People often dismiss Chinese temples after seeing one or two of them, thinking that they are all the same. This could not be further from the truth. If you look a little deeper, you can see that not only are the different types of temple distinct from each other, but the individual temples within each category are different too. Even the churches and mosques in China, buildings you would imagine were fairly formulaic, find uniquely Chinese forms of expression in parts of the Middle Kingdom. Rather than include all temples, lets focus on the ones that people associate specifically with China. There are four main types of temple in China, not including ancestral halls: Confucian, Buddhist, Taoist and Shenist (Chinese Folk Religion). While you can find patterns of style for each of these, there is some surprising diversity too.
Confucian temples are often seen as quite formulaic. The Great Sage is memorialised in a regimented fashion, not dissimilar to his own teachings. Most temples to Confucius and other scholars who followed in his footsteps are modelled after the Kǒng Miào in Qufu. With its grand, but minimalistic architecture, the huge temple set the tone for its siblings in Beijing, Taipei, Nanjing, Fuzhou and all of the other major cities of China. The standard pattern of a linear progression through various halls and courtyards always leads a visitor to the main Da Cheng Hall, where the Great Sage Confucius is honoured.
Shanghai, however, has a Confucius temple that breaks the mould. Wén Miào, in the the heart of the Old City of Shanghai is the Temple of Culture. The layout, determined by spacial limitations inside the ancient circular wall that surrounded the city, is not the same as in other Confucian temples. The reconstructed temple is faithful to the Qing dynasty incarnation of the temple and has high roofed buildings in a sprawling alignment. The most interesting places in the compound are the Zunjing Pavilion, a library with such prominence, that it was declared the first national library of Shanghai in 1931, and the Kui Xing Pavilion, a hexagonal tower that overlooks a lake.
Buddhist temples are what most people think of when they imagine a Chinese temple. The vision of big, golden Buddha statues staring down at you inside ancient and elaborate halls is a common one and there is good reason for it. Many temples in the Buddhist tradition also follow a standard layout, with a progression through the Hall of the Heavenly Kings and subsequent halls to the main hall of the temple. While the ground plan is often similar, the design of the buildings and the style of architecture varies tremendously and different sects have more or less elaborate stylings. Temples like Dà Xiàngguó Sì in Kaifeng or Guāngxiào Sì in Guangzhou follow a normal layout, but in terms of architecture and decoration are markedly different, reflecting not only their historical differences, but also their geographical locations and the influences of local culture.
Tibetan Buddhist temples are totally different in style from those in other areas of China. The ancient Bon religion of the area gave the temples the terrifying depictions deities and Dharma protectors and the rugged landscape shaped the compact, multi-roomed buildings. Since the Lamas were political figures as well as religious ones, many monasteries are palatial in appearance and look like grander versions of local dwellings.
A really standout temple is Wūyōu Sì near the famous Leshan Grand Buddha in Sichuan. The temple plays lower than second fiddle to the enormous stone Buddha carved into the cliffside, but it is a remarkable Chan Buddhist monastery that, despite later renovations, maintains its Tang dynasty styling and has strong decorative influences from Tibet and Nepal. The tight cluster of buildings encloses sunlight pierced courtyards and a matrix of chambers imbued with timeworn mystery. The Hall of the Arhats outside the main complex is filled with surprisingly realistic statues.
Taoism is a doctrine that branched into several sects, creating a broad spectrum of traditions. The chaotic nature of the development of Taoism has, unsurprisingly, lead to diverse temple structures. Taoist temples generally fall into two categories. Guàn, or observatories, are monastic complexes where priests engage in learning, practice and ritual. Miào are lay temples used for directly worshipping Taoist deities.
The sprawling complex of Wun Chuen Sin Koon in Ping Che, Hong Kong is not the normal tiny Hong Kong Temple that most people associate with the region. The large temple has a monumental central hall dedicated to Lü Dongbin, which is normal of the Dragon Gate Sect. The slender faced immortal, one of the Eight Immortals, is important to many Taoist schools and his distinctive form can be found in many temples.
One such temple is the Sānyuán Gōng in Guangzhou. The Three Origins Temple is a beautiful set of halls that is principally dedicated to the Great Emperors of the Triple Origin. The temple, at the foot of Yuexiu Mountain, is a smoke-filled thriving complex that exudes old world feeling from its darkened chambers.
