Each of the four mountains are viewed as the abode or place of practice (dàocháng; 道場) of one of the four great bodhisattvas.
It takes its name from its unusual topography, consisting of five rounded peaks (North, South, East, West, Central), of which the North peak, called Beitai Ding or Yedou Feng, is the highest, and indeed the highest point in northern China.
Wutai was the first of the four mountains to be identified and is often referred to as "first among the four great mountains." It was identified on the basis of a passage in the Avatamsaka Sutra (Ch: Húayán jīng; 華嚴經), which describes the abodes of many bodhisattvas. In this chapter, Manjusri is said to reside on a "clear cold mountain" in the northeast. This served as charter for the mountains identity and its alternate name "Clear Cool Mountain" (Ch: Qīngliáng Shān; 清涼山).
The bodhisattva is believed to frequently manifest himself on the mountain, taking the form of ordinary pilgrims, monks, or most often unusual five-colored clouds.
Mount Wutai is home to some of the oldest existent wooden buildings in China that have survived since the era of the Tang Dynasty (618–907). This includes the main hall of Nanchan Monastery and the East Hall of Fuguang Monastery, built in 782 and 857, respectively. They were discovered in 1937 and 1938 by a team of architectural historians including the prominent early 20th century historian Liang Sicheng. The architectural designs of these buildings have since been studied by leading sinologists and experts in traditional Chinese architecture, such as Nancy Steinhardt. Steinhardt classified these buildings according to the hall types featured in the Yingzao Fashi Chinese building manual written in the 12th century.
In 2008 Chinese authorities hope that the shrine at Mount Wutai will be considered for designation as a Unesco world heritage site. Local residents, however, claim they have been forced from their homes and relocated away from their livelihoods in preparation for the bid