As early as the prehistoric age, there had
been worship of natural gods and ancestors, which thus developed into a
primitive religion. China is an
early-maturing society but this primitive worship was retained when it entered
into a civilized society, and was carefully transformed by the Confucian school
and thereby intensified. The imperial authority was set off by religious
authority and clan power, which thus became an important spiritual pillar
safeguarding the feudal hierarchy.
The sacrificial methods of these two
types of worship are often different. Generally speaking, ceremonies for
worshipping the natural god, such as Heaven, Earth and the God of land and
grain, were held mostly on a high terrace in the open, called an "altar", such
as Tian Tan (Temple of
Heaven), Di Tan (Temple of Earth), Ri Tan (Temple of Sun) and Yue Tan (Temple of Moon). The four altars lie in the south,
north, east and west of Beijing
respectively. Tian Tan is in a plane round shape, and Di Tan square shape -- In
ancient China, this means Heaven
is round and Earth is square.
The worship of ancestors was done
mostly in "temples", such as Tai Miao (Imperial Ancestral Temple), Kong Miao (Confucian Temple) and Guandi Miao. It was often called
an ancestral hall, such as Sima Qian Ancestral Hall, Wuhou Ancestral Hall, as
well as wise men's ancestral halls and clan halls. Temples fall into three categories:
Tai Miao, or the Imperial Ancestral Temple, is the highest class of Temple, with existing representative
Beijing Tai Miao Palace of the Ming
and Qing dynasties (1368-1911).
Wise Men's Ancestral Hall is the place to
worship some famous people in history. The most famous of this kind is Confucius
temple, the largest of which is in Qufu, Confucius' (ancient Chinese philosopher
and educator) hometown. Guandi
Temple, also called Wu Miao in
Xiezhou, Shanxi Province, worships the famous general
Guan Yu in the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280).
Ancestor's Hall, or ancestral hall, is the
place to worship clan ancestors, for instance, Zu Miao in Foshan, Guangdong
Province. The construction and decoration styles similar to that of Zu Miao are
very common in areas south of the Five Ridges, Guangdong, Fujian and Taiwan.
But some natural gods were more
personified, and worshipping was often performed indoors, the site was also
called a temple, such as Dai Miao, temple for worshipping the Mount Tai; and
Zhongyue Miao, for worshipping Songshan Mountain. When put together they became
"altar and temple", a type of architecture unique to China. They were different from both
religious temples and from palaces directly used for human existence. Altars in
residences or gardens could be regarded as a para-religious building, while a
temple, in most cases, has the meaning of a memorial hall.