great peaks poking fin-like through the thick layer of clouds and considered themselves among the things that are, and thought they would do best to not interfere with whatever the world is up to.

Today, the mountain, just 75 miles northeast of the nine million strong metropolis of Xi’an, is a prime location for crowds. These crowds present safety concerns and an environmental strain on the mountain. In the 80s, when more and more people in fast-developing China gained the free time and disposable income to vacation—and more and more people were dying on the climb—the government decided to build up the infrastructure on the mountain. This included a network of concrete paths from the base to the peak, a number of mountainside restaurants and guesthouses, a cable car running from a coach bus parking lot to the glorious East Peak and an army of surveillance cameras.

The cable car is always crowded — which explains why I saw almost no one on my beautiful climb. And it was beautiful. After a first stretch of easygoing hiking, the path became precarious, stone steps wet with foggy condensation. A few kilometers of this, with tall camera poles beside the path every few hundred yards, and I began to see blue sky through brief windows in the clouds. A last thigh-numbing push and I was on the East Peak summit looking out on a ridge of cream-colored mountains swarming with windbreakered people.

Lunching underneath one of the cameras on the East Peak—which was intelligently focused into the empty void beyond the cliff—I wondered why this sacred peak, its history inextricably woven with the Daoist tradition of harmony with nature, had been made to so blatantly contradict what it is supposed to symbolize.

Daoists believe that following the Dao—that is ‘the path’—without interfering in its course is the best way to live. This practice is referred to as ‘wu wei’ or ‘non-action.’ In other words, doing only what must be done. Though the Daoist ‘natural’ does not necessarily mean ‘nature’ in the sense of trees, rocks and clouds, Daoists have often used non-human things as models for non-action.

The sacred mountain of Hua Shan functioned as a model for the pursuit of non-action. On its precipitous face, a climber was made to struggle along a single path, to submit to the one way allowed them by the massive contours of the Earth. Struggling up the cliffs, a would-be sage was subject to no authority but the authority of the mountain, the authority of what is natural.

Now with a cable car and an alternative path blasted into the opposite face of the mountain, that ‘one way’ is a depleted symbol. The mountain is not as sacred when a hermit can take a ride to the top, drink a Red Bull and take a shower the next morning. Though, to be fair, the government was in a bind: if they did nothing to develop the natural attraction, then the tourist herd would surely trash it and hurt themselves in the process. But any effective development required some dilution of the mountain’s sacred symbol.

With that dilemma in mind, many of the developments on Hua Shan seem justified — they are a healthy compromise between environmental pragmatism and religious meaning. But the cameras, unlike the other developments, expose a more fundamental attitude towards nature outside of the practical demands of a particular situation. For they, more than any other structure on Hua Shan, and without presenting any real benefit, erode away the fundamental meaning of the mountain for Daoists: the ultimate authority is what is natural.

Instead, the myriad cameras are badges of a human authority that seems to believe it is sovereign over those who climb the mountain and over the mountain itself. That they who conquered the mountain with cable cars and concrete now must be its caretakers, protecting it from those very people whom they have brought to the peak. The presence of the cameras reveals a deeply held attitude toward the relationship between humans and nature that is no longer the sage and the sacred, but the spectator and the carnival. This human authority seems to believe itself capable of moderating between the designs of human beings and the reality of the Earth.

I spent the night in a guesthouse on the mountain. Before going to sleep, I went out for some air. A fast wind blew in from across the gorge. The fog and the dark had swallowed everything except for a well-lit stairway snaking into the deep-water sky. After a few minutes the wind died and the rising call of a lone bird was the only sound. Then, even the bird was quiet. In the silence of space, the floodlight on the East Peak camera switched on and the empty stone glowed white above everything.