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Tell Chinese Temples Apart

Chinese Temples - part of the detail at Beijing's Beihai Park
How to tell Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist Temples apart

All Chinese temples follow the same basic pattern – built with careful respect for feng shui they face Southwards and are symmetrical along the North-South axis.

They’re typically enclosed behind high walls, wide, low buildings with beautifully tapered roofs supported by enormous wooden columns. The temple consists of a series of halls, with the most important at the very rear of the temple.

Entrance is from the South end, through imposing gates which open onto a courtyard protected by a spirit wall (because ghosts can only move in straight lines).

It is by the interior that you can tell the various creeds of Chinese temple apart.

Confucian Temples

As one might expect, Confucian temples are in general the least noisy, colourful, and lively of all Chinese temples. Their courtyards are usually filled with stelae (stone tablets) dedicated to various local scholars.

Buddhist Temples

Buddhist Temples usually contain the same combination of fairly recognisable important deities. You pass first of all through a hall containing enormous, multicoloured statues of the angry looking Four Heavenly Kings (or the Four Directions). Next is a fat Laughing Buddha, (Maitreya, the Buddha of the future / the Buddha of Loving Kindness) facing towards you.

There may be other halls with other Buddhas and gods, but the main hall usually contains three enormous Buddhas side by side, these are the Buddhas of past, present and future. Around the back of them is the many-armed Guan Yin who appears in all kinds of Chinese temples.

Chinese have worshipped a figure similar to Guan Yin since before the advent of Confucianism, Buddhism or Taoism. She’s very popular because she’s believed to lend a hand during childbirth. Around the sides of the main hall are several dozen arhats, caricaturish statues of various Buddhist saints.

Other tell-tale signs you’re in a Buddhist temple are pagodas (built to house relics and sutras), the columns which are red in Buddhist temples and black in Taoist temples, and a general paucity of imagery other than the main Buddha statues.

Taoist Temples

Taoist temples tend to be the most colourful and snazzy. The main gates are painted with fierce-looking mythical heroes to scare off evil spirits. The halls can contain any number of different deities, the many-armed Guan Yin among them.

Other likely deities include the Eight Immortals who achieved immortality through Taoism, the Three Purities said to be the founders of civilisation. Taoist temples are also the place you’re most likely to see people burning ghost money for the ancestors to spend in heaven.

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