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Buddhism Temples

Buddhism has made such a stamp on Chinese history and civilization that a great number of the most visited touristic spots nowadays in China are temples and buddhist monasteries. It is namely the case with the four famous sacred mountains: in the North, Wutaishan, in Shanxi province; in the West, Emeishan, in Sichuan province; in the East, Putoshan, in Zhejiang province; and, in the South, Jiuhuashan, in Anhui province. It is also the case with some world-famous major temples, like the Fayuan Si in Beijing, the Yufo Si in Shanghai, the Bolin Chan Si in Hebei, the Baima Si and the Shaolin Si in Henan, the Potola in Lhassa, and quite a few other ones. The millions of Tourists who visit China every year are, in their own way, witnesses of the conspicuous revival of Buddhism in China mainland, showing itself by the restoration, or the complete reconstruction, of many shrines which had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, or even before. I had the opportunity to visit a number of them recently, and I have been struck by what can be certainly called a reapparition of Buddhism on the Chinese stage. Certainly, buildings are not everything, but we cannot underestimate their significance, for they are a first tangible sign that , after a long period of decline, Buddhism wants to recover its place in the contemporary chinese society and like in times past, perhaps even more than in times past, to play a key role in their modernizing country.

    According to official statistics, there are presently in China 13000 buddhist temples,  and about 200,000 monks and nuns, distributed as follow: more than 3000 temples and monasteries for tibetan language buddhism, that is to say lamaism, with 7 millions of faithful belonging to various ethnic groups (tibetans , mongols , Tus , Uighurs , Naxis , Pumis  and Moinbas ). As for Pali language buddhism, it is mainly practised among the Dais , the Blangs , the Deā€™angs , the Was  and the Achangs ; their total number amounts to approximatively 1.5 millions of faithful, with 8000 monks and nuns in more than 1000 temples and monasteries. Finally, the temples and monasteries of the Han nationality, which constitutes the main body of the chinese nation, with almost 1 billion 200 millions of inhabitants, that is to say 91,59 % of the total population, are about 9000, with a number of more than 70,000 monks and nuns. Nearly 140 buddhist temples in the areas of the Han nationality have been ranked in 1983 among cultural monuments, and enjoy therefore the protection of the Ministry of Culture.

Buddhism Temples

2Buddhism spread into China in the first century AD during China's Eastern Han Dynasty (25 AD - 220 AD). Two kinds of Indian Buddhist buildings were also introduced into the country. One was Buddhist caves excavated into cliffs, hills or mountain sides, which housed a large amount of Buddha images, pagodas and monk residences. The second was architectural groups, which have temple halls, pagodas and monk residences. Architects at that time combined the second one with traditional Chinese architecture style and created Chinese style temple buildings.

Cultural Characteristics of Chinese Buddhist Temples

The introduction of Buddhism from India some 2,000 years ago was a major event in Chinese history. It now occupies an important position in China's social life, while Buddhist structures have become an important building type second only to the palace, including Buddhist temples and pagodas. Following are some characteristics:

1. Compared with Christianity in relation to the West, Buddhism in relation to China has never risen to the mainstream position commanding the thought of the whole society. In China, there has never emerged a papal system, as the sovereign descends into the world, and the heart of the supreme domination has consistently been the monarch. Both China and the West preached that divine right of kings, but the West placed great emphasis on "charismatic", while China put greater stress on "monarchical right", and the divine right was only added a sacred element to the existing monarchical rule. This difference was also reflected in buildings. For a long time, the West has taken temples or churches as the mainstream, while China has always taken palace and capital city as the center of gravity, and the religious Taoist temple was placed in a secondary position.

2. At the beginning of the spread of Buddhism, the Chinese people began to transform it so that it carried a distinguishing Chinese characteristic in the course of its development. Therefore, from the very beginning, Chinese Buddhist architecture was not a simple transplantation of Indian architecture, but mainly China's own creation.

3. Chinese religious architecture was also very different from the Western one in artistic character. The latter emphasized the "expression" of believers' passion and fanaticism aspiring to a place in the Kingdom of Heaven. Therefore, the mysterious shadow changes, the unexpected figure, the domineering kinetic potential and the turbulent atmosphere became the keynote of its character. The former, however, emphasized the "reappearance" of tranquility and peace, nirvana. That's why Chinese Buddhist architecture in most cases shows an atmosphere of serenity and affinity.

