Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Taishan Red

astrid almkhlaafy

My explorations to Thailand, Borobudur and Angkor Wat fueled on my interest in mountains. The DNA of Singapore also pulled me to China, so in the tradition of the pilgrimage — in Chinese “ch' ao-shan chin-hsian”g – or 'paying one's respect to a mountain' — with the intent of better understanding some of the cultural roots of this new home, I proposed and received a grant to research, visit, climb, document and finally exhibit my findings of the pilgrimages to Mount Tai Shan and Mount Hua Shan in China. This is a report in progress.

You must ascend a mountain
to learn your relation to matter, and so to your own body,
for it is at home there,
though you are not.

Henry David Thoreau, The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, vol. 6

In July we went to Shandong province in China to climb Taishan. To pay respect to this mountain and the pilgrimage we walked, documented and mapped with GPS...all the while wearing red. In effect, we painted Taishan red by walking everywhere in red. This action made manifest the pilgrimage itself, while also conceptually conjuring up an umbilical cord, or a red bloodline.

The son of the sun
Taishan is red. it's the color of the calligraphy, the stone carving, the wish trees, the temples. From the summit, Mao claimed "From here, all of China is Red". Taishan is blood. It is the bloodline, it is the male bloodline.
It is also birth, it is the east, it is mythologically from where life began.You could say that Taishan is the linga of China. It is where sons come from and where the sun first rises. It is an incredibly complex site.

So with my collaborators, we considered these thoughts and more. As women, we were most curious about gender. So many women have climbed over so many centuries to pray for male offspring. And to a goddess they prayed. How did a goddess land the top of Taishan? Taoism usually puts the female at the ground level and the male towards the sky. How did a female deity get to reign supreme with a temple at the top of a linga?

Bixia Yuanjin (pronounced BEE-cha you-on-JEEN) is the Chinese Taoist Goddess of the dawn, childbirth, and destiny. As Goddess of dawn, she attends the birth of each new day from her home high in the clouds. As Goddess of childbirth, she attends the birth of children, fixing their destiny and bringing good fortune. Dawn and childbirth are two concepts often, and quite understandably, linked in world mythology: the rising of the sun, the bringing of light to the earth, is equated with the child emerging from the darkness of the womb to the light of the world.

Tai'an City is a stretch of ancient and mystical land. Five thousand years ago here originated the brilliant Dawenkou Culture, which reflects the whole course of the transition from matriarchal society to patriarchal society and the disintegration of the primitive society.

While on pilgrimage, women enjoyed a degree of freedom from some of the restrictions of their daily life. They were able to travel beyond their local area, they stayed overnight outside their own home, and they met people from other regions. Although women customarily played a minor role in rituals, they were the primary or sole actors in rituals associated with the Goddess of Mount Tai (Taishan Niangniang 泰山娘娘 or Bixia Yuan-jun 碧霞元君). In addition to physical mobility, pilgrimages allowed women to exercise ritual authority and agency and to establish new identities as mothers and ritual experts.
Brian Dott, Identity Reflections: Pilgrimages to Mount Tai in Late Imperial China

Over the week that we were at the mountain we climbed altogether over 8 times. Sometimes as a group, other times solo. Most often in red. When not in red we were documenting and interviewing over a hundred pilgrims. On the final day we performed an 'ode to the pilgrimage' at the base of the mountain, outside the temple to Bixia.

In the way
The most important 'performance' piece was at the top, leading up to the gate of heaven, here is where every pilgrim passes up to the summit. At this location, i walked zig-zag down, along every step, passing by everyone walking up, being in the way of the way. This was documented with gps, video and photography as well.

In a time where we are most often in urban settings, focused on screens, communicating virtually, it is easy to forget that the grand events of the past have often been on foot, up mountains, with strangers, to pray. On a meta level, I hope that by embarking on these pilgrimages, documenting the journeys, researching and studying the locations and finally exhibiting and sharing my findings that somehow the content will inspire others to explore heritage sites and become inspired by historical and cultural wonders.
The foot of the heavenly ladder, which we have got to mount in order to reach the higher regions, has to be fixed firmly in every-day life, so that everybody may be able to climb up it along with us. When people then find that they have got climbed up higher and higher into a marvelous, magical world, they will feel that that realm, too, belongs to their ordinary, every-day life, and is, merely, the wonderful and most glorious part thereof.
— E.T.A.W. Hoffmann, The Serapion Brethren. B, vol. II, sect. 5 (1892).
So far this has been partially exhibited in Tokyo and most recently in the 2008 Fall International Digital Design Invitation Exhibit, South Korea.


  1. What a fascinating mix of ancient and modern! High tech GPS tracking of low tech locomotion. The pure logic of mathematical algorithms calculating the progression of ancient mystical ritual...

    I *almost* hate to deflower this comment thread (alas, I yam what I yam) but, honestly, I am seized with the urge to go find the highest mountain in New Jersey (which I believe is a landfill off Exit 5) and seek whatever goddess I may find waiting there. I believe "safety orange" is the traditional color for such pilgrimages in these parts.

    I'm envious and awestruck. I can't wait for more!

  2. if you are really up for, i'll come join you!