Chinese temples — whether they be Taoist, Buddhist or Confucian — have a similar lay out, with features found in traditional Chinese courtyard houses and elements intended to confuse or repel evil spirits. Temples are usually surrounded by a wall and face south in accordance with feng shui principals. The gates usually contain paintings, reliefs or statues of warrior deities intended to keep evil spirits away. Through the gates is a large courtyard, which is often protected by a spirit wall, a another layer of protection intended to keep evil spirits at bay. The halls of the temple are arranged around the courtyard with the least important being near the entrance in case evil spirits do get in.
Chinese temples are often comprised of many buildings, halls and shrines. They tend to be situated in the middle of towns and have north-south axises. Large halls, shrines and important temple buildings have traditionally been dominated by tiled roofs, which are usually green or yellow and sit atop eaves decorated with religious figures and good luck symbols. The roofs are often supported on magnificently carved and decorated beams, which in turn are supported by intricately carved stone dragon pillars. Many temples are entered through the left door and exited through the right.
Pagodas are towers generally found in conjunction with temples or viewed as temples themselves. Some can be entered; others can not. The Chinese have traditionally believed that the heavens were round and the earth was square. This concept is reflected in the fact that pagodas have square bases rooted to the earth but have a circular or octagonal plans so they look round when viewed by the gods above in the sky.
Early Chinese-style pagodas were modeled after Indian stupas. Pagoda architecture arrived with Buddhism but over the centuries developed a distinctly Chinese characteristics that influenced the architecture in Japan and Korea and other places.
In the Mao era, temples were often used as storehouse for the local production team. Since Mao's death many temples have been reclaimed for religious observances and thousands of new temples, many devoted to local gods in rural areas, have been built. More than 1,300 temples were built in Shaanxi province alone in the 1990s.
In many cases, these temples have not only become a place to worship but have become a center of social and welfare activity. The Black Dragon Temple in Shaanxi, for example, sponsors deforestation and irrigation projects, builds schools and provides assistance for the poor.
Religious buildings in China are traditionally built in secluded, auspicious locales on mountains or hilltops, tucked in among trees. The aesthetics of the physical setting is of paramount importance in the placement of religious buildings in China, as the physical setting contributes greatly to the overall religious experience. [Source: Chinatravel.com]
Good Websites and Sources: Traditional Religion in China: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religion Facts religionfacts.com; Video: “Ancestor Worship, Confucian Teaching, featuring Myron L. Cohen Asia for Educators, Columbia University Funerals and Death: Chinese Beliefs About Death deathreference.com ; Death and Burials in China chia.chinesemuseum.com.au ;
Types of Chinese Temples
According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: In imperial times, before Communism, “the state was deeply involved in other areas of life that had a major impact on religious practice and belief. Some have referred to this as the State Cult. The arrangement of state ritual below the emperor was coordinated exactly with the national administrative system. At each administrative level — province, prefecture, and county — there was a city or town serving as the administrative seat, where in addition to the government compound (yamen) which was the officiating magistrate’s headquarters, there were several official religious establishments: Among the most important were the Confucian or civil temple (wen miao), and the military temple (wu miao), which were the ritual foci of the two major divisions in the Chinese bureaucracy; and also the City God temple (chenghuang miao). [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia]
“Confucian Temples: The Confucian temple housed a spirit tablet dedicated to Confucius himself, along with a collection of spirit tablets dedicated to various important scholars in the Confucian canon (many of these being Confucius’ own disciples; others would be eminent Confucian scholars from later times). Rites at the Confucian temple were held by and for government officials of the district, as well as for the vastly larger number of degree-holders not in office. All the degree-holders of a district were required to attend the annual worship at the temple of Confucius on his birthday.
Military Temples: The military temple was the major temple for local people who had obtained degrees in the military examination system and were part of the military bureaucracy, which was subordinate to the civil bureaucracy. The military temple was devoted to the god of war, Guan Yu, and housed spirit tablets dedicated to Guan Yu as well as other figures who represented loyalty and patriotism, the two key values promoted in the military temples.
City God and Military Temples
In the old days, most Chinese cties and large towns had a city god temple (chenghuang miao). A city serving as both prefectural seat and county seat would have two sets of state temples. On the City God temple in Shanghai, Asian Historical Architecture reports: “Like the Ancient Greeks, the Chinese traditionally believe that guardian gods watch over their cities. The first temple to the God of Shanghai was founded in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) when a shrine was erected to the City God of Huating County. However, the Huating shrine was located in Danjing Temple, far from its current location. The present site was first used during the reign of Emperor Yongle (1403-1425) in the Ming Dynasty. A statue of General Huo Guang of the Han Dynasty was enshrined in the front hall, while a statue of Qin Yubo, the god of the City, rested in the back hall. [Source: Asian Historical Architecture orientalarchitecture.com ]
“Qin Yubo is a Taoist deity renowned for his character and learning. Legends say that in the early Ming dynasty Qin Yubo was a righteous scholar who, out of disdain for politics, refused to become a court official. Upon his death in 1377, the emperor lamented that he never succeeded in luring the honest official to the central government, which was rife with corruption. The emperor decided to honor him posthumously by bestowing on him the status of Deity. Charged with protecting the land, the spirit of Qin Yubo is thought to be active in Shanghai even today. The area around the temple has grown into a thriving market, with over 100 stores selling all kinds of traditional products. Most of the store buildings are nearly a century old.
