Columbarium and Ling San Si: Exploring the Intersection of Ancient Chinese Architecture and Cultural Practices


A columbarium is a structure that was originally built to house doves and pigeons. The modern Chinese term for such a structure is nian tang, “hall of filial piety.” A nian tang is a Buddhist structure, and it is the Buddhist connection, as we shall see, that is the defining factor in Chinese understandings of what a columbarium is. There are two main types of structures that are designed to store cinerary urns and other items related to Buddhist death rituals, caves and buildings of man-made construction. Buildings can, naturally, be of the building’s usual range of sizes and complexities. Since the Tang dynasty the most common form of a building has been large, multi-storied and made of stone. This essay is concerned with these grand stone structures, which are very often, although not entirely accurately, called ka’am. Since the second main type of cinerary storage structure are quite separate from grand man-made buildings, one needs to consider whether the term “columbarium” can be used in broadly the same way for both types of building. I believe we shall find that the common core of Buddhist ideas and death practices can be understood sufficiently broadly that the term “columbarium” can indeed be used for both.

Definition of Columbarium

A columbarium is a small building where urns are held that contain cremated remains. The definition can also refer to an entire wall or structure with recessed spaces (usually in the walls) to hold urns. The term comes from the Latin word columba, meaning dove. This refers to the original Roman construction of columbaria. The columbarium originally was a family tomb for Romans who wished to bury their deceased family members below ground. The use of urns containing ashes of the deceased developed after the rise in Christianity when the practice of cremation became less popular. This was because it was believed that the body was a temple of the Holy Spirit and should remain intact for resurrection. The strong Christian influence on this philosophy can be seen today, as this is the reason for the lack of land for burials and the popularity and development of modern day columbaria. These would be built above ground because, after the columbarium was sealed, there was no intention to reopen it. Over time, the construction of columbaria has evolved from simple structures with small niches to buildings of various sizes. Modern day columbaria can range from small communal monuments at the site of traditional internment to massive buildings with multiple stories and thousands of niches. Some countries including China have taken the concept of a columbarium to a whole new level with entire high rise buildings dedicated to housing urns.

Overview of Ling San Si

The Ling San Si monastery in Hangzhou is an exceptional illustration of the idea of a southern Chinese Buddhist monastery. It keeps to the compositional game plan of a Chinese religious community striving to be in concordance with its physical environment. The monastery complex is all around sheltered by the wooded Taibai slope and arranged on a progression of porches heading westbound from the Lingyin sanctuary to the Fahai hollow. A perfect stream goes through the trough and as indicated by the Fahai jing records, the Valley was remade in view of the Wuliang Sutra depiction of the nature Buddha land in the wake of being devastated by common tumult. The Linji master, Puji, a companion of the prominent south tune master Dahui Zonggao, established this cloister as a Chan instructional hub. Dahui paid a visit to Ling San Si in 1161 and presented a stone engraving which is still in plain view on the Chinese incense burner. Ling San Si got much acknowledgement from the mainstream track in its prime and there are references to the sanctuary in the works of art of scholars, for example, Gao Bing (1512–1589) and the spacey-forceful priest painter, Shitao (1642–1707). As indicated by the records of Macartney’s Journeys to the West, the cloister was still generally in place in the start of the nineteenth century. The current structures date from the time of expansive Buddhist remaking in Shanghai period, that is, the Qing tradition and the republican period. It was exceptionally very much saved amid its utilization as a sleeping enclosure and camp by the Japanese strengths amid the years 1938–1945. The entryway complex has a very abnormal format in that the primary door is really situated at comfortable a point by the primary street prompting Fei Lai Feng. This section prompts an internal door whereupon there is a cool and shadowy duplicated depiction of the four radiant gods. The primary Lingyin stele is situated on the privilege at the front of the second door. This stele was cut by Xuwei Bi, a stone artisan from Haimen amid the Liang tradition (502–557). One more stream lies simply inside the recently produced zenith edge, as indicated by representations of the scene amid this development. It is the branch from the Good Flow Stream and is encouraged by the water diversion complex, which is gone before by a fogs hall. The primary Fahai lobby is the main complex at the cloister that is precisely angled south. This slope retreat is away from any simulated dividers and even the complex itself has just late-latether or not able to propped dividers. The retreat has been harmed by the region occupation of late and it was amid this period exhuming was directed by the Shanxi history exhibition hall and Hangzhou past stays organization. This undertaking endured three years and was close in 1998. The primary being revealed at Ling San Si are of the track period and it is must be trusted that this territory stays pure for future eras. Throughout the history of this site, it has never been anything besides a spot of investigation. Truth, intention this mission and the chronicles that have come about are the starting phase of a long haul undertaking to save the reliability of this rare example of how a sanctuary stays in congruity with its common environment in late southern China. Ling San Si today is far expelled from being a preparation focus for Buddhist friars however it is still a spot of significant religious examine as eyewitnesses of numerous sorts research into the long history of Buddhism in this extraordinary region.

