Chinese Temple — Religion, Culture, and Art Across Time

Main Hall of Foguang Temple, Constructed in the Year 857 on Mount Wutai

Main Hall of Foguang Temple, Constructed in the Year 857 on Mount Wutai, Photo by Kou Jie.

 

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:

 

 

 

  • Sages and influential figures in history, who believed became immortals after departures, such as Confucius, Guan Yu, and Yue Fei

 

  • Ancestors, who contributed significantly and believed can bless their descendants in the other world. 

Hanging Temple or Xuankong Si in North Mount Heng, is the only Chinese temple of three religions (Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism) coexisting

Hanging Temple or Xuankong Si in North Mount Heng, is the only temple of three religions (Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism) coexisting, whose main hall enshrines Lao Zi, Confucius, and Sakyamuni. 

 

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. 

Qi'nian Dian of Temple of Heaven or Tian Tan in Beijing

Qi'nian Dian of Temple of Heaven or Tian Tan, the Imperial Sacrificial Altar for Emperors of the Ming (1368 — 1644) and Qing (1636 — 1912) Dynasties to Worship Heaven, Photo from Official Site of Tiantan Park.

  • Guan: Taoist temple.

 

  • Gong: Grand Taoist temple building complex or imperial Taoist temple.

 

  • Si: Buddhist temple.

 

  • An: Nunnery buildings. 

Taoist Temple Zhizhi An of Mount Wuyi

Zhizhi An or Zhizhi Nunnery in Mount Wuyi

 

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.

 

Layout

 

The layout of Taoist temples usually follows traditional Chinese architecture, facing south, symmetrical, with main halls built on the central axis.

 

Location

 

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

Taoist Temple on Top of Mount Wangwu, Photo by Wang Yu.

Activities

 

Besides daily practice and cultivation, Taoists would hold different rituals in temples to help people.

 

Building

 

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. 

Royal Style Temple Buildings of Wudang Mountains, Imperial Taoist Temples of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644)

Royal Style Temple Buildings of Wudang Mountains, Imperial Taoist Temples of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644).

 

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.

 

Layout 

 

When Buddhism was introduced to China in Eastern Han Dynasty (25 — 220), the pagoda was the most important building of Buddhist temples. 

 

The earliest and most ancient layout of Buddhist temples in China is square-shaped, with a pagoda in the center surrounded by buildings. 

In Sui (589 — 619) and Tang (618 — 907) dynasties, Buddhist temples largely extended into grand building complexes, and pagodas were located on the central axis or outside of a temple. 

Guangsheng Temple and Feihong Pagoda in Hongtong County of Shanxi Province.

Guangsheng Temple and Feihong Pagoda in Hongtong County of Shanxi Province

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.

Location

 

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. 

Jingci Temple on Nanping Mountain

Jingci Temple Next to West Lake in Zhejiang, Photo from Official Site of West Lake Scenic Area.

Activities

 

Besides daily practice and cultivation, Buddhists would hold different rituals in temples to help people.

 

Building

 

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. 

Imperial Style Yonghe Temple or Lama Temple in Beijing, Used to be the Mansion of the Yongzheng Emperor and Qianlong Emperor.

Imperial Style Yonghe Temple or Lama Temple in Beijing, Used to be the Mansion of the Yongzheng Emperor and Qianlong Emperor, Picture from Xiaoqu Yilang.

 

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. 

Xuanyue Gateway of Wudang Mountains

Xuanyue Gateway of Wudang Mountains, constructed in 1551 under the command of Jiajing Emperor, Photo from Official Site of Mount Wudang.

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

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

Bronze Bell Inside Bell Tower of Jingci Temple in Zhejiang, Picture from Qi Guanhe. 

Sacred Halls

 

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. 

Sanqing Hall of Yongle Palace in Shanxi, Inside Preserved the Largest Frescoes of Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368).

