Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

Signs and Symbols

Do Confucians mark their sacred spaces with any other distinctive signs and symbols?

Although they are usually less flamboyant in their decor than other Chinese temples, Confucian temples typically sport a variety of intriguing iconographic details. When you enter the outer garden courtyard of the Taipei Confucian temple, you notice on its outer wall several traditional Chinese symbols: a pair of dragon-fish called ji wen (of which a total of fourteen protect the temple from fire—dragons bring rain, and the fish symbolizes water as well) and a pair of exuberant green dragons. On the north face of the garden’s south wall is a large tile image of the Qi Lin (unicorn). Writhing dragons are the principal motif on the main hall, both on the roofline and two main front columns and around the main altar, where nine of the creatures guard the spirit tablet of the Master. A pair of carved “sky pillars” appear to protrude at either end of the main hall’s central ridge beam. Some say they symbolize both Confucian ethics, which alone can support the firmament, and the chimneys in which many scholars hid their books during Qin emperor Qin Shi Huang Di’s attempt to burn all the texts of the Literati. In the center of that same roof beam, a small seven-roofed pagoda may symbolize the axis of the universe, standing as it does directly over the altar dedicated to Confucius himself. In rows along the beams of the sloping eaves stand birds of prey, for according to tradition, even the fiercest raptors alighted and paused to listen when Confucius taught. Beneath the eaves of the main hall are numerous small carved figures of popular Chinese characters, such as Shou Lao, deity of longevity. Even smaller carved friezes around the upper walls of the main hall depict scenes of high virtue from popular Chinese stories. In front of the door to the Master’s altar, at the base of the platform supporting the memorial hall, stands a stone carving of the dragon that symbolizes the emperor. Inside, the octagonal cupola over the main altar shows the eight trigrams arrayed around the circular symbol of Yin and Yang, the tai ji.

Roofline of the Taipei Confucius temple. Frolicking dragon and Ji Wen figures protect the holy site.


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