The Art of a Confucian Temple
Several religious practices are popular in Taiwan, although the line between them is often blurred. Buddha can be found in Taoist temples and living by Confucian ideals is compatible with any faith tradition. Reliably it is actually the art and architecture of a temple that can be used to determine the beliefs of its worshipers. One excellent contrast between temple design can be found in north Taipei where literally across the street from the Taoism Baoan Temple is the Taipei Confucius Temple. Let walk through this elegant temple to understand what is unique about its decorations and why the temple is decorated this way.
Art and the general aesthetics of a Confucian Temple are rooted in the theological principles and practices of the religion. At its heart, Confucianism is a philosophical system for understanding and interacting with others which seeks to establish social harmony. These ethical teachings are based on the practice of Ren, empathy and humaneness, and Li, propriety and the ability to act morally in every situation. The emphasis is less on the divine world and more on self-examination and treating others correctly.
As you would imagine, Confucian Temple are considered to be places of learning. There are no statues of deities for veneration since the emphasis of this ethical system is one’s own behavior in daily life. Confucius temples do feature name plaques of famous scholars and followers of the tradition who are revered for their mastery and insight. A central courtyard and multiple ceremonial gates are used for rituals and public gatherings.
The Taipei Confucius Temple was opened in 1939 and is laid out like other Chinese Taoist temples. There is a central sanctuary surrounded by a porticoed ring of rooms. Moving further out, there is a separate, free standing gate house and a series of gardens before reaching the final exterior wall. The architectural design is elegant and simplified while the decorations are minimal and used to enhance the tranquility of the site.
There are dragons and other small ceramic figures along the roof line but the art is not nearly as extensive as at Taoist Temples. These decorations are included out of respect for Chinese traditional culture. For example, the seven tiered pagoda at the center of the temple roof is meant to ward off evil while the small green owl tiles along the roof line symbolize Confucian learning and wisdom.
The central sanctuary of the Taipei Confucius Temple contains philosophical phrases, name plaques of teachers, and ceremonial instruments. This open space is a dramatic contrast to the Taoist shrines at Baoan Temple filled with gods, food offerings, and incense. The main hall was constructed without nails which must have been quite a purposeful and meditative process for so large a building.
The ceiling in the main sanctuary is simply gorgeous. Four square levels support 24 polygonal layers that rise to a central point decorated with a flower. The elaborate wood carvings create a sense of motion amplified by the vibrant red, blue and gold of the ceiling. While they are hard to see in my picture, there is a bat on each corner of the dome’s base. In Chinese, “four bats” also means “giving fortune” – a suitable sentiment for a place of learning.
While wandering through the temple, I watched as three deacons completed a ritual. The lead woman clapped two wooden blocks together in a loud, powerful rhythm. The second woman carried a hanging basket of incense. The third followed along with crossed arms.
The ceremony started inside the main sanctuary, then proceeded through the portico to each room of names. The deacons stopped to pay their respect at the two main doorways and then continued around. Moving silently from one position to the next, the group did not speak and were only guided by the loud regular crack of the wooden blocks.
The openness and minimal decoration of the temple really did create a peaceful space. I think what I appreciated the most was the abstraction of the decoration. The majority of the paintings and carvings were simple geometric patterns with the occasional flower, bird, dragon or lion. Both the designs and the applications of these designs were done sparingly creating ample visually plain space. The lovely architecture of the complex was more clear in this environment and the ceramic and painted elements popped even more. While I enjoyed the intricate and completeness of the decoration at Baoan Temple, there was something soothing and every enjoyable about the toned down art and simplified forms of the Taipei Confucius Temple.