On the General Yue Fei Memorial temple in Hangzhou, an example of a military temple, Asian Historical Architecture says: “This temple was built in honor of Yue Fei, a general of the Southern Song dynasty when the capital of China was in Hangzhou. He was falsely accused and executed at the behest of the Prime Minister, Qin Hui, in 1141. Twenty years later the emperor recognized the general's loyalty and had this tomb and temple complex built to honor him. At one time the temple was an active center of worship, under the direction of the state cult, with semi annual sacrifices. Today it is a memorial to the spirit of loyalty and patriotism, which General Yue displayed, but has no religious significance. The buildings are all in excellent condition and constitute a museum of sorts. They have obviously undergone major renovation in recent years. The tombs and the tomb sculptures date from the 12th century, and have been meticulously restored.”
Chinese Temple Features
Temple under construction Many temples have courtyards. Often, in the middle of the courtyard is a small bowl where incense and paper money are burnt. Offerings of fruit and flowers are left in a main hall at the intricately-carved altars, often decorated with red brocade embroidery with gilded characters.
Traditional Chinese temples contain wall paintings, carved tile walls and shrines to gods and ancestors that in turn are wonderfully decorated with wood carvings, murals, ceramic figures and plaster moldings with motifs that the Chinese regard as auspicious.
On the outside of temples there are often stone walls with simple carvings; gates with statues of fanged, bug-eyed goblins, intended to keep evil spirits away; and monuments of children who displayed filial piety to their parents and virgins who lost their fiances before marriage but remained pure their entire life.
Wealthy Chinese temples often contain gongs, bells, drums, side altars, adjoining rooms, accommodation for the temple keepers, chapels for praying and shrines devoted to certain deities. There is generally no set time for praying or making offerings — people visit whenever they feel like it — and the only communal services are funerals.
At Chinese temples orange and red signifies happiness and joy; white represents purity and death; green symbolizes harmony; yellow and gold represents heaven; and grey and black symbolize death and misfortune. Swastikas are often seen on Chinese temples. The Chinese word for swastika (wan) is a homonym of the word for "ten thousand," and is often used in the lucky phrase "chi-hsiang wan-fu chih suo chü" meaning "the coming of great fortune and happiness." See Hinduism, Buddhism
Chinese Temple Practices
Lighting joss sticks Busy Chinese temples are smokey places crowded with people lighting bouquets of smoking joss sticks, saying prayers, leaving jade orchid blossoms as offerings, throwing sheng bei (fortune-telling wooden blocks) and donating ghost money to variety of ancient gods in return for things like good luck on the lottery, good scores for children on important exams and good business.
Temples in China are not good places to visit if you have respiratory problems: burning incense coils, some of them 50-feet in length when unraveled, hang from the ceiling; joss sticks smoke away in urns; and pieces of ignited rice paper are tossed into the air by worshipers. Temple goers burn fake money for longevity and set fire to paper cars and TV sets at funerals. In 1995, the Chinese government banned the practice of burning money during ancestor worship ceremonies because the custom was officially deemed a fire hazard and a superstition. In January 2006, 36 people were killed in an explosion when devout Buddhists in the central province of Henan burned incense and prayed at a temple near warehouse storing firecrackers, igniting the fireworks.