4. Chinese Buddhist temples have many points in common with residences and palaces. They both adopted the method of group combination with the courtyard as the main form.

The objects worshipped by believers are only relics, remains of Buddha, as well as souvenirs representing the experience of Buddha during his lifetime. Buddhist temples are divided into several kinds in line with layout, the main type of which is temples with a pagoda at its center. In this type, the open space in the courtyard provides room for monks to walk around. The towering pagoda is the main part in the design. If there are watchtowers in the four corners of the courtyard, they echo and set off the big pagoda, constituting rich scenery. The method of layout of temples built in the cities is similar to that of the complex of other large buildings. There are also quite a number of temples built in beautiful forests, arranged flexibly in an undulating land in close combination with the natural scenery of the local environment, and filled with a simple and warm atmosphere and displaying high creativity.

Development of Chinese Buddhist Temples


From 1st century AD to 4th century AD
This was the earlier period of Buddhism in China. Temple buildings were called 'Ci' and the temple layout followed its Indian counterpart with a pagoda as its central focus surrounded with halls and towers. The first Buddhist temple in China was the White Horse Temple, located in what is now, Luoyang, Henan Province.

From Mid- 4th century AD to Mid- 10th century AD
This period spans China's Northern and Southern Dynasties, Sui and Tang and Five Dynasties and Ten States. (See our China History , if you are confused by these periods.) Favored by feudalist rulers, Buddhism gradually reached the height of its development from an exotic to a prevailing countrywide religion in this period. Buddhist architecture saw a great development in both numbers and sizes of their temples and by the end of the Northern Wei Dynasty, there were over 1400 temple in its capital city Luoyang and over 40,000 throughout the country. Temple architects began to use sophisticated courtyard complex in their temples and the layout of different buildings employed a systematic arrangement similar to the symmetrical palace structure rather than the early pagoda-centered form. Buddhist pagodas, as their roles faded away were moved to the rear part of the temple. It was in this period that the Chinese temple art took its own shape and achieved its great success.

Murals from Mogao Grottoes (a noted Buddhist cave in what is now Dunhuang City) illustrated the development of the temples in the Tang Dynasty. Temples at that time had more courtyards, halls, towers, pavilions and intricate designs and decorations are applied to eaves, roofs, balustrades, gateways and interior ceilings. The temple architecture technique reached a high level.


From Mid- 10th century AD to 20th century
In this period, Buddhism experienced several ups and downs before it declined in recent centuries. The Buddhist temples saw no more changes on the architecture structure. Architects concentrated on gorgeous and solemn style and the notable scale of the complex. Zhihua Temple and Guangji Temple in Beijing and Chongshan Temple in Taiyuan are fine examples of this type. Meanwhile another kind of Buddhist temples were introduced landscape scenery and different buildings such as gateways, pavilions, towers, temple halls in simple style were scattered over mountains and the temples seemingly borrowed from the surrounding hills and waters into its complex to create a harmonious integration between temple buildings and the environment. This embodies the traditional Chinese philosophy of keeping harmony with nature. Four Buddhist Holy Mountains (including Mt. Jiuhua; Mt. Emei; Mt. Putuo; and Mt. Wutai) are of this kind.
The origin of the word 'Si' -- ''

After Buddhism was introduced into China, temples were called Ci or Lanruo, Jialan, Jingshe and other names. Till the Ming Dynasty (1368- 1644), the word 'Si', was used to refer to temples throughout the country. The word was originally used for palaces or mansions of high officials in China's early Qin Dynasty (221BC - 206 BC) and it referred to high administrative institutions in the Han Dynasty. People used it for Buddhist temples to show their respect to this religion.

Types and Styles of Buddhist Architecture

Buddhist temples are often the center of cultural activities. From a modern viewpoint, temples can be compared to museums, for they contain precious and spectacular art forms, and in fact, are beautiful art forms themselves. Like art museums, they are a combination of architecture, sculpture, painting, and calligraphy. Temples offer a harmonised environment and a spiritual atmosphere that allows one to become serene and tranquil. They are valuable places for distressed persons to lay down their burdens, soothe their minds, and achieve a sense of calm.


