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Temple: Daoist Temple Compounds


It is difficult to say what was the first Daoist structure in China or when or where it was built. It seems certain that large Daoist temple complexes were not erected during the age of the philosophers Laozi in the sixth century bce or Zhuangzi in the fourth to early third century bce. By the early centuries of the Common Era, Daoist architecture was constructed in China, although even then it may not have been explicitly associated with a codified doctrine or what we today think of as religious practices. The ambiguity is inherent in attempts to define Daoism itself. Certainly Daoist temple compounds are groups of buildings that contain images of identifiable Daoist deities and are backdrops for Daoist rituals and worship. Yet sacred mountains and other elements of the landscape or natural settings, with little or no architecture, may provide equally fervent settings for worship of Daoist deities or may be worshipped themselves. Rustic retreats and grottoes may offer architectural environments for an ascetic's meditation or an alchemist's practice, and they may be structural appendages to more traditional temple compounds.

Although worship of native or popular deities or natural elements or spirits that come to be part of the Daoist pantheon predates the arrival of Buddhism in China in the Han dynasty (206 bce220 ce), it was the presence of monumental Buddhist architecture and its imagery that gave the greatest impetus to the Daoist temple compound. After the Han dynasty, the forms and functions of Daoist architecture in China directly reflected the styles and purposes of Chinese Buddhist buildings and the interior images they were designed to house. Male and female Daoist clergy came to be trained and reside in monastic settings. As a result, from the outside, the pillar-supported halls with ceramic tile roofs arranged in lines, the covered arcades that connect and enclose them, and the plaster walls that surround them are usually indistinguishable from those of a Buddhist temple compound. In addition, beyond the main, central image halls are libraries, stele pavilions, dining halls, dormitories, and shrines and tombs to lay leaders and reknowned transcendants associatied with the temple compound, features also found in a Buddhist monastic setting. Occasionally, a temple compound includes halls for both Buddhist and Daoist worship.

The name is one of the first clues that a temple compound is Daoist. Among religious architecture in China, two suffixes almost invariably define Daoist structures. The first is guan, often translated as "abbey." Guan is the third character in the name of Beijing's most famous Daoist temple compound, Baiyun guan (White Cloud Abbey). A Daoist temple compound of higher status takes gong, a term borrowed from imperial architecture and meaning "palace," as its last character. Yongle Gong, the Palace of Eternal Joy, is Daoism's most famous gong. Both guan and gong are basically equivalent to the Buddhist si (monastery or temple compound). Other terms are shared with Buddhist and Confucian temple architecture in China. Miao, for example, is an individual temple in either a Buddhist or a Daoist temple compound, but miao is also used to refer to a Confucian temple compound (Kong[zi]miao). An can be both a Daoist or Buddhist nunnery or, when it refers to a small religious complex, it may be translated as "hermitage." Ci, or "shrine," is a veneration temple and may be part of a larger Buddhist, Daoist, or Confucian compound, or it can refer to the compound itself, such as Jinci, the Daoist Jin Shrine complex.

In all likelihood, Daoist masters conducted ceremonies and rituals in temple compounds in the Han dynasty, but no archaeological evidence of them has been found. The best architectural evidence of Daoist practice in the early centuries of the Common Era survives in Sichuan and a few regions of adjacent provinces. Cliff tombs, particularly in Pengshan and Leshan, both in Sichuan province, are replete with images in relief sculpture of one of early Daoism's most popular deities, the Queen Mother of the West, said to be capable of bestowing the elixir of immortality. Textual records inform us that Daoist rites took place in zhi a term borrowed from the secular tradition in which it means a place where governing occursand in jingshi, or "chambers of quietude." Other terms, dong (caves or grottoes), dongtian (literally, "cavern heavens"), and fudi (blessed plots), are also found in historical texts and religious writings, but none is described. The assumption that Daoist temple compounds existed is based primarily on the large numbers of their Buddhist counterparts1,367, in the capital city Luoyang at the end of the fifth centuryand countless cave-temples in cities and at pilgrimage sites in the centuries following Han.