Reporting from Beijing, Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Times: In the northern suburbs of this city is a small temple to a Chinese folk deity, Lord Guan, a famous warrior deified more than a millennium ago. Renovated five years ago at the government’s expense, the temple is used by a group of retirees who run pilgrimages to a holy mountain, schoolchildren who come to learn traditional culture and a Taoist priest who preaches to wealthy urbanites about the traditional values of ancient China. During a visit” there “I saw a dozen or so people, mostly in their 30s and 40s, reading works by Wang Yangming, a philosopher born in the late 15th century. On the face of it, this was in line with government policy: The party has embraced Wang for exemplifying an incorruptible spirit and matching words with deeds. But after reading a passage of Wang’s work, the men and women sat around a big wooden table, wielding brushes to write out, over and over again, his most famous phrase: “zhi xing he yi” (knowledge and action are one). This knowledge, according to Wang, comes from an inner light, a conscience — one that no government, no matter how powerful, can control. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Times, December 21, 2019; Johnson is the author of“The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao”]
Rules on Temples and Spiritual Sites in China
According to the U.S. State Department: The government offers some subsidies for the construction of state-sanctioned places of worship and religious schools. Under the regulations, if a religious structure is to be demolished or relocated because of city planning or construction of key projects, the party responsible for demolishing the structure should consult with the religious affairs bureau and the religious group using the structure. If all parties agree to the demolition, the party conducting the demolition should agree to rebuild the structure or provide compensation equal to its appraised market value. In some cases officials do not hold developers accountable to these regulations or collude with them in their demolition plans. [Source: “International Religious Freedom Report for 2013 China”, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State, state.gov /|]
As new regulations aimed at reigning in religion were put in place in the fall of 2016 by the Chinese government, Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Times: The rules on religion pledge to protect holy sites from commercialization. Temples are often forced by local governments to charge entrance fees, which mostly go to the state and not the place of worship. About 600 people were recently detained at Mount Wutai, a Buddhist pilgrimage site in a northeastern city, for posing as monks to hustle money by fortunetelling, begging for alms and performing street shows, the state news media reported. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Times, October 7, 2016]
“The new regulations say spiritual sites should be “safeguarded” from tourism and development. The rules also require local governments to decide on applications to build houses of worship within 30 days and to explain denials in writing. Scholars caution that it is unclear how strictly the regulations will be enforced, noting that local officials have often tolerated and sometimes encouraged religious activity that is formally illegal, including house churches.
“For traditional Chinese religions such as Buddhism and Taoism — which are practiced by 300 million to 400 million people and which the party views more favorably — the regulations appear intended to address a different problem: crass commercialization .“Past regulations have not harmed the growth of religion in China,” said James Tong, a political-science professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has written extensively about religious regulation in China, “and I don’t think these will, either.”
Village Temples in 19th Century China
In 1899,Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “It is seldom safe to generalize in regard to anything in China, but if there is one thing in regard to which a generalization would seem to be more safe than another, it would be the universality of temples in every village throughout the empire. Yet it is an undoubted fact that there are, even in China, great numbers of villages which have no temple at all. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg. Smith (1845 –1932) was an American missionary who spent 54 years in China. He spent much of his time in Pangzhuang,a village in Shandong.]
“The most ordinary explanation of a comparatively rare phenomenon of a village without a temple, is that the hamlet is a small one and cannot afford the expense. Sometimes it may have been due to the fact that there was no person of sufficient intelligence in the village to take the initial steps, and as one generation is much influenced by what was done and what was not done in the generations that have passed, five hundred years may elapse without the building of a temple, simply because a temple was not built five hundred years ago. In the very unusual cases where a village is without one, it is not because they have no use for the gods; for in such instances the villagers frequently go to the temples of the next village and “borrow their light,” just as a poor peasant who cannot afford to keep an animal to do his plowing may get the loan of a donkey in planting time, from a neighbor who is better off.
“There is no limit to the number of temples which a single village may be persuaded into building. Some villages of three hundred families have one to every ten families, but this must be an exceptional ratio. It is a common saying among the Chinese that the more temples a village has, the poorer it is, and also the worse its morals. But, on the other hand, the writer has heard of one village which has none at all, but which has acquired the nickname of “Ma Family Thief Village.” It seems reasonable to infer from the observed facts that, when they have fallen into comparative desuetude, temples are almost inert, so far as influence goes. But when filled with indolent and vicious priests, as is too often the case, they are baneful to the morals of any community. In the rural districts, it is comparatively rare to find resident priests, for the reason that they cannot live from the scanty revenue, and a year of famine will starve them out of large districts.
Types of Village Temples in 19th Century China
Temple under construction ,Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “The two temples which are most likely to be found, though all others be wanting, are those of the local god, and of the god of war. The latter has been made much of by the present dynasty, and greatly promoted in the pantheon. The former is regarded as a kind of constable in the next world, and he is to3 be informed promptly on the death of an adult, that he may report to the city god who in turn reports to Yen Wang, the Chinese war god. In case a village has no temple to the local god, news of the death is conveyed to him by wailing at the crossing of two streets, where he is supposed to be in ambush.
“Tens of thousands of villages are content with these two temples, which are regarded as almost indispensable. If the village is a large one, divided into several sections transacting their public business independently of one another, there may be several temples to the same divinity. It is a common saying, illustrative of Chinese notions on this topic, that the local god at one end of the village has nothing to do with the affairs of the other end of the village.
