Tongren: Mount Fanjing and More


FOLLOWING a visit to Tongren City’s Mount Fanjing an eminent monk once said, “Fanjing is the most fantastic mountain in the world.” 

Others, such as Jia Pingwa, a famous writer, have lauded Tongren as the purest, most beautiful city in China. 

 Indeed, Tongren and Fanjing are deservedly marketed as a “Blissful Heaven,” a “Pure Land” and “The Land of Peach Blossom” today. But there is even more to the region, as I discovered on a visit to this sacred area.


The Wuling Mountains cover 100,000 square kilometers, spanning from Chongqing Municipality to Guizhou, Hunan and Hubei provinces. Mount Fanjing is the main peak of this mountain range. According to a legend, Mount Fanjing and Hunan Province’s Zhangjiajie, famous for its well-preserved and enchanting national forest park, are portals through which celestial beings can descend to earth. Tongren City, the youngest prefecture-level city in China, surrounds Mount Fanjing.

The Jinjiang River, the main waterway of Tongren City, starts from the dense forests of Mount Fanjing. At its source are two rivers – the Dajiang and the Xiaojiang. After meandering through the towering mountains they join to form the Jinjiang River, and by its side is the garden-like city of Tongren.

Tongren is the “east gate” of Guizhou Province, a hub linking Southwest China with the Central Plains area. In the spring of 1413, the Ming Dynasty established a prefecture here, and a city began to take shape.

Tongren got its name from an ancient legend. During the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), a fisherman found three copper figurines (a homophone of Tongren in Chinese) on the riverbed at Tongyan. The three figurines were the sages of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. The first Ming (1368-1644) governor of the prefecture heard about the discovery and believed the figures were sent from Heaven to enlighten the barbarian people in the remote frontier. So he changed the character for figurine to the one for benevolence, both with the same pronunciation ren, and the city got its name and gradually expanded.

Mount Fanjing and the Wujiang River are landmarks of Tongren, and the city’s most popular tours are based around these sights. Upon arrival at Tongren, I first toured the Wujiang River Gallery. I also visited Yanhe Tujia Autonomous County, the creative base of Chinese prose poetry.


The Picturesque Wujiang River

The Wujiang River originates in Wumeng Mountain and joins the Yangtze River at Fuling of Chongqing Municipality. Believed to have been carved as a gift from a divine dragon god to thank an old man for saving him, the Wujiang River is the life force of Guizhou Province and has nurtured a colorful local culture along its course. At 1,050 kilometers long, its total flow is next only to that of the Yangtze and Yellow rivers. 

The Wujiang River bisects Yanhe. It is a narrow waterway – the main channel is 300 meters at the widest point and less than 50 meters at the narrowest. The riverbed is known to be uneven, and the scenery along the river, equally “bumpy.”  The rolling river could not stop the course of history, instead it nurtured and saved those living along its shores. The people of the Tujia ethnic minority living in the lofty mountains along the river have been particularly well preserved.

When I visited Yanhe, a Tujia songfest was taking place. The songs were actually epics telling tales of the comings and goings along the Wujiang River. The boats on the Wujiang River transported not only wealth, but also, allegedly, the donkey which, according to a fable, was unknown to Guizhou people until one was shipped in. Migrants of other ethnic groups entered the region this way, disseminating their beliefs along the river.

According to writings by monk Yi Jing of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), “More than 20 monks of the Tang Dynasty went out of the Zangke waterway in Sichuan and stayed here [at Mount Fanjing] to rest.” This is the earliest record of Buddhists who entered Mount Fanjing via the Wujiang River. The influx of Buddhists led to the building of the Maitreya Buddha Bodhimanda at the Golden Summit of Mount Fanjing in the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Therefore, we can say that the Wujiang River is not only a natural water course, but also a spiritual river.

What the Yellow River is to China, the Wujiang is to Tongren – the “mother river.” In the Qing Dynasty, Shi Dakai, a general of the Taiping Rebellion, once crossed the Wujiang River and broke new ground, and during the Long March, the Red Army also crossed the Wujiang several times to win new victories. The 100-mile Wujiang River Gallery, which refers to the water sections along Pengshui and Gongtan in Chong-qing to Yanhe in Guizhou Province, represents the beauty of the history, culture, scenery and wisdom of the area.

A 132-kilometer section of the river at Yanhe contains five gorges of 89 kilometers, each with its own characteristics: The Jiashi Gorge has many karst caves; the Lizhi Gorge has many shoals and sharp turns; the Yintong Gorge is famous for its charming peaks and calm lakes; in the Tutuo Gorge one can see fantastically shaped rocks; and the Wangtuo Gorge is well known for its hot springs and ancient trails. Ancient poets such as Li Bai, Du Fu and Huang Tingjian were full of praise after visiting the Wujiang River Gallery. As a saying goes, “Guilin’s scenery is the best in the world, but Wujiang’s scenery is better than Guilin’s.”

The most beautiful section of the Wujiang River is at the Lizhi Gorge. Ten kilometers from the seat of Yanhe County, this gorge got its name from an ancient record that described dappled sunshine pouring through tree branches at the top of the gorge. On the right bank of the river there are waterfalls, and their mist reflects colorful halos of light. In the gorge, one can experience different sights: torrential currents, terrifying waves, and glistening ripples. On the banks are towering peaks and jagged rocks in grotesque shapes. There are smooth cliffs as if cut by a knife, and jagged cliffs like a lofty pile of books. There are also flourishing woods and tall bamboo bushes. The biggest attraction is the ancient plank road built along the face of a cliff. Resembling a five-line stave floating over the waves, it seems to sing an ancient song to tourists.