Sanqing Hall of Yongle Palace, Inside Preserved the Largest Frescoes of Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368). 

Living Buildings

 

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

Yards of Taiqing Palace in Mount Lao of Shandong, Picture from Chong Zhao.

Additional Architecture

 

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

Jinshan Temple in Zhenjiang City of Jiangsu Province

 

Confucius Temple — Veneration of Confucianism Sages

 

The Temple of Confucius, also named Temple of Literature or Wen Miao, is the place to commemorate and worship Confucius (551 BC — 479 BC) and other accomplished 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

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

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.

Inside the main halls enshrined Confucius, his ancestors and accomplished disciples, and other great Confucianism sages such as Mencius (372 BC — 289 BC) and Zhu Xi (1130 — 1200). 

 

In some places, renowned local officials and scholars would also be enshrined, for people to commemorate and worship. 

Main Hall Dacheng Dian of the Temple of Confucius in Ancient City Pingyao

Exquisite Details on Dachengdian that was Built in the Year 1163, the Main Hall of the Confucius Temple or Wen Miao in Ancient City Pingyao, Picture from Hei Gui.

 

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. 

Architecture

Oldest Existing Timber Structure Building in China, the Main Hall of Nanchan Temple in Mount Wutai

Oldest Existing Timber Structure Building in China, the Main Hall of Nanchan Temple in Mount Wutai, Rebuilt in 782.  Photo from qyer.

Painting

Part of Murals of Taoism Deities on the Walls inside the Yongle Palace (Built in 1247 — 1358) in Shanxi Province

The Largest Frescoes of Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368) (Part), Painted Taoism Deities on Walls Inside the Main Hall of Yongle Palace in Shanxi Province.

Calligraphy

Calligraphy Rubbing of the Duobaota Stele, Written by Great Calligrapher Yan Zhenqing in the Year 752

Calligraphy Rubbing of the Duobaota Stele, Written by Great Calligrapher Yan Zhenqing in the Year 752, To Document and Praise Construction of Duobao Pagoda in Qianfu Temple — Beilin Museum of Xi'an

Sculpture

Oriental Art Gallery of Painted Sculptures, The Shuanglin Temple in Pingyao with Thousands of Exquisite Sculptures of Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties (1271 — 1912)

Oriental Art Gallery of Painted Sculptures, The Shuanglin Temple in Ancient City Pingyao with Thousands of Exquisite Sculptures of Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties (1271 — 1912), Photo by Dongmaiying.

Cultural Relics

Gilt Silver Tea Brick Container of Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) in Famen Temple Museum

Gilt Silver Tea Brick (Compressed Tea) Container of Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), Unearthed from Underground Palace of Pagoda in Famen Temple, Now Preserved in Famen Temple Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying).

Music and Dance

Musical Instruments and Dancing in Frescoes on Cave 112 of Buddhist Mogao Grottoes, Painted During Mid Tang Dynasty (618 — 907).

Musical Instruments and Dancing in Frescoes on Cave 112 of Buddhist Mogao Grottoes, Painted During Mid Tang Dynasty (618 — 907).

 

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.

White Horse Temple or Baima Si in Henan

Front Gate of White Horse Temple or Baima Si 

Shaolin Temple

 

Located in Mount Song, with the largest Pagoda Forest, and is famous for its Kong Fu.

Stupas Forest of Shaolin Temple

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 on Summit of Mount Emei.

Golden Samantabhadra Bodhisattva Statue and Temples on Summit of Mount Emei. 

Taoist Temples in Great Mountains

 

 

  • Mount Qingcheng in Sichuan

 

  • Mount Wangwu in Shanxi

 

  • Mount Maoshan in Jiangsu

 

  • Mount Qiyun in Anhui

 

  • Mount Longhu in Jiangxi

 

Wuyi Gong or Huixian Guan on Mount Wuyi

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

Main Hall of Chongyang Palace in Shaanxi, Picture from Li Gaoyuan.