The dragon is a common symbol in Taoist temple decor.
The dragon is a common symbol in Taoist temple decor.

Though Taoism is based on the concept of tao or "the way," and ultimately must be embodied in all concepts of life -- not just at places of worship -- there are Tao temples throughout China and even in the United States. The religion is experiencing a revival after years of repression, and today there are more than 5,000 places of worship in China.

What is Taoism?

China recognizes five officially sanctioned religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism. Taoism is China's only indigenous religion and in recent years has been experiencing a revival, particularly in small towns and villages. The religion is loosely based on the writings of Laotzu or Laozi -- "Old Philosopher" -- and calls for returning to the Dao, or Tao, the mystical "way" that unites all of creation. Centered on the idea of "nonaction," Taoism offers a refuge from society and the trap of material success. Although scholars once distinguished between philosophical Taoism, which is based more on the philospher Zhuang, and religious Taoism, today most see the two strains as closely related.

Taoist Temples

Taoist worshippers often go to services on important holy days; they might also go to a temple on a regular day to find help for a specific problem such as illness and death or even business meetings or stressful exams. A Chinese Taoist temple, called a Gong, Guan or Miao in Chinese, blends Taoist taste and ideas on construction with traditional Chinese thoughts and methods of construction. There are three types of temples: palace-like temples, ordinary temples and simple huts or caves. Though similar to Buddhist temples, there are a few key differences: Rather than two giants at the entrance there are statues of a dragon and a tiger on either side of the entrance to Taoist temples; the Taoist Trinity replaces the Buddhist Trinity on the walls and decor; and the religious atmosphere is less formal and intense.

Taoist Temples: Current-Day Revival

The most recently built temples in China are lavish places of worship, ornately decorated and funded by the government in areas of potential tourism. In 1997 there were just 1,500 temples throughout China. Today over 5,000 are in China; considerably fewer are outside Asia, with only a handful in the United States. One way that the Chinese government supports temples is by associating them with the local tourist bureau or even making them an adjunct office of it. But many monks and abbesses have rejected the government's money, instead relying on private donors.

Similar Themes Among Most Taoist Places of Worship

Temple decorations reflect the Taoist tenet of pursuit of a long and fruitful life. Chinese characters such as Fu (blessing), Shou (longevity) and Ji (auspicious) are carved in windows, doors, eaves and girders of Taoist constructions. Cypress and bamboo represent friendship and honor, while the tortoise and dragon represent long life and warding off of evil. Taoism encourages human beings to live harmoniously with nature, and this can be seen in natural images such as the sun, moon, stars and clouds. Most Taoist temples are built along a mountainside or in a natural setting. Many are wood-framed, which is believed to be beneficial to health.