“Stair City”

Sinan is a must-see on any tour of Wujiang. Home to the Ba-Chu culture and Yelang civilization, the Wujiang River has also nurtured Sinan ancient city. It was built on the slope of the mountain in the shape of six stairs, hence the nickname “Stair City.” Buildings are arbitrarily arranged and interspersed with ancient architecture. The scene changes upon every step and offers a different vista that would make an interesting theme for a painting.  

The seat of Sinan County is an ancient town with a history of 1,800 years. Almost all of Sinan’s ancient buildings, such as Yongxiang Temple, Zhou’s Salt Shop and Wangye Temple, are concentrated on Anhua Street. At Zhou’s Salt Shop I met its owner Zhou Yehong, a sixth-generation descendant of the merchant family. Now in his early 80s, he said there used to be more than 70 shops dealing in salt, but now only his establishment remains and has been basically kept intact.

The best renowned scenic area in Sinan County is Sinan Stone Forest. This closely grouped karst stone forest covers 4.9 square kilometers stretching over three hills. It displays geological features of different periods in the life cycle of rocks, and reflects the changes of 100 billion years along the Wujiang River valley. The rocks resemble different things: a needle, a sword, a castle. The most characteristic is the “Five Lotus Seats” rock, which looks like five lotus flowers in full bloom.


Pilgrimage to Fanjing

Vastness and ruggedness make Mount Fanjing mysterious and unsullied. Intricate secrets are hidden in the deep mountains.

Between one billion and 1.4 billion years ago, a volcano erupted in the sea to form Mount Fanjing. Over millennia of seismic shifts, the mountain eventually became the landmark of the Wuling mountain range, the highest in Guizhou Province. It also became home to rare animals such as snub-nosed monkeys, South China tigers and civet cats, and rare plants such as gingko, Chinese yew, and the Chinese dove tree, all of which continue to thrive there today, thanks to the unique ecology of Mount Fanjing.

It has great spiritual significance, too. It is said that Maitreya Buddha stayed there. During the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) a Bodhimanda was formed here. Buddhists often pilgrimage to Mount Fanjing as they believe they can communicate with deities and achieve enlightenment.

Arriving at the foot of Mount Fanjing I saw some vendors hawking raincoats. It was a fine day with no sign of rain. A local friend who accompanied me on my trip advised me to buy one. Sure enough, when our cable car was about halfway to the summit we were shrouded in mist and as we arrived at the top it was drizzling. Visibility was barely one meter so we could not see the Golden Summit. Despite this it was the most thrilling mountain climb of my life. Scrabbling with my hands and feet, I glanced down and could see the steep precipice where the mist was thinning. After several turns, we finally arrived at the summit.

At the Golden Summit there are two halls, the Sakya Hall and Maitreya Hall, on two peaks, which are linked by a natural bridge. Of the natural wonders that I could see, the Mushroom Stone impressed me the most. The tetragonal stone column is six meters high and another huge, cube-shaped rock overlies. Shaped over billions of years these spectacular sights have become symbols of Mount Fanjing.


Miao Ingenuity

An ancient wall stretches for hundreds of miles traversing the mountains between Mount Fanjing and the source of the Chenhe River. Archaeologists concluded that this was the “Great Wall of the south.” It is believed its function was to repel the Miao ethnic minority people that defied the Ming Dynasty’s “bureaucratization of native officers” policy, instead of providing them protection. 

During the reign of Emperor Hongwu (1368-1398) of the Ming Dynasty, the central authorities carried out the policy of bureaucratization of native officers. Those who submitted to the imperial rule were called “ripe Miao,” while those who defied the policy were called “raw Miao.” The rulers built a wall to separate “ripe Miao” from “raw Miao.” Miao Chieftain City became the command center of the “raw Miao,” where they drew up plans to fight for their survival. 

I had to visit this ancient city multiple times to uncover its many wonders. The first thing I noticed was its layout. From a distance it looks like a small village of few households, but in fact it is densely populated. The S-shaped Guanzhou River divides the city in two and the two ends of a semi-circular city wall perch on the cliff face. Looking down from above, the Miao Chieftain City resembles a diagram of the universe, an ingenious design. 

Another original element of the Miao Chieftain City is its bluestone-paved lanes and courtyards, which form a labyrinth that would have confused invading government troops in the cold weapon age. While outsiders could easily get lost in the city, residents were privy to the city’s biggest secret – all roads and houses are linked. One can go through one house to reach the backyard of another. This is further evidence of the wisdom of the Miao people.


Amazing Caves 

People say that every mountain in Guizhou has fantastic caves. Tongren is no exception. Jiulong (Nine Dragon) Cave is 1,400 meters long, covering 70,000 square meters. It has two levels, an upper, dry cave and a lower, water cave. The rock formations within the caves are remarkable: stalagmites and stalactites, stone curtains and waterfalls, fossilized flowers and twigs. The “Dynamic Jiulong” tour of the cave’s halls is well worth a visit to experience the magical, underground wonderland.     

My visit to Tongren left a lasting impression like an ink-and-wash painting – majestic and bold.