Ancient Chinese Architecture

Symbolism in ancient Chinese architecture can be seen in architectural features such as a pair of guardian animals (e.g., lion, dragon) and elaborately decorated tiles. Lions are considered powerful animals and are protective beasts; hence, these creatures serve to guard against evil or stop it from disturbing the inhabitants. Two of these beasts are positioned at the side of stairways, doorways, or temple entrances. Whereas the dragon, being a symbol of imperial authority and good fortune and the symbol of the Chinese nation, is often seen on the Emperor’s robes and has various meanings depending on its portrayal. Decorated tiles in ancient Chinese architecture serve a greater purpose than just being a roofing material. A good example of symbolism with decorated tiles can be found within the swallowtail tile.

Ancient Chinese architecture is an intriguing style that has continued to influence modern-day architecture. Ancient Chinese architecture implements features such as enclosed courtyards, grand roof-tilings, elaborate and heavy construction, an integration with nature (through the use of garden windows and views of scenery), and an overall symmetry of layout and design. By understanding and analyzing the key characteristics of ancient Chinese architecture, we are able to gain a deeper understanding of both how this style of architecture has integrated with modern-day architecture and the value which it places upon Chinese culture.

Key Characteristics

A few key characteristics differentiate ancient Chinese architecture from the architecture of the West. The most notable is the use of the bracketing set upon columns. This allowed for more flexibility in design as brackets could be added, subtracted, or altered to change the look of a building. The lack of a strict design plan in Chinese architecture meant that the plans were more flexible and transient, an idea diametrically opposed to the permanence of the Western stone building. The transient nature of Chinese design is also embodied in the curvature of roofs. Chinese roofs are curved to allow for the easy addition of another roof on top of it to expand the building. Although temporary, this second roof would still provide adequate protection from the outdoors. The use of brightly colored ceramic tiles also sets Chinese buildings apart from the West and symbolizes the importance of the building. Step up and single building separation are also seen as a direct transition into the building as opposed to the Western multi-building designs with their functional separation of buildings and use of space between them. Finally, the most apparent difference is the lack of a strictly defined wall encompassing the building and the garden-esque nature of Chinese buildings, which is a problem highly noted in feng shui. Before the idea of walls to separate homes stemmed from war and protection, a time not embodying the ideals of feng shui.

Influence on Modern Architecture

Typically, contemporary architecture in China takes the form of grand, state-sponsored projects and is largely informed by Western architectural traditions. The desire to create a national style of architecture resounds little amongst Chinese architects today, as they are more preoccupied with repackaging the ideas imported from the West, indigenizing them and selling them back to the Chinese public. A good example of this would be in certain buildings designed by such architects as I.M. Pei and more recently, the Olympic stadium designed by Herzog and de Meuron. Foreign architects, however, have produced more eclectic results in their reinterpretations of Chinese architectural forms. One example would be that of an American architect, Brian Lee, who transformed a traditional Chinese courtyard house into a cultural museum by installing a glass ceiling over the courtyard and inserting glass display cases into the living quarters. Although the structural design retained much of the original features, the insertion of glass provided a stark contrast between modern and ancient building materials. Another example would be a dining hall designed by Japanese architect, Kengo Kuma in Hangzhou, whereby he revitalized the architectural form of the traditional Chinese wooden bridge to create an open space with the aid of modern engineering. In both cases, we can see a departure from the original function of the building, yet the reinterpretation of the forms still makes a unique statement about the hybridity of modern Chinese architecture and the similarities with pre-modern building techniques.

