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Traditional Life in China: Temple and Worship

There are three main systems of belief in China: Daoism (sometimes written Taoism), Buddhism and Confucianism. Chinese people did not adhere strictly to one religion. They carried out the religious observance most appropriate to the occasion, finding that the three religions complemented rather than contradicted each other. Many objects, whatever religion they are ascribed to, share the same symbolic motifs, and Buddhist and Daoist temples were similar in many respects. This is typical of the inter-relatedness of the different forms of Chinese worship.


Pair of ancestor portraits, 1700-1800. Museum nos. E.362-1956, E.363-1956

Pair of ancestor portraits, 1700-1800. Museum nos. E.362-1956, E.363-1956. Ancestor portraits of General Lu Chian-Kuei and his wife, Lu Tai Tai, China, about 1755.

The husband and wife portraits shown here are ancestor portraits and would have played a part in the ceremonies of reference that all Chinese families carried out in honour of their forebears. They would have been displayed on special occasions such as New Year and birthdays, when the living members of the family would make offerings to the spirits of their dead relatives at altars within their own home or at a family temple. These services were family affairs and not a public form of worship.

The veneration of past generations, a practice that dates from at least the Bronze Age in China, was incorporated by Confucius (551 - 479BC) into a set of rules about how to live a worthy life. This moral system, which still influences life in China today, was based on the 'five relationships', - between ruler and subject, father and son, husband and wife, elder brother and younger brother, and friend and friend. Confucius believed that if everyone accepted their place in the social hierarchy and behaved appropriately, the country would be at peace and free from natural disasters such as earthquakes. Confucianism was not much concerned with the spiritual life and so perhaps cannot strictly be called a religion, but its code was central to people's lives in the same way as a religion's creed might be.

"[Sons and son's wives] should go to their parents and parents-in-law [on the first crowing of the cock]. On getting to where they are, with bated breath and gentle voice, they should ask if their clothes are [too] warm or [too] cold, whether they are ill or pained, or uncomfortable in any part; and if so, they should proceed reverently to stroke and scratch the place… In bringing in the basin for them to wash, the younger will carry the stand and the elder the water; they will beg to be allowed to pour out the water, and when the washing is concluded, they will hand the towel. They will ask whether they want anything, and then respectfully bring it. All this they do with an appearance of pleasure to make their parents feel at ease"

Duty to parents, from Twenty-four Examples of Filial Piety, a Classic for Children, quoted in Thompson, LG Chinese Religion: An Introduction, Belmont Wadsworth, 4th edn, 1989.

"Zi Zhang asked Confucius about benevolence. Confucius said, 'There are five things and whoever is capable of putting them into practice in the Empire is certainly 'benevolent'.
'May I ask what they are?'
'They are respectfulness, tolerance, trustworthiness in word, quickness and generosity. If a man is respectful he will not be treated with insolence. If he is tolerant he will win the multitude. If he is trustworthy in word his fellow men will entrust him with responsibility. If he is quick he will achieve results. If he is generous he will be good enough to be put in a position over his fellow men.'"

From Confucius: The Analects, translated by DC Lau, Penguin, 1979.

Detail of a robe for a Daoist priest, 1650-1700. Museum no. T.91-1928

Detail of a robe for a Daoist priest, 1650-1700. Museum no. T.91-1928


Daoism started as a set of philosophical ideas about 500 BC, not long after the time of Confucius. These ideas expressed wonder at the greatness of the cosmos and taught that people should seek harmony with nature by following the dao, or way, of the universe. Life on earth was deemed to be just a temporary withdrawal of the soul from the mass of vitality circling in space and at death it was thought one would be reabsorbed into this central source.

Later the religion developed a priesthood, temples, statues and set rituals. Adherents of the later type of Daoism prayed to a whole array of gods and holy sages for good fortune in this life and help in entering heaven when their earthly existence was over.

The Daoists priest's robe, made between 1650 and 1700, is embroidered with nearly 350 heavenly beings. Most of them look like human beings although the Daoist pantheon included demon-like spirits as well as ones that looked like animals. Apart from the halo-like aura around the heads of some of them, the figures on this robe are dressed in the manner of earthly officials. They are arranged hierarchically according to rank, as Chinese bureaucrats were. When the priest held up his arms during a service in a temple, this robe singled him out as being in communication with the spirits.


Bronze head, 700-900. Museum no. M.3-1936

Bronze head, 700-900. Museum no. M.3-1936

Buddhism was brought to China from India via Central Asia in about the third century AD. Central to Buddhist belief was the cycle of reincarnation, which says that all living beings are reborn into the world after death. Buddhists aimed to free themselves from this cycle of rebirth and enter a sublime state of nothingness or Nirvana.

This perfect state gradually came to be understood in China as a type of paradise. To ensure a place in paradise, devout believers would repeat their prayers many times, their concentration aided by focusing on statues. They prayed to images of the Buddha and also to saints known as Bodhisattvas, who, although they had attained Nirvana and escaped the cycle of rebirth, had chosen to return to the world to help others. Guanyin, whose name means 'the one who always hears sounds', that is listens to every prayer was one of the most popular Bodhisattvas. He was associated with fertility, amongst other things, and women in particular would pray to him.

This bronze Buddha head (right) is over one metre high and is all that remains of a huge statue. Such an image would have been very expensive to produce and must have come from an important temple. The head was cast in sections, and such was the skill of the sculptors, despite the size and a weight of over 45 kilos, it is hollow and the metal itself is only three millimetres thick. The sections are so thin and fine that details like the lips and eyes can be traced in hollow relief inside. The bronze mixture used is a most unusual alloy of copper, iron, tin and lead. The painted surface over the top of the bronze would originally have been much brighter.

Banner, 700-900. Museum nos. Ch.i. 0022, Ch. 00342 Stein Loan

Banners, China, 700-900. Museum nos. Ch.i. 0022, Ch. 00342 Stein Loan.

The pair of silk banners (right) are an example of another way that followers of the Buddhist faith demonstrated their piety. Such banners would be offered at temples or shrines in honour of the Buddha. They could be hooked on to a staff either left fluttering outside or hung from the eaves inside. The painted wooden board across the bottom stopped the streamers from getting tangled. These precious banners were made between 700 and 900 AD and come Dunhuang, a great Buddhist temple site on the Silk Route.

Buddhist believers also paid for stone columns, or stele, to be put up by the side of the road as a sign of their faith. There are two stele in the V&A that are carved with religious pictures and scriptures and one of them has the names of the twenty-six people who pooled their resources to pay for it carved in rows around the bottom.

"The Perfect Way is only difficult for those who pick and choose. Do not like, do not dislike; all will then be clear. Make a hairbreadth of difference, and Heaven and Earth are set apart. If you want truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between 'like' and 'dislike' is the mind's worst disease. While the deep meaning is misunderstood, it is useless to meditate on tranquillity. The Buddha-nature is featureless as space: it has no 'too little' or 'too much'. Only because we take and reject does it seem to us not to be so."

The Perfect Way, from Sengts'an The third Patriarch, 'On Trust in the Heart', from the Chinese Mahayana and quoted in Appleton, G (ed) The Oxford book of prayer, Oxford University Press, 1988.

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