Similar to language, food, and traditions, architecture can also be a means of understanding the culture and society of a particular place. The community’s beliefs and values can be reflected symbolically in the features, color, and surrounding of an architectural structure.
In China, where various native and foreign religions are mixed, Chinese temples held the most significance to the members of the Chinese populace. Most of the folks in China follow religions such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Shenism. The fundamental beliefs and traditions of the religions are reflected physically in the structure and design of their temples.
Religion and Chinese Temples
Shenism is a Chinese folk religion where believers revere their ancestors and Chinese gods. Their temples are differentiated into two. Miao or Dian which implies “temple” and they are used to refer to the buildings that contain the shrine of Chinese gods, mythical characters or historical figures like the Dragon King, Guandi, Shennong, and Mazu. Ancestral temples are called Zongci, Citang, or Zumlao – they are mainly for honoring ancestral gods of a family or clan.
Taoist temples and monasteries, which are known as Guan or Daoguan, and Buddhist temples, called Si or Siyuan, usually serve a dual purpose as a community temple and as the town’s school.
Chinese Temple Architecture
Whichever religion a Chinese temple may espouse, they all have some common characteristics that have been influenced by architecture dictated by Feng Shui. All Chinese temples are built with an architecture aimed at repelling evil spirits. This can be seen in the protective walls built around the temples in addition to a spirit wall constructed through the gates of the temple courtyard. This need also influenced the inclusion of sculptures, paintings, and reliefs of warrior deities in the temples.
Chinese temples are also usually composed of numerous halls, shrines, buildings, and compounds. These temple structures have tiled roofs in yellow or green with religious figures as decoration to promote good luck. The iconic Chinese temples roofs are often supported by intricately carved and decorated pillars or by marvelous dragon sculptures.
The Pagoda is another typical architectural structure in Chinese temples. The Chinese concept of a round heaven and square earth can be seen in the appearance of the Pagoda with its square bases and octagonal or circular plans.
Chinese Temple Features
The architectural structures reflected Chinese beliefs, while Chinese temple practices can be seen in the temples’ key features. Almost all temples have courtyards in the middle of which a small bowl is placed for incense and offerings. Inside the temple is the main hall where the temple visitors leave flowers and fruit offerings.
Outside of the temples, there are many carvings, statues, and paintings of goblins to keep evil spirits away. In some cases, monuments of children who have been obedient to their parents and virgins who have been chaste their whole lives or faithful to their lost husbands-to-be are also displayed in front as model examples. Inside the temples, believers and guests can view beautiful murals, reliefs, sculptures, wood carvings, and moldings of Chinese gods and ancestral figures. Many of the affluent Chinese temples manned by monks and temple keepers are also equipped with valuable religious items and artifacts such as drums, bells, and gongs.