Daoism and Cct

Signs and Symbols

What would a visitor see in a Daoist or CCT temple?

Larger traditional Chinese temples, of whatever affiliation, are generally laid out according to the ground plan of ancient imperial residences. Like the palace, the temple enclosure and its main interior structures generally face south. Approaching the temple, the visitor first sees a monumental gateway that offers entry through the temple’s surrounding outer wall. Gracefully curved roofs decorated with numerous small multicolored glass or ceramic figures crown the gate as well as the main interior buildings. In some of the more elaborate temples, the main gateway opens into a covered forecourt, or a vestibule in which the worshipper can begin to experience the change of mind and calming of the spirit necessary for efficacious devotion. Around the perimeter of the main courtyard one might find small separate halls that function like chapels for devotion to subordinate sacred figures, as well as features like bell towers. But the focal point of the temple, whether Daoist or CCT, is typically a freestanding structure in the middle or toward the rear of the main courtyard. A large cauldron or kettle filled with sand—into which devotees insert their offerings of incense sticks—stands ten or fifteen feet away from the main entry to the shrine.

At either end of the main building’s roofline (and often on the rooflines of other structures in the temple as well) the visitor probably will encounter sculptures of a curious hybrid aquatic creature, dragon-headed and fish-tailed, called the ji wen. Popular lore says the exuberant creature protects the building from destruction by fire. Pillars or columns decorated with deeply carved stone dragons spiraling from bottom to top often flank the entry to the main shrine. Smaller pillars, similarly decorated, sometimes protrude from the two ends of the roof peaks; they represent columns that support the firmament. Chinese temples typically created a covered space in a portico surrounding the main courtyard and an open space in the courtyard itself. The main shrine may be a fairly large structure, but ordinary worshippers usually make their offerings standing in front of the building, while temple staff perform associated ritual actions closer to the altars within the shrine. Smaller neighborhood or family temples naturally lack the grand architectural layout: many are tucked away unobtrusively over small business storefronts; others are separate single-room structures with folding doors that open the entire width across the front.

Central courtyard of a popular Chinese temple in Taipei. Worshippers place their incense stick offerings in the main kettle and then approach the outer doors of the central building. On the roofline are decorative symbols and a tiny pagoda at the center of the ridge beam.


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