“The temples most popular in one region may be precisely those which are rarely seen in another, but next to those already named perhaps the most frequently honoured divinities are the Goddess of Mercy (Kuan Yin P‘u Sa), some variety of the manifold goddess known as “Mother” (Niang Niang), and Buddha. What is called the “Hall of the Three Religions” (San Chiao T‘ang), is one of the instructive relics of a time when the common proposition that the “three religions are really one” was not so implicitly received as now. In the Hall of the Three Religions, Confucius, Lao-tzŭ (the founder of Taoism), and Buddha, all stand together on one platform; but Buddha, the foreigner, is generally placed in the middle as the post of honour, showing that even to the Chinese the native forms of faith have seemed to be lacking in something which Buddhism attempts to supply. This place has not been obtained, however, without a long struggle.
“Another form of genial compromise of rival claims, is what is called “The Temple of All the gods” (Ch‘uan shên miao), in which a great variety of deities are represented on a wall, but with no clear precedence of honour. Temples to the god of Literature, (Wenchang Wang) are built by subscriptions of the local scholars, or by taxes imposed by the District Magistrate. It is impossible to arrive at any exact conclusions on the subject, but it is probable that the actual cost of the temples, in almost any region in China, would be found to form a heavy percentage of the income of the people in the district.
Building and Funding 19th Century Chinese Village Temples
Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”:“The process by which the inconceivably great numbers of Chinese temples came to be is not without an interest of its own. When a few individuals wish to build a temple, they call the headmen of the village, in whose charge by long custom are all the public matters of the town, and the enterprise is put in their care. It is usual to make an assessment on the land for funds; this is not necessarily a fixed sum for each acre, but is more likely to be graded according to the amount of land each owns, the poor being perhaps altogether exempt, or very lightly taxed, and the rich paying much more heavily. When the money is all collected by the managers, the building begins under their direction. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899]
If the temple is to be a large one, costing several hundred tæls, in addition to this preliminary tax, a subscription book is opened, and sent to all the neighboring villages, and sometimes to all within a wide radius, the begging being often done by some priest of persuasive powers, dragging a chain, or having his cheeks pierced with spikes, or in some way bearing the appearance of fulfilling a vow. The only motive to these outside contributions is the strong impetus to the “practice of virtue,” which exists among the Chinese, and which can be played upon to almost any extent. Lists of contributions are kept in the larger temples, and the donors are expected to receive the worth of their money, through seeing their names posted in a conspicuous place, as subscribers of a certain sum. In some regions it is customary to set down the amount given as much larger than it really is, by a fiction equally agreeable to all concerned. Thus the donor of 250 cash sees his name paraded as the subscriber of 1,000 cash, and so throughout. These subscriptions to temples are in reality a loan to be repaid whenever the village subscribing finds itself in need of similar help, and the obligation will not be forgotten by the donors.
“When the temple has been built, if the managers have been prudent, they are not unlikely to have collected much more than they will use in the building. This surplus is used partly in giving a theatrical exhibition, to which all donors are invited—which is the only public way in which their virtue can be acknowledged—but mainly in the purchase of land, the income of which shall support the temple priest. In this way, a temple once built is in a manner endowed, and becomes self-supporting. The managers select some one of the donors, and appoint him a sort of president of the board of trustees, (called a shan chu, or “master of virtue”), and he is the person with whom the managers take account for the rent and use of the land. Sometimes a public school is supported from the income of the land, and sometimes this income is all gambled away by vicious priests, who have devices of their own to get control of the property to the exclusion of the villagers. When temples get out of repair, which, owing to their defective construction, is constantly the case, they must be rebuilt by a process similar to that by which they were originally constructed; for in China there are as truly successive crops of temples as of turnips.
Uses and Management of Village Temples in 19th Century China
Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: ““The erection of a temple is but the beginning of an interminable series of expenses; for, if there is a priest, he must be paid for each separate service rendered, and will besides demand a tax in grain of every villager after the wheat and autumn harvests—exactions which often become burdensome in the extreme. In addition to this, minor repairs keep up an unceasing flow of money. If there is an annual chanting of sacred books (called ta chiao), this is also a heavy expense. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899]
“Temples that are a little distance from a village are a favourite resort of thieves, as a convenient place to divide their booty, and also are resting-places for beggars. To prevent this misuse, it is common to see the door entirely bricked up, or perhaps a small opening may be left for the divinity to breathe through!
“Temples which are not much used are convenient receptacles for coffins, which have been prepared in the Chinese style before they are needed, and also for the images of animals, made of reeds and paper, which are designed to be burnt at funerals that they may be thus transported to the spirit world. If the temple has a farm attached, the divinities are quite likely to be obscured, in the autumn, by the crops which are hung up to dry all about and even over them; for storage space under a roof is one of the commodities most rare in the village.
Image Sources: 7) Temple, Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html; 8) Temple construction, kowtowing child and joss sticks, beifan.com, Wikimedia Commons,
Text Sources: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.
Last updated September 2021