Daoism and Cct

Signs and Symbols

Are Daoist and CCT sacred spaces marked with any distinctive signs and symbols?

It is not always possible to determine from a Chinese sacred space’s exterior design and decor to which of the religious traditions it belongs. Mosques (including those in Chinese settings) have their distinctive minarets, churches have their spires and crosses, and Hindu temples have their monumental facades and towers marking inner shrines. Some Chinese Buddhist temples announce their identity with pagodas or stupas, but that is not always the case. Chinese temple rooflines often display colorful small figures that appear to be engaged in vigorous action, but even these are not a reliable indicator of the holy place’s specific religious affiliation. The animated figures on the rooflines are sometimes scenes taken from Chinese opera or classical novels, chosen here because they allude to certain important moral virtues.

Inside the temple more specific clues are available, but even there one has to look carefully to distinguish the sacred symbols of Daoism from those of CCT. For example, a statue of the Bodhisattva Guan Yin (originally Buddhist) may appear on a small altar under the covered area toward the front of the inner courtyard, but that does not mean that this is a Buddhist temple. It does, however, indicate that this is not a Daoist temple and probably belongs to CCT, which has “borrowed” Guan Yin from Buddhism and made her an important deity.

A Daoist temple’s most distinctive symbol is its main altar. Although the overall setting varies from one sect to another, there are several important common features. Before the central deity on the altar stands a perpetually lit lamp symbolizing wisdom and the light of the Dao. Two candles symbolizing sun and moon flank the lamp a few inches further toward the front of the altar. Cups of water (Yang), tea (Yin), and uncooked rice (Yang and Yin united) stand before the candles. Further toward the front of the altar stand five plates of fruit, each of a different color, symbolizing the five elements in perfect proportion. Centered near the front stands an incense burner, a reminder of the heat that purifies the three vital energies, which are symbolized by three sticks of incense. Some temporary sacred spaces are constructed of bamboo for specific seasonal Daoist rituals.


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