Only by the Sui-Tang period (581907) is it certain that Daoist temple compounds were present in China's cities and the countryside. The capital city of Sui and TangDaxing, and then Chang'anhoused ten Daoist abbeys at the end of the sixth century and sixteen in the middle of the eighth century. At least four Daoist temple compounds stood within the walls of Tang Chang'an's two palace complexes. Both the Great Ultimate palace complex and the Great Luminous palace complex had a hall dedicated to the Three Purities, Daoism's most popular trinity, and auxiliary structures. In 741, Tang emperor Xuanzong (Minghuang) (r. 712756), established a temple (miao ) to Laozi in Chang'an, in the secondary capital Luoyang, and in each prefectural capital. Later the same year, he built a hall for the worship of Laozi in his Flourishing Celebration palace complex. Following this precedent, even the non-Chinese ruler Abaoji (r. 907926), whose successor would found the Liao dynasty (9471125), built at least one Daoist abbey in his first capital in Inner Mongolia. Under the non-Chinese dynasty Jin (11151234), important construction took place at Tianchang Abbey (today White Cloud Abbey in Beijing), where building had begun during the Tang dynasty. The oldest extant wooden building from a Daoist temple complex survives at Five Dragons Temple in Ruicheng, Shanxi province. It is dated by inscription to the year 831.

More than a dozen buildings from the eleventh through thirteenth centuries, a period of syncretism among the three faiths, survive at Daoist temple compounds. Premier among them is Sage Mother Hall at the Jin Shrines in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, built between 1023 and 1032. Today a complex of more than thirty buildings, in the Zhou dynasty (1150256 bce) a shrine to Prince Shu Yu, son of Zhou King Wu, stood there. The shrine to Shu Yu's mother, the Sage Mother, is marked by beams that span eight rafter lengths (the greatest span of the period), gilt dragons that wind around the front columns, and a fish pond covered by a cruciform bridge in front. All are examples of the most eminent building standards of eleventh-century China. Although clearly having ties to China's imperial tradition, the Daoist context is underscored by the worshippers who come to the shrine to pray for help from the Sage Mother and to pray for rain from the nearby springs. Further associations between the shrines and Daoism are the presence of grottoes to Laozi, the Three Purities, the Three Heavens, and Yellow Emperor; shrines to the Three Pruities, the Eastern Peak, Three Sages, and Lu Ban, the Chinese patron deity-hero of architects; pavilions to the Daoist immortal Lü Dongbin, the Three Officials, and Zhenwu, the Supreme Emperor of Dark Heaven; temples (miao ) to the god of wealth, Dragon King, spirits of the mountains, god of war, and god of the earth; and a palace complex to the god of literature.

The Temple to the Earth God (Houtumiao) in Wanrong, Shanxi province, focused on a Daoist deity but heavily patronized by the imperial family, was a similar temple compound of the Song dynasty (9601279). Built in 1006 but destroyed by flood waters in the sixteenth century, its nine-bay, multistoried main hall, the central focus of five courtyards of architecture, is believed to have resembled an imperial palace of Song times. Its plan is believed to have been nearly identical to that of the Daoist Temple to the Earth God compound in Dengfeng, Shanxi, that survives in a post-Song version. Halls to the Three Purities, dated 1016 and 1176, stand at abbeys known as Xuanmiaoguan in Putian, Fujian province, and Suzhou, Jiangsu province, respectively. Both possessing the broadly sloping roof eaves of southeastern Chinese buildings of the Song dynasty, the former is today a middle school and the latter a tourist site. Jade Emperor Temple and Two Immortals Abbey are also among the Daoist temple compounds in Shanxi province where both architecture and sculpture survive in their eleventh- and twelfth-century forms. Two Song emperors were intimately involved with Daoism and Daoist construction. Zhenzong (r. 9981023) ordered the construction of Abbeys to Celebrate the Heavens (Tianqingguan) throughout his empire. The equally prolific patron Huizong (r. 11011125) had Genyue (Northeast Peak), an artificial Daoist paradise of mountains, streams, and landmasses, built at his capital city, in addition to numerous Daoist temple complexes there and throughout China. More than thirty Daoist temple complexes were built in the Southern Song (11271279) capital city, today Hangzhou.

Several of China's most important premodern buildings remain at Daoist monasteries from the period of Mongolian rule (12671368). Three superlative halls and a gate stand at the Yongle Palace in southern Shanxi, a building complex dedicated to the popular twelfth- and thirteenth-century Daoist sect, Quanzhen. Paintings of the Three Purities and their entourages, the immortal Lü Dongbin, and the twelfth-century founder of Quanzhen Daoism, Wang Zhe (11131170), cover the interior walls of the three main halls, making this site the largest repository of Daoist painting in China. An even more splendid building, the Hall of Virtuous Tranquility, was built by imperial order at the Temple to the Northern Peak in Quyang, Hebei province, in 1270. Its white marble approach and balustrade, as well as its roof eaves and bracketing, are believed to be the closest extant examples of China's imperial building tradition of the thirteenth century. The Temple to the Water God, alternately known as the Dragon King, is an example of humbler Daoist architecture but with equally extraordinary murals. Among them are paintings of the Dragon King and his court and an itinerant dramatic troop that performed there in the fourteenth century.

