The city of Tai'an is situated at the southern foot of Mount Tai, in the heart of Shandong Province, the coastal Chinese province that lies across the Yellow Sea from the Korean Peninsula. To the north of Shandong Peninsula lies the Bay of Bohai, whose nearest bay to Shandong Peninsula is Laizhou Bay. The capital of Shandong Province, Jinan, lies at the northern foot of Mount Tai, while Tai'an lies at the mountain's southern foot - almost due south of Jinan - a distance of only 50 kilometers or so, as the crow flies, though, by road, the distance is of course greater, or 66 kilometers.
The city of Tai'an borrows its name - and its fame - from the mountain, one of the Five Sacred Mountains to Taoism. Indeed, Mount Tai, associated with birth and renewal, is considered the most sacred of Taoism's Five Sacred Mountains. The most striking feature about the mountain is that it rises up from a surrounding plain that is low, relative to the mountain, and in fact, the surrounding plain lies at a low absolute altitude of about 150 meters above sea level. Mount Tai's highest peak, Jade Emperor Peak, lies at 1533 meters above sea level. It is this contrast with the surrounding terrain that adds to the special, majestic nature of Mount Tai, a mountain that is also associated with power - a fact that helps to explain the mountain's popularity among China's successive emperors.
The area around Mount Tai, not surprisingly - given that the Yellow River runs through the city of Jinan to the north while the Dawen River, a major tributary to the Yellow River, passes just south of the city of Tai'an - is considered the birthplace of Chinese civilization, though this may rest more on popular myth and the religious and physical significance of this imposing mountain than on hard, anthropological evidence. China's 5th oldest humanoid, Yiyuan Man, believed to have lived some 400-500 thousand years ago, i.e., during the Lower Paleolithic (2.5 million - 100 thousand years ago) Period, was discovered by Chinese archeologists in 1988 at the Qizianshan Site, located on Qizianshan Hill in nearby Yiyuan County, Shandong Province. (By comparison, China's oldest humanoid is Yuanmo Man (Yunnan Province), the next oldest is Lantian Man (Shaanxi Province), then comes Yunxian Man (Hubei Province) and Peking Man (Beijing/ Peking), then Yiyuan Man, etc.)
More recent, relatively speaking, Neolithic cultures existed in the province, the oldest of which is the Houli Culture (BCE 6500-5500). The Beixin Culture (BCE 5300-4100) existed in Shandong Province as well, while the Dawenkou Culture (BCE 4100-2600) existed specifically in the Mount Tai area of Shandong Province. The Longshan Culture (BCE 3000-2000) existed throughout the central and lower Yellow River plain, including in the area around Mount Tai.
In addition to nearby Yellow River and its major tributary, the Dawen River, there are several smaller feeder streams that empty into one or the other of these two principal rivers, meaning that this was a highly fertile area for primitive man to have made his home, and the presence of the nearby mountain would have provided caves as shelters for early humanoids (most of the prehistoric finds of humanoid traces stem from caves, such as the evidence provided by the famous Upper Paleolithic Period Cro-Magnon man wall paintings at Lascaux, in Dordogne, France).
A Brief History
The area around Mount Tai originally belonged to the Lu State (ca. BCE 1027-256), which was absorbed by the Chu State (BCE 722-221). The Chu State was a vast territory which, prior to absorbing the Lu State, lay south - and west and east - of present-day Shandong Province, occupying much of present-day Jiangsu, Anhui, Hubei, Hunan and Henan Provinces, as well as part of present-day Chongqing. Lu State was sandwiched in between Qi State (BCE ca.1027-221) to the north and east, and Chu State to the south. Both the Qi and Chu States would be conquered by the Qin State (BCE 778-221), which would then become China's first Imperial dynasty, the Qin (BCE 221-207) Dynasty. The period in question was the Eastern Zhou (770-221) Dynasty, which comprised the Spring and Autumn (BCE 770-476) Period (a relatively peaceful period) and the Warring States (BCE 475-221) Period (the name says it all!), though the Qi State spans the Western Zhou (BCE 1027-771) Dynasty as well. It was during the Spring and Autumn Period that the mountain's name was changed from Mount Dai to Mount Tai.
From the beginning of the Imperial period, Mount Tai became a popular destination for Chinese emperors; 72 of them made annual pilgrimages to Mount Tai in order to conduct sacrificial ceremonies (typically, gifts of food and drink, as was the Chinese custom) and to pay homage to the mountain in the form of speeches by the emperor and his ministers, with singing and dancing ceremonies performed by royal and local troupes, which ceremonies became more elaborate down through time, in keeping with the opulence of the Imperial court. Some of the more prominent emperors to visit Mount Tai include: Emperor Qin Shihuang of the Qin Dynasty, who reigned during the period BCE 246-210; Emperor Wudi of the Western Han (BCE 206 - CE 009) Dynasty, who reigned during the period BCE 140-87; Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty, who reigned during the period CE 712-756; and Emperor Qianlong of the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty, who reigned during the period CE 1735-1796.
