Multi-tiered roofs, beautifully designed archways and magnificent temples and residences; these are prominent characteristics of traditional Confucian architecture. These elements were carefully depicted through the application of Confucian values. Confucian values and their architectural representations can help strengthen the correlation between Confucianism and architecture.
The Confucian Temple as an Educational Institution
In order to commemorate Confucius, Chinese people built Confucian temples to honour his contribution to Chinese culture. (4) Confucian temples were built in county schools throughout the empire, either to the front of or on one side of the school. Still to this day, Confucian temples represent knowledge and education, rather than worship alone. Confucian temples are often referred to without “Confucius” in the title. For example, the Confucian temple located in Beijing is named the Ancient University and the Confucian temple in Hanoi, Vietnam, is known as the Temple of Literature. These alternative names of Confucian temples represent the educational values that Confucius stood for. Furthermore, these temples would contain stone inscriptions on carved turtles displaying the names of successful students from the days of imperial China.
Unlike Daoist or Buddhist temples, Confucian temples do not normally contain images. (5) This absence emphasised the teaching of Confucius and not the worshiping of the teacher himself. Statues have appeared because it satisfies people’s needs to identify with Confucius. Often times, people will pay respect to Confucius by leaving items such as a basket of flowers, as seen in the photo below.
Harmonious Social System Maintained through Architectural Design
Confucian thought was the core of China’s hierarchical social system. (1) The hierarchical Confucian code of conduct influenced the residential design of courtyards. The sections and walls within courtyards were distinctly separated in order to represent the hierarchical social system as well as the Confucian influenced value of superior/subordinate relationships, for example the relationship of parent/child.
In courtyard residences, the centre of the courtyard was thought to be superior and most significant while the sides were less so. The north end of the courtyard was highly desirable as it faced south and received the most sunlight. This choice location was therefore used by the head of the household, or by family elders. (2) Additionally, the emperor of China sat on his throne and faced south. This was a traditional form of conduct and these values were reflected in the placing of important figures within residential courtyards and palaces.
According to Confucian family order, the east and west ends were occupied by the younger generation. The courtyard was a self-enclosed world that represented safety and harmony. Within it, relationships were defined by Confucian values and space was allocated accordingly (1)
Today, a sense of the courtyard has been preserved through the use of hutongs, not only for family, but community usage as well.
Individuals Commemorated through Memorial Arches
Highly honourable individuals exhibiting a certain Confucian virtue were often commemorated through memorial arches. These arches served as a way to honour the deeds of people and offered insight into the social values of the time. The names of those who were honourable were scripted on the arch and a formal application process was in place if the public deemed the person no longer worthy of commendation. (3)
5. Sommer, Deborah (2002). “Destroying Confucius: Iconoclasm in the Confucian Temple”. On Sacred Grounds: Culture, Society, Politics and the Formation of the Cult of Confucius: 95–133.