Post-fourteenth-century Daoist temple complexes survive in every city and town of China today and across the Chinese countryside. Some of the most impressive Daoist temple compounds are on sacred peaks, among which Mount Tai and Mount Wudang are probably the most famous. Located in Shantung province, Taishan, the Eastern Peak, was considered the abode of life-giving forces, including those that controled the fate of the Chinese emperor, as well as the site to which dead souls return. In imperial times more than 250 temple compounds stood on the mountain, with Dai Temple, dedicated to the god of the mountain itself, the most austere. Inside Dai Temple, the god of Mount Tai is enthroned in the yellow robes of a Chinese emperor, and the emperor's journey from his capital to Taishan is painted on the interior walls. Wudangshan, in Hubei province, is where Daoists believed Zhenwu, the Perfected Warrior, attained immortality. Because the Yongle emperor (r. 14031424) believed Zhenwu had come north to help him attain the Chinese throne from his uncle, he patronized enormous temple complexes across the mountain. With time, many of the palaces and abbeys have burned or otherwise been destroyed, including the Golden Hall. Many consider the Purple Empyrean Palace, dedicated to the Jade Emperor, whose buildings rise step by step along the ascent to the top of the peak, the most dramatic temple complex on Mount Wudang.

Among urban temple compounds, Azure Ox (Qingyang) Palace in Chengdu, Sichuan province, is exemplary. Founded at the site where Laozi is said to have transcended to immortality, the Tang emperor Xuanzong stopped there to worship Laozi in 751. In addition to Laozi, civil and military officials, the Eight Daoist Immortals, the Three Purities, and Tang rulers are all focal deities in Azure Ox Palace's halls. The recipient of several later imperial visits, the temple compound was destroyed and rebuilt in every successive dynasty.

Today, Daoist temple compounds are especially active in Taiwan. The Pointing Southward Palace (Zhinangong), dedicated to Lü Dongbin and Quanzhen Daoism, floats on a mountain above the village of Mucha. Yet in spite of the large numbers of Daoist temple compounds throughout China, individually they are more reflective of the architectural concerns of their times of origin and locations than specifically Daoist features. Except for the occasional placement of images such as the Three Purities on a roof ridge, little of the exterior marks a temple compound as Daoist. Only upon entering its halls and identifying deities such as the Three Purities, the Perfected Warrior, Jade Emperor and his entourage, Eight Immortals, or Dragon King can one be certain of the Daoist affiliation of a temple compound that in most ways blends into the framework of traditional Chinese architectural space.

See Also

Daoism, overview article; Iconography, article on Daoist Iconography.


Chavannes, Édouard. Le T'ai chan: Essai de monographie d'un culte chinois. Paris, 1910. Outstanding investigation of the mountain and related cult.

Goodrich, Anne Swann. The Peking Temple of the Eastern Peak. Nagoya, Japan, 1964. Account of an active Daoist temple complex visited by the author during her years in Beijing, 19301932. Includes details about the numerous Daoist divinities associated with the site.

Jing, Anning. The Water God's Temple of the Guangsheng Monastery: Cosmic Function of Art, Ritual, and Theater. Leiden, 2002. Investigation of the Daoist temple Shuishenmiao (Temple of the Water God, Temple of the Dragon King) that proposes relations between its murals, ritual, and particularly supplications for water in the region.

Katz, Paul. Images of the Immortal: The Cult of Lü Dongbin at the Palace of Eternal Joy. Honolulu, 1999. Study of the history of Yongle Gong (Palace of Eternal Joy) that proposes links between its siting and murals and Daoist ritual.

Steinhardt, Nancy S. "Taoist Architecture." In Taoism and the Arts of China, edited by Stephen Little and Shawn Eichman, pp. 5675. Chicago, 2000. Catalogue of the most spectacular and important exhibition of Daoist art ever mounted.

Yoshioka, Yoshitoyo. "Taoist Monastic Life." In Facets of Taoism, edited by Holmes Welch and Anna Seidel, pp. 229252. New Haven, Conn., 1979. Description of the author's experiences at Baiyun guan in Beijing from 1940 to 1946.

Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt (1987 and 2005)

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