Pilgrimages to sacred sites to celebrate a particular deity, have played an important role in Chinese religion, documented from early ascents to sacred mountains to late medieval worship of the Perfect Warrior on Mount Wudang. After a hiatus during the Cultural Revolution, they have come to the fore again, to the point where in Beijing alone there are about eighty associations dedicated to celebrating the Daoist Goddess of the Morning Clouds during her two-week festival in late May at her sanctuary on Miaofeng shan 妙峰山, a medium-level peak about 40 miles west of the city.
Pilgrimage associations are non-profit organizations, encouraged and supervised by government officials, but essentially independent. They decide who gets to ascend the mountain and how they have to behave, what qualifications and requirements each has to meet. In all cases, the associations center on piety and charity. They come in two major forms, martial and civilian. While the former focus on physical performances, demonstrating their skills as lion dancers, sword fighters, stilt walkers, taiji boxers, acrobats, and more, the latter work hard to make the pilgrims welcome by providing them with physical and moral sustenance as they climb the mountain.
Each group has about thirty to forty members; their founders often dedicated senior individuals, who either have a long family tradition of service or made a vow to give charity in this manner after the goddess helped them through a major crisis. Both apply to Ni Zhenshan, founder of the Whole Heart Philanthropic Salvation Tea Association, which runs a small shrine on the ascent to the sanctuary and there provides pilgrims with good-quality tea and steamed buns. Chen Deqing, the founder of the Deqing Fresh Flower Association, began her activities in the 1980s, when, already in her fifties, she rode her pedal-powered trishaw to the mountain to honor the goddess with flowers. Today, with the support of family members and followers, she spends thousands of dollars on flowers while hosting her own shrine on the mountain and becoming a quasi-priestess for the festival’s duration.
The pilgrimage to Miaofeng shan, as others around the country, has grown substantially over the years, and even the younger generation is increasingly participating. Thus, Ni Jintang, the younger son of the patriarch, eagerly stepped into a leadership role upon his father’s passing, vigorously organizing the chaos of the first night, conscientiously recording the members’ names, and generously offering donation opportunities to like-minded businessmen. Martial practitioners, too, engage more and more young people, who learn the arts of performance from their parents and grandparents while yet juggling busy lives in the city. Their repertoire may be smaller, their skills may not be as precisely honed, but the will is there, and the tradition continues.
Read: Johnson, Ian. 2017. The Souls of China: The Return of Religion after Mao. New York: Pantheon Books.
Lagerwey, John. 1992. “The Pilgrimage to Wu-tang Shan.” In Pilgrims and Sacred Sites in China, edited by Susan Naquin and Chün-fang Yü, 293-332. Berkeley: University of California Press.