Confucianism, the Literati, and Chinese Imperial Traditions

Signs and Symbols

If I visited a Confucian temple, what would I see?

Major Confucian temples are arranged along the same general lines as traditional Buddhist and many CCT temples, all influenced by the plan of the imperial residence. Simple but elegant formality sets the Confucian temples apart from the others. Most Confucian temples greet the outside world through a main gate on the south side of the surrounding outer walls.

Here is what you would see if you visited the Confucian temple in Taipei, Taiwan, whose plan is unique by reason of local tradition. Through either the eastern or western portals, you enter a garden with a pond. The high walls recall the Master’s parable comparing great teachings to unscalable ramparts that preserve the building’s secrecy, so that one must work to gain entry through the door. From there you pass through doors on either side of the main gate into a forecourt that offers further opportunity to shift mental gears before approaching the heart of the temple. Local tradition has it that there the main south gate must remain closed to all but those scoring highest on imperial exams. Since no one from the region ever achieved that rank, the south gate remains closed except for special occasions. Walking northward you pass through the Gate of Rites into the main courtyard, surrounded by rooms built into the outer walls. Immediately inside the inner gate you find yourself in one or another of the temple’s study rooms.


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