I've never had a tremendous interest in Daoism, but figured it wouldn't hurt to better familiarize myself with the history of the religion a bit. I picked up the number one book on Johnson's list - The Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits by Bill Porter.
I got very excited about this book just a few moments after opening it. The following map is on the page after the table of contents:
I copied this on a copy machine and then scanned it. Doesn't look quite as good as it does in the actual book. If you can't tell, this is a map of where Porter goes searching for hermits: Xi'an and Qinling Mountains of Shaanxi Province (the Sian in the middle of the map is Xi'an). The setting of Porter's book is where I lived while I was in China.
I thoroughly enjoyed that this book takes place on my old stomping grounds in China. Visiting ancient temples, meeting Daoist hermits, climbing serene mountains - Xi'an and its surrounding area is just a surreal place. When it comes to history and culture - the birthplace of Daoism, the numerous dyasties, the terracotta warriors, the beginning of the Silk Road, etc. - Xi'an can't be beat.
Outside of my three climbs of Hua Shan, I hadn't been to any of the places that Porter writes about. But anyone who's read my blog before or has seen my travel recommendations knows that I'm crazy about Hua Shan and am very taken by the Daoist aspects of that mountain.
Porter goes to Hua Shan in the book and has an entire chapter on the mountain. He gives a thorough history of Daoism on the mountain. Here is the beginning section of his Hua Shan chapter - "Sound of the Crane" from page 60:
Very romantic stuff, this. Between this chapter in Road to Heaven and the chapter "The Hermit of Hua Shan" in China Road, I've been able to learn a lot about Hua Shan since leaving China.
"The Road To Heaven" - A photo I took at Hua Shan in 2008
Qian and I just bought tickets for a three week trip to China this summer. I'm hoping to consult the map at the beginning of this post and the pages of Porter's book as a guide for an off-the-beaten-path couple day excursion outside of Xi'an. I'm not expecting that I'll run into hermits or go searching for the history of Daoism like Porter did. But spending some time in the Qinling mountains at the heart of China's Daoist history is something I want to try to do on our trip.
While there were parts of Road to Heaven that I really appreciated, it is hard for me on the whole to endorse the book very enthusiastically. The book was only 220 pages, yet it took me several weeks to finish. Many of the stories, history, and interviews with hermits ran together badly by the middle of the book. I got stuck/bored for long periods of time.
If you don't know the difference between Buddhism and Daoism, are interested in China's folk religions, are planning a trip to Xi'an, or want to read the history of China's only major home-grown religion, Road to Heaven is something you may appreciate. I didn't love the book, but I'm glad I picked it up.