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Buildings, Areas, and Items Commonly Found at Chinese Temples


These are some of the items you are likely to encounter when visiting a temple in China.

Bell: Most temples have a Bell, whether in a formal tower near the Main Gate (and balanced by a Drum tower), hanging in a small stand inside the Main Hall, or hanging from a beam inside or outside of the Main Hall.
In addition to its mundane use in telling time or calling the faithful, the Bell is used as an accompaniment to worship.  The Bell with its continuous tone fading into silence signifies Eternity, in contrast to the tick-tick-tick of the Drum of Time.
Censer: Sometimes found inside a Hall, but more often outside, receptacles for incense may be of stone, bronze, or other heavy non-flammable materials.  Many are like large round bowls, though some are square.  Others are enclosed, and devotees must reach inside to place their sticks of incense.
Chim: (Mandarin qiuqian, Cantonese kauh-chim)  Numbered bamboo sticks in a cup used for divination.  The inquirer kneels (usually before the main figure of the Main Hall) and, while bowing the head, shakes the cup until one stick emerges from the rest.  (This takes practice!)  The stick is then taken to a Fortune Teller who interprets the stick according to the number printed on it.
Courtyard: The Courtyards of a temple are generally pleasant places where both Sacred and Secular activities take place, from praying to a deity to chatting with a friend.  At festival time, courtyards take on added significance, because the halls cannot possibly contain all the devotees.  Indeed, a visitor on a quiet day can sometimes judge the prosperity of a temple by the size of its courtyard; renovations have often been made to ensure that festival crowds can be accommodated.
Many temples have at least one courtyard, and some as many as three.  See the Layouts page for more details.
Deities: Temples are the houses of deities.  These may be Gods and Goddesses, Bodhisattvas (Pusa) and Buddhas (Fo), or simply human beings, such as great historical figures, or one's ancestors.  Thus temples are likely to house one or more statues.
Devotees: The people who worship there regularly are the backbone of any temple.  I mention them here because it is well to remember, when visiting a temple, that the temple is there for them, not you.  Please be respectful of their needs.  Many will be there to relax, but others come in time of great distress, and the last thing a grieving widow wants is someone sticking a camera in her face.
On the other hand, it is a great delight to find an English-speaking devotee who speaks your language and is willing to talk about the temple.  Be open to this possibility, too.
Drum: Most temples have a Drum, whether in a formal tower near the Main Gate (and balanced by a Bell tower); hanging in a small stand or standing on the floor inside the Main Hall; or hanging from a beam inside or outside of the Main Hall.
In addition to its mundane use in telling time or calling the faithful, the Drum is used as an accompaniment to worship.  The Drum with its tick-tick-tick signifies Time, in contrast to the continuous tone of the Bell of Eternity fading into silence.
Fortune Teller: At some temples, you can find an English-speaking "oracle" to interpret your chim; otherwise, most of these people are very traditional; their studies have often prevented them from pursuing "global" skills like speaking English.
Although I have used the term "Fortune Teller," it is not really accurate.  It's not so much about the future as the present, and the Fortune Teller is more of a guide or counselor speaking on behalf of the deity.
In very rare cases (such as at Hong Kong's Wong Tai Sin) you can actually buy books with the fortunes in them; or you can try Stephen Karcher's The Kuan Yin Oracle (sold with chim) or Kuan Yin: Myths and Prophecies of the Chinese Goddess of Compassion by Martin Palmer and Jay Ramsay with Man-Ho Kwok.  This book contains many legends of Guan Yin, but is notable for including full translations of one form of oracle.
Front Gate: Often there is a simple gateway in a wall surrounding a front courtyard; I have called this the "Front Gate."  It should not be confused with the Main Gate or Entrance Hall, a much more elaborate piece of architecture.
Gate: The Gate separates the Temple from the Mundane World, the Sacred from the Profane, "That" from "This."  For this reason many temples have elaborate gateways--much more elaborate than many homes.
See Front Gate, Main Gate, Moon Gate
"Ghost Money": Descendants bear responsibility for supporting their forebears in the afterlife.  A primary means of doing so is the purchase of "ghost money" and grave goods made of paper.  These may include clothing, credit cards, and watches, all the way up to full-sized cars--and all made of paper, ready to burn in the Incinerator.  This is a common sight at most temples.
Hall: Often used to mean either "room" or "building," so the "First Hall" may contain a Guan Yin Hall, a Guan Yu Hall, and so on.  See Main Hall for more.
