Axis mundi

Reading Mountains as Cultural Phenomena

8 March 2021

The Kangxi Emperor’s Southern Inspection Tour, Scroll Three Ji’nan to Mount T’ai Jeremy Bassetti
The Kangxi Emperor’s Southern Inspection Tour, Scroll Three Ji’nan to Mount T’ai

For a vast majority of people, mountains are little more than geological formations abruptly protruding from the earth. They are merely the byproduct of tectonic plates shifting and slowly colliding into each other, the earth buckling and sending pinnacles of rock into the sky. Some might see them as a retreat from wordly affairs or city life, or as a place to camp, hike, climb, or ski. But I’d venture to say that most people don’t think about mountains much more than that, if at all.

From the perspective of intellectual history, this is a shame. Humans have interacted with mountains for thousands of years and left behind a quilt-like assemblage of associations with them. That they are sacred spaces, central points from which to conspire with the gods, is one of them. But there are many more, so much so that thinking about mountains can be difficult. Mircea Eliade noted that “the symbolic and religious significance of mountains is endless.”1

Imprints of human activity

In a book about Mount Emei (峨眉山) in China, James Hargett proposes to explore the significance of mountains from the “various ‘imprints’ of human activity” on them.2 He approaches his study of Mt. Emei from the perspectives of myth and religion, Daoism, Buddhism, literature, and tourism.

Except for the literature framework, Hargett’s “imprint” approach is more or less chronological. Major paradigms are helpful starting points when thinking about mountains, as the way humans “viewed, interpreted, and used these peaks changed” over time.3

For each mountain, its unique set of “imprints” depends on its unique context. Most mountains have layers of meaning and imprints of interaction associated with them — a complexity that anyone thinking about mountains from a cultural perspective must consider.

There are myriad ways to think about mountains, but I find the general framework of thinking about mountains from the various perspectives, imprints of human activity, or paradigms of human experience helpful.

Cultural Stratigraphy

In another book about another Chinese mountain — this one Mount Tai (泰山) in Shandong province —, Brian Dott uses the term “cultural stratigraphy” in discussing the layers of interactions humans have with mountains. Dott notes how distinct groups of visitors to Mt. Tai approached it, both metaphorically and literally, from different perspectives.

The literati, for example, approached the mountain from a historical, touristic, or literary perspective. The Chinese emperors visited it for legitimization and ritual. Women mostly visited the mountain to pray for a male heir. Others, to mourn the dead. And so on. Dott asserts that a mountain, as a cultural site, is simultaneously multivalent.4

Edwin Bernbaum would agree. Any attempt to reduce all interpretations of mountains into “one underlying theme or archetype, no matter how comprehensive it may seem, actually limits the power of mountains as symbols.”5

Mountains are not monolithic from the perspective of culture.