Read CHAPTER XI of Village Life in China A Study in Sociology, free online book, by Arthur H. Smith, on


The process by which the inconceivably great numbers of Chinese temples came to be is not without an interest of its own. When a few individuals wish to build a temple, they call the headmen of the village, in whose charge by long custom are all the public matters of the town, and the enterprise is put in their care. It is usual to make an assessment on the land for funds; this is not necessarily a fixed sum for each acre, but is more likely to be graded according to the amount of land each owns, the poor being perhaps altogether exempt, or very lightly taxed, and the rich paying much more heavily. When the money is all collected by the managers, the building begins under their direction. If the temple is to be a large one, costing several hundred tA|ls, in addition to this preliminary tax, a subscription book is opened, and sent to all the neighbouring villages, and sometimes to all within a wide radius, the begging being often done by some priest of persuasive powers, dragging a chain, or having his cheeks pierced with spikes, or in some way bearing the appearance of fulfilling a vow. The only motive to these outside contributions is the strong impetus to the “practice of virtue,” which exists among the Chinese, and which can be played upon to almost any extent. Lists of contributions are kept in the larger temples, and the donors are expected to receive the worth of their money, through seeing their names posted in a conspicuous place, as subscribers of a certain sum. In some regions it is customary to set down the amount given as much larger than it really is, by a fiction equally agreeable to all concerned. Thus the donor of 250 cash sees his name paraded as the subscriber of 1,000 cash, and so throughout. These subscriptions to temples are in reality a loan to be repaid whenever the village subscribing finds itself in need of similar help, and the obligation will not be forgotten by the donors.

It is seldom safe to generalize in regard to anything in China, but if there is one thing in regard to which a generalization would seem to be more safe than another, it would be the universality of temples in every village throughout the empire. Yet it is an undoubted fact that there are, even in China, great numbers of villages which have no temple at all. This is true of all those which are inhabited exclusively by Mohammedans, who never take any part in the construction of such edifices, a peculiarity which is now well known and respected though at the first appearance of these strangers, it caused them many bitter struggles to establish their right to a monotheistic faith.

The most ordinary explanation of a comparatively rare phenomenon of a village without a temple, is that the hamlet is a small one and cannot afford the expense. Sometimes it may have been due to the fact that there was no person of sufficient intelligence in the village to take the initial steps, and as one generation is much influenced by what was done and what was not done in the generations that have passed, five hundred years may elapse without the building of a temple, simply because a temple was not built five hundred years ago. In the very unusual cases where a village is without one, it is not because they have no use for the gods; for in such instances the villagers frequently go to the temples of the next village and “borrow their light,” just as a poor peasant who cannot afford to keep an animal to do his plowing may get the loan of a donkey in planting time, from a neighbour who is better off.

The two temples which are most likely to be found, though all others be wanting, are those of the local god, and of the god of war. The latter has been made much of by the present dynasty, and greatly promoted in the pantheon. The former is regarded as a kind of constable in the next world, and he is to be informed promptly on the death of an adult, that he may report to the city god ("Ch’eng Huang,”) who in turn reports to Yen Wang, the Chinese Pluto.

In case a village has no temple to the T’u-ti, or local god, news of the death is conveyed to him by wailing at the crossing of two streets, where he is supposed to be in ambush.

Tens of thousands of villages are content with these two temples, which are regarded as almost indispensable. If the village is a large one, divided into several sections transacting their public business independently of one another, there may be several temples to the same divinity. It is a common saying, illustrative of Chinese notions on this topic, that the local god at one end of the village has nothing to do with the affairs of the other end of the village.

When the temple has been built, if the managers have been prudent, they are not unlikely to have collected much more than they will use in the building. This surplus is used partly in giving a theatrical exhibition, to which all donors are invited which is the only public way in which their virtue can be acknowledged but mainly in the purchase of land, the income of which shall support the temple priest. In this way, a temple once built is in a manner endowed, and becomes self-supporting. The managers select some one of the donors, and appoint him a sort of president of the board of trustees, (called a shan chu, or “master of virtue"), and he is the person with whom the managers take account for the rent and use of the land. Sometimes a public school is supported from the income of the land, and sometimes this income is all gambled away by vicious priests, who have devices of their own to get control of the property to the exclusion of the villagers. When temples get out of repair, which, owing to their defective construction, is constantly the case, they must be rebuilt by a process similar to that by which they were originally constructed; for in China there are as truly successive crops of temples as of turnips.

There is no limit to the number of temples which a single village may be persuaded into building. Some villages of three hundred families have one to every ten families, but this must be an exceptional ratio. It is a common saying among the Chinese that the more temples a village has, the poorer it is, and also the worse its morals. But, on the other hand, the writer has heard of one village which has none at all, but which has acquired the nickname of “Ma Family Thief Village.” It seems reasonable to infer from the observed facts that, when they have fallen into comparative desuetude, temples are almost inert, so far as influence goes. But when filled with indolent and vicious priests, as is too often the case, they are baneful to the morals of any community. In the rural districts, it is comparatively rare to find resident priests, for the reason that they cannot live from the scanty revenue, and a year of famine will starve them out of large districts.

Temples that are a little distance from a village are a favourite resort of thieves, as a convenient place to divide their booty, and also are resting-places for beggars. To prevent this misuse, it is common to see the door entirely bricked up, or perhaps a small opening may be left for the divinity to breathe through!

The erection of a temple is but the beginning of an interminable series of expenses; for, if there is a priest, he must be paid for each separate service rendered, and will besides demand a tax in grain of every villager after the wheat and autumn harvests exactions which often become burdensome in the extreme. In addition to this, minor repairs keep up an unceasing flow of money. If there is an annual chanting of sacred books (called ta chiao), this is also a heavy expense.

Temples which are not much used are convenient receptacles for coffins, which have been prepared in the Chinese style before they are needed, and also for the images of animals, made of reeds and paper, which are designed to be burnt at funerals that they may be thus transported to the spirit world. If the temple has a farm attached, the divinities are quite likely to be obscured, in the autumn, by the crops which are hung up to dry all about and even over them; for storage space under a roof is one of the commodities most rare in the village.

The temples most popular in one region may be precisely those which are rarely seen in another, but next to those already named perhaps the most frequently honoured divinities are the Goddess of Mercy (Kuan Yin P’u Sa), some variety of the manifold goddess known as “Mother” (Niang Niang), and Buddha. What is called the “Hall of the Three Religions” (San Chiao T’ang), is one of the instructive relics of a time when the common proposition that the “three religions are really one” was not so implicitly received as now. In the Hall of the Three Religions, Confucius, Lao-tzA- (the founder of Taoism, or Rationalism), and Buddha, all stand together on one platform; but Buddha, the foreigner, is generally placed in the middle as the post of honour, showing that even to the Chinese the native forms of faith have seemed to be lacking in something which Buddhism attempts to supply. This place has not been obtained, however, without a long struggle.

Another form of genial compromise of rival claims, is what is called “The Temple of All the gods” (Ch’A1/4an shen miao), in which a great variety of deities are represented on a wall, but with no clear precedence of honour. Temples to the god of Literature, (Wen Ch’ang), are built by subscriptions of the local scholars, or by taxes imposed by the District Magistrate. It is impossible to arrive at any exact conclusions on the subject, but it is probable that the actual cost of the temples, in almost any region in China, would be found to form a heavy percentage of the income of the people in the district.