Chinese Temple — Religion, Culture, and Art Across Time
What Is Chinese Temple and What Are They Used For?
Chinese temple includes buildings that were constructed for worshiping, inside of which preserve valuable relics and inherit sincere belief.
Though mainly to worship and memorize, temples in China are built to enshrine different deities:
Religious deities, mainly from Buddhism and Taoism Religion.
Ancestors, who contributed significantly and believed can bless their descendants in the other world.
Names and Classifications of Chinese Temples
Based on different religions, worship deities, scales, locations, etc., temples have many names in Chinese culture.
Miao: To worship ancestors of nobles in ancient history, great sages like Confucius, accomplished historical figures such as Yue Fei, and deities from folk mythology like Tudigong (Lord of the Soil and the Ground).
Ci: Mainly to enshrine and worship ancestors, sometimes also include influential historical figures.
Tan: High and magnificent platform for governments to worship the universe, like heaven, earth, sun, moon, magnificent mountains, and agricultural-related objects.
Guan: Taoist temple.
Gong: Grand Taoist temple building complex or imperial Taoist temple.
Si: Buddhist temple.
An: Nunnery buildings.
Taoist Temple — Characteristics and Facts
Taoist Temples are places to enshrine and worship deities of Taoism Religion, for Taoists to cultivate, live, and hold sacred activities, and for believers to visit and pray.
The layout of Taoist temples usually follows traditional Chinese architecture, facing south, symmetrical, with main halls built on the central axis.
Most Taoist temples are built in grand mountains that deities would be visiting or living according to ancient folklores, or in tranquil rural places that Taoists can practice with fewer interruptions.
Taoist Temple on Top of Mount Wangwu, Photo by Wang Yu.
Besides daily practice and cultivation, Taoists would hold different rituals in temples to help people.
Taoist temples can be constructed by Taoists, or with the support of believers. Those built with supports of royals are more exquisite and grand and are allowed to use colors and architectural styles of imperial buildings.
Buddhist Temple in China — History and Facts
Buddhist Temples are places to enshrine relics and statues of Buddhas, for Buddhists to worship, pray, cultivate, live, and hold sacred activities, and for believers to visit and pray.
The earliest and most ancient layout of Buddhist temples in China is square-shaped, with a pagoda in the center surrounded by buildings.
Since Song Dynasty (960 — 1279), the pagoda was not a necessity for a Chinese Buddhist temple, whose layout started to follow the traditional Chinese architecture: symmetrical and with main halls built on the central axis.
Buddhist temples in China are built in magnificent mountains where deities would be visiting or living in ancient folklores, in rural places where monks can practice and study Buddhism quietly, and in busy cities and towns where people can visit and pray conveniently.
Besides daily practice and cultivation, Buddhists would hold different rituals in temples to help people.
Buddhist temples can be constructed by Buddhists, or with the support of believers. Those built under the support of royals are more exquisite and grand and are allowed to use colors and architectural styles of imperial buildings.
Architectural Structures of Big Taoist and Buddhist Temples
Since Song Dynasty (960 — 1279) when pagodas were no longer the most important building of Buddhism in China, big temples of Buddhism and Taoism Religion became resemblance in architectural structures.
Three Gates, Mountain Gates, or Shan Men
Three arch gates are the main entrance of temples, they are also named Mountain Gates because temples have been mainly built in the mountains.
Three Gates, in Taoism Religion, mean Three Worlds (Heaven, Earth, and Human).
Three Gates, in Buddhism, represent The Three Gates of Liberation (Emptiness, Signlessness, and Aimlessness).
They are the boundaries of the secular world and religious world.
Walking through Three Gates represents having stepped out of the Three Worlds and emotions developed in the secular world, and entering of a religious, innocent, sincere, and sacred land.
Some grand temples also have Three Gates Hall (Sanmen Dian), with powerful deities guarding the entrance.
Three Gates Hall or Sanmen Dian of Jietai Temple in Beijing, Picture from Aya.
Bell Tower and Drum Tower
After the entrance of a temple are two opposing buildings: the Bell Tower and Drum Tower.
The bell would be rung in the morning and the drum hit in the evening, which mostly are used to tell time and serve ritual functions in important activities.