Incense: Incense is used almost universally as a symbol of prayer.  Like prayer, incense rises to heaven; and, like prayer, it is pleasing to the Deities.
Although the stick form of incense is well known, many temples also sell long-burning Coils, which may last for more than two weeks.  They create quite a sight (and smell), especially after a festival when there may be dozens of them burning.
Incense is almost never free, and coils never are.  Ask how much is expected, even if it is a "donation."  You may also need help in knowing where to light it.
Incense Pavilion: A full-sized temple may have a covered area separate from the Main Hall for the burning of Incense Coils.  Small temples may dedicate a central area within the Main Hall, often unroofed; this is designated the "Incense Pavilion" or "Smoke Tower."  Coils also may be seen hanging from the beams of buildings.
Incinerators: These may appear to be tall beehive ovens, or may simply be square brick fireplaces; they are used for the burning of "Ghost Money" and other paper grave goods.
Kneelers: Consider the lowly kneeler.  Not much to consider, you say?  But it is a symbol of humility, obeisance.  You find everything from plush upholstered cushions to marble blocks, but all beckon the devotee to prayer.  Note that many worshippers eschew the kneeler completely, making direct contact with the "earth."
Layouts: See the Layouts page.
Main Gate: These are often the most striking feature at a temple, befitting their role as the threshold between This Profane World and That Sacred World.  They may bear carved wooden signboards, elaborate painted or carved panels, or columns twined with dragons.  They often protect statuary, and may contain rooms used for both practical and religious purposes, from storage to small shrines.
Main Hall: This is the Hall that contains the Main Image of the temple (that is, if it is a "Guan Yin" temple, the Main Hall will house the central figure of Guan Yin, though there may be many other figures of the same deity about).  It is also usually where you will find temple staff or volunteers selling Offerings, Incense, and so on.  If there is a pamphlet about the temple, it will also be found here.
Main Image: Some say that the Main Image is the temple; so even though the buildings may burn down or be renovated, the temple is as old as the Main Image.  In terms of devotion, the Main Image is the "Axis Mundi," the Central Pillar of the World, the Immovable Spot.  No polite guest would fail to bring a gift for his host; so no visit to a temple (even for tourists!) is really complete without the lighting of incense in front of the Main Image.
Moon Gate: An architectural feature at some temples, a round gate.  This is never the Main Gate, but is often used to separate one area of the temple compound from another.
Moon blocks: I have been unable to find the name of these in Chinese.  They are two pieces of wood that fit in the hand, and are painted red.  Crescent-shaped, one side is flat and the other rounded.  To get an answer to a  "yes-no" question, the devotee kneels, prays, then tosses the blocks on the floor.  If one block has the flat side up, and the other down, the answer is "yes."  Two up or two down means "no."
This process may be used to answer a simple question, or to confirm the words of a Fortune Teller.  Another use is also interesting.  Food offerings are not always left on the altar, but are usually taken home by the devotee.  How does one know when to take them?  The deity will tell you when s/he is finished!  You will often see devotees tossing the blocks again and again; three "yeses" and it's time to gather up your fruit, oil, and other foodstuffs and head for home!
Offering Table: Food, flowers, and other offerings are placed on a table before a deity.  These may be left there for the temple staff, or taken home when the deity has "finished" them (see under Moon Blocks).
Oil: One of the most popular of offerings, oil is redolent with symbolism.  It is used for anointing, and to give light.  It makes things run smoothly, and protects them from wear.  And it makes food go down easier!  Most temples sell oil in the Main Hall, or you can bring your own.
Oracle: See Fortune Teller
Statues: The statues are one of the main "draws" at any temple.  On the ground plans for each temple, I have designated them with a capital letter, to distinguish them from the other, numbered, features.  Visit the Figures pages for more on the iconography of each statue.
Statues, Donated: Every temple I have been to has had an area devoted as a sanctuary for otherwise-homeless statues.  Whether its a room inside a Main Gate, a covered area behind a hall, or just an old household-type shrine left on the street outside the walls, these "discarded deities" sometimes become objects of veneration themselves--as they should be.
Volunteers: Many of the "staff" you see at a temple--even "full-timers"--are in fact unpaid volunteers.  For this they are worthy of our respect.  This also means, however, than you cannot expect service, or even the answers to your questions, to always rise to "professional" standards.




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