Another temple that emanates an ancient aura is the small and self contained Shèzhuāng Miào in Pudong, Shanghai. The 17th century courtyard-based, two-storey temple was the centre of an old village that has recently been demolished. Still frequented by locals with ties to the area, the Celestial Masters Sect temple is administered by an ageing group of priests who conduct the musical rituals there every day for the countless deities and spirits represented within.
One of the most interesting and unique Taoist temples is Dōngyuè Miào in Beijing. The Eastern Peak Temple is dedicated to the God of Taishan, the eastern peak the temple name refers to. Also associated with the Celestial Masters Sect, the temple is noteworthy for its many halls depicting the various courts of Hell. The rooms form the cloister of the temple and surround the courtyards and main hall. They are filled with statues of the gods that judge the recently deceased and the demons that carry out punishments to the wicked.
The incredible holy mountain Wudangshan is covered in temples, mostly dedicated to the enigmatic dark warrior god, Zhenwu. The most important temple is at the peak and its Golden Hall at the summit is an awe inspiring bronze building that floats above the clouds. The real star of the mountain is the Nányán Gōng, or Southern Crag Palace, a huge temple that leads out onto a slender, cliff hugging section. The highlight of the temple is the Dragon Head Incense brazier that juts directly out of the cliff over a sheer drop of hundreds of metres.
While Taoist temples may be varied, the prize for diversity goes to the multitude of Shenist shrines and temples in China. No other temples encapsulate the local flavour more than these. Each region has its own gods and architecture, making for a patchwork quilt that covers the Middle Kingdom. From the rural shrines to earth spirits, to grand palaces for sea deities, Shenism is a disorganised religion that captures the very heart of Chinese folk ideals. While it is next to impossible to categorise the thousands of temples, there are a few that are really special.
On the island of Meizhoudao in Fujian, a huge temple dominates the community. The Méizhōu Zǔ Miào is the ancestral temple of Mazu, one of the most worshipped deities on the planet. Born on the island, the sea goddess is popular throughout China, but particularly in the south. Hong Kong, where she is known as Tin Hau, has more than 80 temples to the goddess. Her home temple is an enormous complex comprising of a multitude of halls. The smoky, noisy temple is a hive of activity with thousands of worshippers descending on it daily. For a pure Chinese worship experience, it doesn’t get more authentic.
Just along the coast in Hong Kong, hundreds of small folk temples are found throughout the island clusters. Tiny temples can be discovered among the modern buildings of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, or in the countryside setting of the New Territories and the less inhabited islands. Particularly famous are the Man Mo Temple of Hollywood Road and the Yuk Hui Temple on Cheung Chau Island. They are both perfect manifestations of the southern style temples of Hong Kong and neighbouring Guangdong. Man Mo Temple, a favourite with visitors is a smoky, atmospheric temple dedicated to the gods of war and literature. The Yuk Hui Temple, dedicated to the mysterious warrior Pak Tai, is famous for being the location of the annual Cheung Chau Bun Festival.
Another important Shenist temple is the Guānlín Miào in Luoyang. The temple is attached to the tomb where Guan Yu’s head is buried. Guan Yu, a hero of the Three Kingdoms Period is worshipped as Guan Di throughout the entire Chinese diaspora. The red-faced martial god is the immortalised in this temple and the huge burial mound at at the back of the temple is testament to his importance.
One for luck
There is one temple that really cannot be excluded from the discussion, which crosses the religious lines and defies definition. Embodying the Chinese mixture of religions, Xuánkōng Sì, the Hanging Temple just outside Datong, is a temple of the San Jiao, or Three Religions. The harmonious mixture of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, is enshrined in this temple, which hangs off the edge of a cliff and is easily one of the most iconic in China. Adored throughout history by many, including the great poet Li Bai, the rickety balconies and suspended wooden pathways are heart-stopping and require a real leap of faith to bound around on them as Chinese visitors do.
Despite what many may think, Chinese temples are a hugely diverse and reflect not only the spiritual tradition that built them, but also the local people, the dynastic style and the landscape they rest in. In a country the size of China, it has to be expected that temples are different in different places and that the ethnic groups and local cultures in each area bring some of their own ideas to the table. So next time you nearly give that temple visit a miss, just pop your head in through the gates and see what you could be missing. You might just be surprised by what you find.