Buddhism Pilgrimage in China
Courtney Bruntz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0241


The study of religion as it relates to physical environments highlights the manners in which religious activities are shaped by geographical spaces, as well as how practitioners adjust physical spaces to reflect religious views. Religious environments are concrete expressions of belief, and religious geography includes examining interplays of religion, humans, and geography. This inextricably includes pilgrimage. In Chinese settings, pilgrimage includes journeys to human-constructed sanctuaries, as well as auspicious natural environments. In Daoist contexts, buildings were historically designed for reciting prayers, donating offerings to deities, and contemplating. Further, natural caves were protected for their vital essence (qi), and mountains were viewed as homes of deities. Not only was the heart of a mountain associated with qi, but the mountain’s crest was viewed as auspicious. Such spatial significance influenced temple architecture. Human structures built upon mountains were done so with the intention to not take away from the site’s spiritual magnetism. Instead, spatial arrangements reflected natural settings, and mountains were revered as residences of the gods. In the Chinese imaginary, pilgrimage is thus associated with mountains because they are locations where the sacred manifests. In Chinese, a pilgrim (xiangeke 香客) is one who “offers incense,” and going on pilgrimage translates to chaoshan jinxiang (朝山进香) literally meaning “offering incense to a mountain.” Going on pilgrimage in Chinese carries with it notions that one journeys to pay respect, and does so through ritualistic offering. Buddhism’s rooting in China therefore includes the mapping of Bodhisattva abodes (physical pure lands) at numinous mountains. Buddhist cosmology in Chinese geography significantly includes the four great and famous Buddhist mountains (sida fojiao mingshan 四大佛教名山), which are all associated with a Bodhisattva. The offering of incense at such locations is a mechanism for making contact with the enlightened being, and through seeing and physically traversing the being’s abode, the pilgrim gains worldly, and other-worldly, benefits. Significant geographical locations for Chinese Buddhists are therefore those known for their efficacy in empowering pilgrims. Buddhist pilgrimage circuits also includes treasured temples, which many became known for because of the monks who stayed there. Since the first millennium CE when Faxian (337?–422?), Xuanzang (602–664), and Yijing (635–713) famously detailed travel accounts between India and China, distinguished pilgrims have contributed to the dissemination of Buddhist teachings and rituals. While sutra exegesis historically provided legitimacy for the great Buddhist mountains, ordinary pilgrims elevated the status of famous pilgrims by traversing to locations associated with them. Chinese pilgrimage can therefore be categorized in many different ways. Such categorizations include state-sponsored pilgrimage, Chan Buddhist pilgrimage (including pilgrimage to famous monastic residences), Daoist pilgrimage, and pilgrimage to Bodhisattvas.

General Overviews

The following works offer an overview of sacred geography in China. Significant to Chinese religious history is the demarcation of mountain landscapes. These locations were distinguished for their sacred magnetism, and seen as ideal for building monasteries and temples. But mountain locales are not the only places of spatial significance. Naquin 2000 focuses on temples as the locus of pilgrimage activity, and does so within the context of Beijing. Hanh 1988 discusses standard Daoist mountain configurations, which is included in this section, for it provides an overview of how such natural landscapes fit within a broader context of Chinese religious geography. Einarsen 1995 offers a transnational guide to sacred mountains, which is pivotal to understanding Chinese pilgrimage against the backdrop of Asia more broadly, and Naquin and Yü 1992 provides an essential introduction to views of pilgrimage from diverse Chinese contexts. Benn, et al. 2012 offers accounts regarding the development of sacred sites, as well as how mountains relate to religious ideology.

  • Benn, James, Jinhua Chan, and James Robson, ed. Images, Relics, and Legends: The Formation and Transformation of Buddhist Sacred Sites. Oakville, Canada: Mosaic, 2012.

    A collection of essays that expands understanding on the relationships between sacred sites, monastic communities, pilgrimage, and tributes to Buddhist saints and patriarchs.

  • Einarsen, John, ed. The Sacred Mountains of Asia. Boston: Shambhala, 1995.

    In this pan-Asian study of sacred mountains, the mountain as symbol and icon of sacredness comes forth, and essays in this collection emphasize mountains as abodes of deities and ancestors as well as pilgrimage destinations.

  • Hanh, Thomas. “The Standard Taoist Mountain and Related Features of Religious Geography.” Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie 4 (1988): 145–156.

    DOI: 10.3406/asie.1988.916

    Hanh discusses sacred geography within China, and provides a highly useful introduction to spatial arrangements within the Daoist context—both from the standpoint of natural landscapes and human constructed sanctuaries.

  • Naquin, Susan. Peking: Temples and City Life, 1400–1900. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

    Focusing on the Ming and Qing periods, Naquin historicizes Beijing itself as a sacred site, with temples existing in pilgrimage networks.

  • Naquin, Susan, and Chün-fang Yü, eds. Pilgrims and Sacred Sites in China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

    Provides an invaluable introduction to the Chinese notion of pilgrimage. Naquin and Yü unpack Chinese terms used for pilgrims and going on pilgrimage, and their edited volume offers individual studies of Chinese pilgrimage occurring at Buddhist, Daoist, and state significant locations.

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