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  Chinese Buddhism Temples - Ancient Chinese Architecture

Buddhism 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.


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 size 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.

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 Mail 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.


Ppresent Chinese timber framework and painting which are basic characteristics of Chinese architecture.

Architecture Styles:
feature characteristics and charms of: Imperial architecture, Religious architecture (Taoist, Buddhist), Garden architecture and General architecture(Hutong ,Siheyuan).

Architectural Culture:
There is always deep relation between Architecture and Culture: It is certain you will learn some cultural facts in so-called Architectural culture in Fengshui and so-called Cultural architecture in Paifang.

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