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Laojun Shan (Mountain of Lord Lao) also known as “Tianshe Shan (Mt. Celestial Altar)”, “Chougeng Shan (Mt. Chougeng)”, “Chougeng Zhi (Chougeng Diocese)” Olles, Volker


The Mountain of Lord Lao (Laojun Shan 老君山) in Xinjin 新津 district, Sichuan 四川 province, has been identified as the center of a former diocese of Celestial Master Daoism (Tianshi Dao 天師道). Moreover, it is well-known as a sanctuary for the worship of Laozi 老子. The temple on Mt. Laojun is today an active religious institution that belongs to the Dragon Gate (Longmen 龍門) lineage of Complete Perfection (Quanzhen 全真) Daoism. In the late Qing dynasty and Republican times, the temple was closely connected with the influential Liu School (Liumen 劉門) tradition, which was founded by the Confucian scholar Liu Yuan 劉沅 (1768–1856). The district of Xinjin is located in the western part of the Sichuan basin, southwest of the provincial capital Chengdu 成都. About two kilometers south of the district town, the Mountain of Lord Lao (Laojun Shan) rises up amidst a ridge of hills, surrounded by the rivers Minjiang 岷江 and Nanhe 南河. Mt. Laojun, a cone‑shaped hill, is only 617 meters high, but it figures prominently among the historic sites of Xinjin and remains a famous sanctuary for the worship of Lord Lao 老君, the deified Laozi. Although the traditional temple complex, hidden in a cypress grove on the summit, received its present shape only in the first half of the 20th century, the origins of this sacred site can be traced back to the very beginnings of the Daoist religion. “Laojun Shan” is actually a popular designation of the mountain, which only appeared in written sources as late as in the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). Two other appellations for this locality can be found in earlier historical and geographical treatises. The first of these, Tianshe Shan 天社山 (Mt. Celestial Altar), probably originated in the designation of a stellar constellation and refers to the ridge of hills south of the district town of Xinjin, of which Mt. Laojun forms a part. However, the name “Tianshe Shan” is still used as synonym for Laojun Shan today. The other appellation, Chougeng Shan 稠稉山 (Mt. Chougeng), matches the name of the old diocese in Daoist sources: Chougeng Zhi 稠稉治 or Chougeng Hua 稠稉化. The exact meaning of chougeng 稠稉 is not clear. The word seemingly designates a medicinal herb or a kind of rice. To my knowledge, the geographical name “Chougeng” only occurs at this locality in Xinjin and does not relate to any other place. Legend has it that Lord Lao once dwelled there in a cave and engaged in secluded self-cultivation. This legend is not supported by source texts in the Daoist Canon, but Lord Lao has nevertheless become the central deity who bestows spiritual authority upon the mountain, and the locality and its temple were consequently named after the God of the Dao. While Daozang 道藏 sources report that the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi 黃帝) and Celestial Master Zhang Daoling 張道陵 once stayed at Chougeng Diocese, the legend of Lord Lao’s sojourn on the mountain apparently is based on local lore. The sanctuary on top of the mountain, commonly referred to as Laojun Miao 老君廟 (Temple of Lord Lao) or Laozi Miao 老子 廟 (Temple of Laozi), currently serves as residence for a community of Daoist clerics and lay adherents. Very little is known about the history of the temple. Summarizing the bits of information contained in a temple bell inscription dated 1796, historical treatises on geography, and local gazetteers, we learn that temple buildings were erected on the mountain starting in the Han (206 BCE–220 CE) and Tang (618–907) dynasties. In 1644, the temple was destroyed by troops of the rebel Zhang Xianzhong 張獻忠 (1606–1647), who set up a short-lived regime in Chengdu. The sanctuary finally underwent reconstruction in the last decade of the 18th century. In the late Qing dynasty and Republican times (1912–1949), the sanctuary on Mt. Laojun was closely connected with the Liumen tradition. In 1799, 1821, and 1835, various temple buildings on Mt. Laojun were rebuilt or restored under the auspices of Liu Yuan, the founder and first patriarch of the Liumen tradition. Liu Yuan reportedly had spent some time on this mountain while studying meditation techniques under the guidance of a Daoist hermit, who was eventually considered an incarnation of Laozi in Liumen circles. Since Liumen adherents held Laozi in high esteem, they actively supported and patronized Daoist institutions, in particular those that were dedicated to the cult of Laozi. The extant temple buildings on Mt. Laojun were constructed during the Republican era, sponsored by local adherents of the Liumen community. After a devastating fire in 1923, Liu Xianjun 劉咸焌 (1871–1935), a grandson of Liu Yuan and the fourth patriarch of the Liumen movement, supervised the reconstruction of the sanctuary. The architectural ensemble was modelled on the famous Daoist temple Qingyang Gong 青羊宮 (Palace of the Grey Goat) in Chengdu, which was also patronized by the Liumen community. Beside the temple’s main Hall of the Three Clarities (Sanqing Dian 三清殿), a modest shrine hall is situated, its front opening into a walled courtyard. The name of this building is Rulin Ci 儒林祠 (Ancestral Temple of the Literati), and it was erected in honor of Liu Yuan and his descendants. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China (1949), the Liumen tradition was outlawed as a “reactionary secret society,” and Mt. Laojun was consequently deprived of its former protectors. After the turmoil of the “Cultural Revolution” (1966–1976), the temple was finally reopened as a religious institution in 1986. While most of its traditional buildings and relics have been preserved, the temple complex on Mt. Laojun was extended by several new edifices in recent years.

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