In the early period of China, stupas were the main architectural structures being built. It was not until the Sui and Tang Dynasties that the hall (or shrine) became the focus. A stupa, sometimes referred to as a pagoda, can be considered the "high rise" of Buddhist architecture due to its tall, narrow shape that reaches toward the sky - sometimes with immense height. The concept and form of the Chinese stupa originated in India. The purpose of a stupa is to provide a place to enshrine the Buddha's relics, where people can then come and make offerings to the Buddha. Beginning with a relatively simple style, the stupa has been transformed in China, with improvements and innovations that demonstrate the country's artistic and architectural abilities. While maintaining a relatively consistent shape, stupas are constructed in a variety of sizes, proportions, colours, and creative designs. Although you can find stupas by waterfronts, in the cities, in the mountains, or in the country, they are all constructed to harmonise with and beautify the environment. The stupa is indeed one of the most popular types of architecture in China.

The Buddhist architecture of every region has its own unique character due to differing cultural and environmental factors. Close in proximity, Ceylon's architecture is similar to India's architecture. Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia also share a similar style, with structures that incorporate the use of wood into their design. Java's stupas resemble those of Tibet, which are made of stone and represent the nine-layered Mandala (symbolic circular figure that represents the universe and the divine cosmology of various religions: used in meditation and rituals). Tibet's large monasteries are typically constructed on hillsides and are similar in style to European architecture in which the buildings are connected to each other, forming a type of street-style arrangement.

Buddhist temples in China are commonly built in the emperor's palace style, categorising them as "palace architecture." This layout is designed with symmetry in mind, with the main gate and main hall in the center, and other facilities - including the celestial and the abbot's quarters - lined up on either side. On one side a ceremonial drum is placed, and on the other, a ceremonial bell. Behind this symmetrical line of structures will be a guesthouse for lay visitors and the Yun Shui Hall for visiting monastics to reside during their stay.

The materials used in constructing the temples associated facilities include wood and tile, with the roof tiles painted a certain colour. Because wood is a difficult material to preserve over long periods of time, China has very few palace-style temples that have survived from the early ages. We are fortunate, however, that Fo Guang Temple, built out of wood during the Tang Dynasty, still stands. The main palace-style hall of Fo Guang Temple is still relatively pristine in appearance and sturdiness, and gives us a sense of the grandeur of this time. The exquisite art of the Tang Dynasty, including sculpture, paintings, and murals, is still displayed today in this surviving temple, and allows us to understand that this era was China's high point of artistic expression. This temple became a national treasure and reminds us of China's golden age of art and architecture.

Fo Guang Temple and the other temples that have persevered through the passage of time - although there are not very many - reveal the modifications of structure, decoration, and construction methods that change and evolve through different eras. They also serve as the visual, material memory of a certain age and area, helping us to study the region's architectural and cultural history. However, as mentioned above, despite the fact that China has 5,000 years of history, preserved architecture is very limited. It is not simply due to the use of wood, which is highly susceptible to fire and decay, that prevents us from having more standing temples from the early ages to study today. Other reasons exist for the rarity of remaining temples. For instance, around the 16th century, some dynasties that rose to power ordered the demolition of the previous dynasty's major architecture. Or, temples were harmed or even destroyed in various bouts of war and aggression. Regardless of the materials used in construction - wood, stone, clay, etc. - it was nearly impossible for an abundance of temples to survive due to human rivalry. Fortunately, Buddhist cave temples were relatively immune to weather destruction, and for the most part they also escaped human desecration. They are well preserved and make it possible to witness traditional architecture and ancient art.

Modern Buddhist temples often imitate ancient architecture. For example, the main shrines of Taiwan's Fo Guang Shan, the United State's Hsi Lai Temple, and Australia's Nan Tien Temple are all designed based on Chinese architecture from the early ages. Many Buddhist temples today not only honour and preserve the Chinese culture, they have introduced and spread Chinese culture around the globe.