Mount Tai As A Present-Day Tourist Site
Mount Tai, rising up like an elongated pyramid out of a flat, featureless plain, is the fitting symbol of the majesty and grandeur that is accorded the most preeminent mountain among China's Five Sacred Mountains (note that although Mount Tai is sacred especially to Taoism, the mountain has come to symbolize the spirtual and cultural origin of the Chinese people, therefore one can justifiably claim that Mount Tai is not only one of China's Five Sacred Mountains (sometimes referred to as China's Five Great Mountains), but the greatest among these five special mountains).
Mount Tai stretches for 100 kilometers from east to west, and about 50 kilometers from north to south. Its large base covers an area of 426 square kilometers. The mountain's elongated base and it massive profile gives an impression of solidity, which in turn suggests dignity. Mount Tai is covered in cypresses and Chinese pine trees - many of the latter being very old specimens - and with towering, barren peaks and rock outcroppings of granite and other metamorphic rock such as schist, i.e., metamorphic rock composed of thin, elongated layers, albeit quite dense and therefore quite heavy (most of the steps of the staircases of Mount Tai are carved from schist).
There are three main peaks on the mountain: Jade Emperor Peak, the tallest, as indicated, lying at 1533 meters above sea level; Heaven's Southern Gate Peak, at 1460 meters; and Heaven's Midway Gate Peak, at 847 meters. From Mount Tai's top one can see the Yellow Sea to the east; and to the northwest, the Yellow River. The mountain is divided into 5 tourist zones, with 2 routes up the mountain: one in the east and one in the west. From Songshan Valley below up to the top of Heaven's Southern Gate Peak runs the serpentine path that makes 18 turns, the Ladder to Heaven as it is called, which consists of 6660 stone steps carved out of schist that was extracted from the mountain. Though this staircase is only about 1 kilometer long, it rises some 400 meters, making it quite a steep climb. The staircase was so named because the mountain itself, since ancient times, was believed to be a ladder to heaven. Given that Chinese emperors, not unlike their royal European counterparts, felt themselves especially linked to heaven, Chinese emperors were particularly fond of visiting and holding religious ceremonies on Mount Tai.
There are a number of smaller Buddhist as well as Taoist temples situated alongside the paths that lead up the sides of the mountain. The two main Taoist temples on Mount Tai are Dai Temple, located at the base of the mountain, and Azure Cloud Temple, located at its peak, which also served as the traditional sacrificial altar used by emperors. There are also many stelae with inscriptions on Mount Tai, and many large boulders on whose barren, vertical faces are engraved Chinese characters in superhuge format, as if a Chinese variant of Mount Rushmore in the US (the site where the faces of four US presidents have been carved out of a cliff), except that instead of depictions of faces, one sees colorful calligraphy on the rock faces of Mount Tai, and except for the fact that the mountainside calligraphy on Mount Tai was done long before America was even discovered.
Such famous Chinese personages as Cao Zhi (CE 192-232), Confucius (BCE 551-479), Du Fu (CE 712-770), Li Bai (CE 701-762) and Sima Qian (BCE ca.140-86) tread these paths, composed verse in honor of the mountain and its holy sites - verse that can be seen on the stelae round about the mountain - and etched the superhuge Chinese characters into the stone faces that tourists witness today. During the Warring States Period, a 500-kilometer defensive wall was built here, stretching from Mount Tai to the Yellow Sea.
In all there are 97 scenic and historical sites on Mount Tai, and 22 ancient building complexes, the latter of which stem from China's various Imperial dynasties, making Mount Tai a sort of open-air museum of ancient Chinese architecture. The four main sites on Mount Tai are Sun Rises from the East, Golden Belt Along the Yellow River, Beautiful Sunset and the Sea of Clouds. Other notable sites on the mountain include Heaven's Southern Gate (at the peak of the same name), Zhongtian Gate, Bixia Temple, Confucian Temple, Zhanglu Terrace, Sun-Watching Peak, Moon-Watching Peak, Aolai Peak, Fan Cliff, Rare Rock Dock, Longtan Reservoir, Black Dragon Pool, Dragon Pool Waterfall, Longevity Bridge, Duansong Hill and Five-Doctor Pine. There are also 1800 stone sculptures here, including famous sculptures such as: the Carved Road, which stems from the Qin Dynasty; the Buddhist Diamond Sutra, located in Sutra Stone Valley; and the Wordless Stone Tablet and the Scripture of Taishan Mountain History, both carved on Tangmo Cliff.
Besides its Taoist temples, Mount Tai also has several Buddhist temples, chief among these being Lingyan Temple, with its Thousand-Buddha Hall that dates from the Song Dynasty, and which also features 40 arhats (statues of bodhisattvas, or devotees aspiring to attain nirvana, i.e., immortality) that are very famous for their individuality and expressiveness (arhats typically depict specific human emotions). A visit to nearby Peach Blossom Ravine is also a must for visitors to the Tai'an area.
