The Temple of Heaven
During my stay in China, I’ve had the opportunity to visit many temples, and was shocked by the temples’ stylistic similarities. Each temple, especially the Buddhist temples, tended to guide the worshiper through a series of increasingly elaborate halls, alternating with vast courtyards, culminating in a shrine to that particular shrine’s Bodhisattva, usually alongside Ēmítuófó Buddha, one of the main Buddhas in the Mahayana tradition.
These commonalities extended beyond understandable similarities in layout and pantheon to suspiciously similar furnishings, especially identically painted eaves and architectural accents, as well as nearly identical incense burners. I assume these similarities, especially the brand new paintjob on many of the temples, were a product of renovating Beijing for the Olympics, and an unfortunate byproduct of modernization encountering the past, resulting in hasty preservation.
I felt that the Temple of Heaven, 天坛, was unique in that it was primarily an altar for the Emperor’s private use instead of an exclusively Buddhist temple, and thus tended to echo the forbidden city’s distinctive architecture much more so than the other temples. Its layout tended to function more like the forbidden city itself, defined more by pavilions for the emperor’s use and wide open spaces to demonstrate his wealth in land than shrines to individual Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Most of the individual pavilions were exclusively reserved for imperial ceremonies such as weddings and sacrifices, which defined the Temple of Heaven’s unique purpose and architecture.
The two temples we visited atop Mount Wutai exemplified typical Buddhist temple architecture. Each temple was mainly comprised of dimly lit shrines to specific Buddhas, demonstrating the temple’s role as providing a place in which to contact various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, in other words defined by the Buddha’s role in religion instead of the emperor’s significance. Although these temples also contained many open spaces, the architecture carried Buddhist symbolic meanings instead of representing imperial power, such as a stairwell out of the temple symbolizing the walker’s descent into the world of suffering outside of the temple.
When I visited Yonghegong, I thought it demonstrated an interesting compromise between the two architectural styles, as it maintained some of Beijing’s imperial grandeur while staying true to the architectural intents of mount Wutai’s temples. While clearly focused on shrines to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas like Mount Wutai’s temples, Yonghegong incorporated Beijing’s emphasis on style over substance in architecture, with heavily decorated, tall buildings as well as lavishly decorated shrines.
Interestingly, despite the relatively uniform Chinese architecture, each temple contained religious images inspired by a wide variety of cultures, just like Buddhism itself. Each temple showcased artworks of the Buddhas incorporating Chinese, Indian, and Tibetan influences, suggesting that underneath a uniform facade, these temples showcased the culmination of a richly multinational tradition.