Cave Temples

In the history of Chinese Buddhist art and architecture, the most important link is the rock cave, or cave temple, and all of the art contained within. Cave temples are cavities of various sizes that are chiseled directly out of solid rock, sometimes directly on the face of sheer cliffs. Many are quite enormous. Within the rock caves, there are ornately carved statues, sculptures, and colourful paintings of the Buddha, bodhisattvas, arhats, and sutras. This artistic practice was started in 366 C.E. by a monastic named Le Zun, and continued until the 15th century. In some places, entire mountainsides are decorated with innumerable cave temples and gigantic carved statues. Among these countless cave temples, Dung Huang cave is the most famous for its impressive and grandiose mural. Other well-known caves in China include Longmen Caves in Louyang, Yungang Caves in Datong,  and the Thousand Buddhas Cave in Jinang. Yungang Cave is especially well known for its grand size.

The creation of cave temples occurred over thousands of years, spanning several dynasties, and, unlike wooden temples that suffer dilapidation from the elements, are sheltered by massive rock and therefore remain standing as remarkable and majestic testimonials to Buddhism flourishing throughout China. The magnificence and grandeur of Buddhist art within the caves has awed the world and has captured the essence and detail of the teachings for all visitors to behold. In the eyes of artists and archaeologists, this type of Buddhist architecture is especially full of life, beauty, and evidence of the transformation and evolution of Buddhist art throughout time. They are treasures that hold an important place in China's cultural, artistic, and architectural history.

Layout of a Chinese Buddhist Temple

Chinese Buddhist temple takes the layout of traditional Chinese palace architecture as illustrated in the picture. It usually has a group of courtyards and halls set on the north-south axis with side rooms flanked symmetrically on each side. Now let me explain each for you.

Mountain Gate (Shan Men) is the entrance or introductory part of the temple, usually followed by a solemn screen wall to prevent a direct peering from outside the temple. This principle can be found in most Chinese courtyard structure as well.

After entering the gate there is the first courtyard, also called forecourt. Bell Tower and Drum Towers are two-storied structures, set symmetrically on each side of the yard. In the past times, bells and drums were used as a time alert. Nowadays they no longer have any function like that. In small temples, they were replaced by pavilions. There is a leading way in the middle to the Heavenly Kings Hall (variably spelt as Tian Wang Dian or Devaraja Hall), the first main hall on the axis. In this hall, a smiling Maitreya (known to the west as Laughing Buddha) is set on the middle altar. Four fierce-looking Heavenly Kings (warrior guardians) stand into two groups on each side.

Leaving the Heavenly Kings Hall, you enter the second courtyard, the principle part of the temple which include the Main Buddha Hall and several flanking rooms. The Main Buddha Hall stands on a high terrace or foundation with marble balustrades. The height of the terrace or foundation depends on the importance of the temple. The hall is variably named Daxiongbaodian Hall or Hall of XX Buddha according to who are set in it. A common case is the Buddha trinity (the trinity of the three ages) including the Buddha of the Present, Sakyamuni, the Buddha of the Past, Kasyapa (Jiayefo in Chinese Pinyin) and the Buddha of the Future, Maitreya or another trinity often found in Chan temples of Sakyamuni, Amitabha (Emitofo) and Bhaisajyaguru (Yaoshifo, the God of Medicine). The case varies with different Buddhist schools and periods in which the temples were built. One thing for sure is that Buddhas or Bodhisattvas in the Main Buddha Hall are supposed to be superior to those in other halls.

A huge bronze incense burner or Ding - a kind of bronze cooking vessel is used for religious or ritual ceremonies and is found in front of the Main Buddha Hall for people to burn incense for prayer. Side rooms in this courtyard house other Buddhas or reputed dignitary.

Behind the Main Buddha Hall is another courtyard with more halls serving as other purposes. A library hall, often a two-storied tower in which Buddhist sutras, scriptures, and books are kept is called Cang Jing Ge (Sutra Keeping Tower or Sutra Hall). It is usually found at the rear part of the courtyard. Living residences or quarters are set at the corner of the rear part for monks and pupils.

Most Buddhist temples follow the layout mentioned above and numbers of gates, halls and courtyards varies according to the size and scale of the temple.


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