Bronze Bell Inside Bell Tower of Jingci Temple in Zhejiang, Picture from Qi Guanhe.
Halls enshrined with statues of deities are the main buildings, which are usually located on the central axis of temples.
The numbers and scales of halls differ based on the temple's finance and other reasons, however, some major ones are necessary, such as Sanqing Hall for Taoist temples, and Mahavira Hall for Buddhist temples.
Around the main sacred halls on the central axis are living areas, including buildings for Buddhists and Taoists to learn and cultivate, eat and sleep, and preserve valuable classics and relics.
Yards of Taiqing Palace in Mount Lao of Shandong, Picture from Chong Zhao.
Some grand temples would include other architectural forms, such as screen walls that were used to stop evils or for Fengshui purposes, decorative gateways to show honorable status, and magnificent pagodas in Buddhist temples.
Jinshan Temple in Zhenjiang City of Jiangsu Province
Confucius Temple — Veneration of Confucianism Sages
The first and biggest Confucius Temple was constructed in 478 BC in Qufu, the city where Confucius was born and buried.
After Confucianism was promoted as the dominant ideology during the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), the Confucius Temple in Qufu has been expanded several times by different emperors, while more Temples of Confucius were constructed in other cities and East Asia countries.
Main Hall of Temple of Confucius in Qufu
In ancient history, the Temple of Confucius has been an important cultural icon, when offering sacrificial ceremonies to Confucius were important rituals for royals, scholars, and civilians.
The second-largest Confucius Temple is in Beijing, constructed from 1302 to 1306, and had been the place for emperors to worship Confucius.
Imperial Style Color and Architectural Details of the Temple of Confucius in Beijing, Picture from Yangguang Canlan lyl.
Unlike Taoist and Buddhist temples, most Confucius temples were built in cities and towns, usually next to prefectural schools.
They follow the basic structure and layout of Confucius Temple in Qufu, but with smaller scales and fewer buildings.
In some places, renowned local officials and scholars would also be enshrined, for people to commemorate and worship.
Outstanding Art Forms in Chinese Temples
Ancient temples have been sacred land that carries sincere beliefs and prayers throughout history, and valuable places that preserve exceptional art and relics across time.
Music and Dance
List of the Most Beautiful and Exceptional Temples in China
White Horse Temple or Baima Si in Henan
White Horse Temple was the first Buddhist Temple in China, constructed in the year 68 AD under the support of Emperor Ming of Han.
Front Gate of White Horse Temple or Baima Si
Located in Mount Song, with the largest Pagoda Forest, and is famous for its Kong Fu.
Pagoda Forest of Shaolin Temple, Photo from Official Site of Mount Song.
Temples in Four Greatest Buddhist Mountains
Mount Wutai in Shanxi, the bodhimandala of Manjusri Bodhisattva (Wenshu Pusa).
Mount Putuo in Zhejiang, the bodhimandala of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva (Guanyin Pusa).
Mount Jiuhua in Anhui, the bodhimandala of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva (Dizang Pusa).
Mount Emei in Sichuan, the bodhimandala of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva (Puxian Pusa).
Golden Samantabhadra Bodhisattva Statue and Temples on Summit of Mount Emei.
Taoist Temples in Great Mountains
Wudang Mountains in Hubei
Mount Qingcheng in Sichuan
Mount Wangwu in Shanxi
Mount Hua in Shaanxi
Mount Tai in Shandong
Mount Maoshan in Jiangsu
Mount Qiyun in Anhui
Mount Longhu in Jiangxi
Mount Wuyi in Fujian
Wuyi Gong or Huixian Guan on Mount Wuyi, Photo by Chanjuan.
Three Great Ancestral Courts
The Three Great Ancestral Courts are the cradle and most sacred places of the Quanzhen School, the most dominant branch of Taoism Religion of China.
Chongyang Palace or Chongyang Gong in Shaanxi.
White Cloud Temple or Baiyun Guan in Beijing.
Yongle Palace or Yongle Gong in Shanxi.
Main Hall of Chongyang Palace in Shaanxi, Picture from Li Gaoyuan.
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