A temple, mountain, giant statue, dynastic tale and myths — Taiqing Palace draws GEMMA NISBET into its timeless story.
There’s a wall in a courtyard at Taiqing Palace which, it’s said, you can walk straight through — provided you’ve never told a lie in your life.
There are dozens of such stories, traditions and superstitions here at Taiqing, the largest of the temple complexes at Mt Lao, near the port city of Qingdao in northern China.
Crossing the threshold of the gate into the Taoist temple, for example, women are instructed to step first with our right foot, while the men are told to lead with their left.
Inside, we come across an oddly shaped elm said to resemble a dragon, which we can touch in hope of securing longevity for ourselves and our families, and a green stone turtle said to possess similar powers.
Elsewhere, visitors have tied red ribbons to tree branches, seeking good luck or the fulfilment of specific wishes.
Indeed, walking through the quiet, shady temple grounds on this weekday morning, it’s not hard to see why people have been coming here for centuries to seek enlightenment, good fortune or simply a respite from the wider world.
Qin Shi Huang — who became the first emperor of a unified China in 220BC — is said to have visited Mt Lao as part of his quest for immortality, as did Emperor Wu, of the Han Dynasty.
Today there are just a few worshippers, kneeling in front of the elaborate altars or lighting the sticks of incense whose scent hangs heavy in the sea air.
Taiqing’s history stretches back more than 2000 years, and some of the trees within its grounds are similarly ancient — a pair of gingko trees said to be at least 1000 years old; an elm planted at the end of the Tang Dynasty; even a camellia that’s survived more than four centuries.
The mountain itself — a granite crag blanketed in foliage — has special religious significance for Buddhists and for Taoists in particular.
Indeed, Mt Lao is considered to be one of the cradles of Taoism and the philosopher Lao Tzu, one of the religion’s founding figures, is commemorated in eye-catching style with a copper statue that towers over the temple on the hillside.
A run of steep steps leads to a temple at the base of the statue — which, according to our guide, stands precisely 36.9m high, three being a significant number in the Taoist tradition.
Mt Lao is also known for its spring water, regarded as possessing health-giving properties and apparently still used to brew at least some of Qingdao’s well-known Tsingtao beer.
The springs’ origins are said to lie in another of the tales about Mt Lao: that of a peasant who was given a magical vessel which multiplied whatever he put in it — be it food, money or water — and which enabled him to save his neighbours from imminent starvation.
But word of this miracle soon spread, and the peasant was forced to hide the vessel to avoid violence. Eventually greedy officials — or, in some versions of the story, the emperor — arrived to seize the treasure. The peasant, fearing the vessel would fall into the wrong hands, threw it from a cliff and leapt after it to his death.
From where the shards of the vessel fell, the freshwater springs of Mt Lao began to flow.
- Taiqing Palace is about an hour’s drive from central Qingdao. It and the wider Mt Lao area are most easily visited on a guided tour — mine was a shore excursion during a port call to Qingdao aboard Viking Orion.
- Qingdao, including the 15-day Far East Discovery between Beijing and Hong Kong. Departures in late 2019 cost from $5995 per person. The price includes alternative restaurant dining, beer and wine with lunch and dinner, wi-fi, a shore excursion in each port and more. Phone 138 747 or see Viking Cruises.