Not surprisingly, given Mount Tai's religious and cultural significance to the people of China - and indeed, its cultural significance to all of mankind - the mountain has been enregistered as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site since 1987. Mount Tai is still a place of pilgrimage for Taoists and Buddhists the world over. An ancient Chinese saying that sums up the Chinese people's feelings about this sacred mountain goes as follows: "If all is well on Mount Tai, then all is well in the rest of the kingdom". (Learn more about Mount Tai and its many attractions, including Dai Temple.)
Local/ Regional Travel Tips
A) How to get to Tai'an (Regional/ Local Transportation) - Currently, there is no airport in Tai'an, the nearest major airport being Yaoqiang Airport (aka Jinan Yaoqiang International Airport, or Jinan International Airport (TNA), for short), near the city of Jinan. Understandably, there is no direct bus between Jinan International Airport and the city of Tai'an; one must first take a bus from the airport to the city of Jinan, then take a train (to Taishan Railway Station in Tai'an) or a long-distance bus to Tai'an (there are two long-distance bus station options in Tai'an), where one can take one of two local buses to complete the trip to Mount Tai, via two separate local routes (corresponding to the two different entrance gates to the mountain). We have set up a special page that explains in detail these diverse regional/ local travel options.
B) Sightseeing in neighboring cities - Tai'an is neighbor to Qufu, the hometown of Confucius, which lies about 75 kilometers to the south, also in Shandong Province. Additionally, the "City of Springs", as it is nicknamed, Jinan, lies 50 kilometers almost due north of Tai'an, as the crow flies, though by road, the distance is 66 kilometers. Both of these interesting old cities are truly worthy of a visit.
Good Advice When Climbing Mount Tai
1) As indicated, the city of Tai'an is located at the southern foot of Mount Tai. The temperature varies greatly as one ascends the mountain. Being such a close neighbor to a mountain involves special weather conditions that are best explained on our separate, detailed page, Tai'an Weather.
2) Visiors are urged to familiarize themselves with the routes up Mount Tai, and are strongly advised - to be on the safe (rather than the foolhardy) side - to bring along a map of the mountain and its access routes. You will also need to bring along food and drink, as there are no such facilities on the mountain.
3) There are four routes that lead to the summit of Mount Tai. Of these, the East Route is the most popular. It is also considered to be the route which China's emperors took when performing the annual sacrificial ceremonies atop Mount Tai. The East Route starts from Mount Tai Arch, near Dai Temple (note that most visitors prefer to visit the temple before proceeding up the mountain, and in ancient times, it was unthinkable to risk a trip up the mountain without first paying one's respects at Dai Temple). There are in all about 7200 stone steps along the East Route, with a number of sightseeing venues along the way, where one can pause for a rest/ refreshments (reread the last part of point 2 above!), including the following: Red Gate Palace, Jing Shui Valley, Hu Tian Pavilion and Eight Mountain Bends, to name the most prominent. It usually takes normal walkers about 6 hours to get to the summit, while experienced hikers who are prepared to alternate brisk hiking with jogging, and who are in good form, manage it in about 2 ½ - 3 hours. A knowledge of the weather is invaluable, so be sure to check out the aforementioned weather page (point 1 above), and remember that mountains generally vary from temperate zones at their base to frigid zones at their peaks, so bring along layered clothing, including a good coat (see the next point below).
4) Since there is a considerable difference in temperature between the foot of Mount Tai and its summit, regardless of the season, extra clothing is a must, and a light, breathable rainjacket that can be packed away is never a bad idea, as it can also serve as a windbreaker. Good, sturdy boots/ shoes that protect the ankle and that have been adequately broken in are also a good idea. In fact, mountaineering attire is highly recommended.
5) Mount Tai is abundant in both sunshine and forests; the former calls for sunblock, lip balm, and perhaps a hat (and long-sleeve clothing if you have particularly light skin), while the latter, since it means that many animals as well as water puddles (breeding grounds) are present, calls for a good mosquito repellent (where a free lunch is on offer, the hungry will quickly accustom themselves to it!).
6) On a happier note, if you are up to it, witnessing a sunrise on Mount Tai is a memorable experience. However, if getting up at midnight and hiking up a mountain is not your idea of pleasure, you should at least consider catching a sunset from atop Mount Tai; it too is a memorable experience, and the trip down the mountain is considerably less taxing.
7) For those who might wish to alternate between walking and mechanized transportation up the mountain, there are buses that will take you to Heaven's Midway Gate (located, as suggested, halfway up the mountainside), from whence you can take a cable car to the summit. Naturally, you can also take one or the other of the mechanized forms of transportation, then walk the rest of the way.