Modern architects have been drawn to ancient Chinese architecture and its unique features, and many have sought to build structures inspired by the designs of the past. In our brief study, we shall pay closer attention to the manner in which Chinese architects have re-interpreted the forms of the past against the context of contemporary China, motivated by a strong sense of nationalism. Conversely, we will also look at the way in which foreign architects have interpreted Chinese architectural forms and building techniques. This shall be done with reference to specific examples of modern buildings.

Symbolism in Ancient Chinese Architecture

One important type of traditional Chinese building is the family tomb, the Chinese feels that the relationship to his ancestors is an integral part of his life and he has strong sense of duty and respect to the dead. Ancestors were quite literally placed on a par with the living, and were thought to have the same needs and desires as of those of the living, there is a common Chinese saying that “life is for the living and the dead.” The Chinese believes that proper burial for an ancestor or loved one prevents the descendant from being haunted by the displeased ghost or spirit. It was thought that the greatest calamities were caused by the spirits of the ancestors that had been improperly buried. A proper ancestor would be his own house, but to build for the spirit was always problematic because of the habitual destruction of Chinese cities caused by wars and natural calamities. This has resulted in the building of a symbolic house, a house in which no person would actually live but it would serve as a token of the ancestors and proof that a proper funeral had been done. The symbolic house would often be in the form of a shrine, which is a simple building with few rooms and would be easily destroyed; the building of such an edifice would vary from simple mounds of earth to grand structures for some of the more notable figures.

Throughout the ages, Chinese architecture has its own set of unique traditional symbols. An outstanding example is the integration of the Chinese characters with the built forms. Chinese characters are logograms; each character represents a word or a meaningful part of a word, but the characters in themselves also contain abstract meanings or associations. This is what makes the written Chinese language such a highly expressive form of writing. In the same way, traditional Chinese buildings “express” themselves and communicate with the people in a similar way to the Chinese written language. The Chinese characters are not only the patterns of the written words, but they are the patterns of the parts of the words; the characters contain both the concrete and the abstract. Similarly, Chinese buildings do not simply stand as buildings, but they embody a set of symbols with both literal and suggestive meanings. Due to the nature of logograms, certain Chinese characters can be written in various differing forms yet retain the same meaning. The versatility in the written language can be likened to the adaptability of Chinese architectural forms and the use and re-use of a single symbol can be compared to the complex layering of symbols in a building at different reiterating all with differing nuances and styles yet retaining the same theme.

It is often said that if you really want to understand a culture, look at its architecture. Chinese architecture is a vast subject encompassing a long span of time and two very different dynastic periods, the Eastern and the Western Dynasties and from the present time to the twentieth century. It is not possible to describe Chinese building in one short article, but this work will introduce several important themes and identify key characteristics.

Cultural Practices in Ancient China

It is important to note that the Chinese attitude towards death and the ancestors paralleled their view on society as a microcosm of the cosmos with the state at the macrocosmic level. With the decline of the family unit that followed the fall of the Han dynasty, there arose a great dichotomy in the status of Confucianism and its teachings on filial piety and ancestor worship between the classes. This centuries-long decline in the status of Confucianism reached its nadir when the cultural elite turned towards the gentry. In contrast to the avarice and religious complexity of the elite, the gentry would adopt a pragmatic “dualist” approach to Buddhism and Daoism. This led the twice-displaced Confucian ritual, traditions, and the simpler religious practices of the gentry to be carried out at the family’s own graves. The Ming dynasty was the last period of great political unity, and this was reflected in the establishment of the graveyard as a parallel community of the living locale. Guilds and other local groups would often have matching grave styles, and the most well-to-do would build small replications of their homes.

Much of ancient Chinese spirituality revolves around the concept of filial piety and the various ways through which one can exhibit this virtue. The high point of ancestor worship’s practice was the Qing Ming festival where families would go to gravesites to pay respects to the deceased. In performing the appropriate rituals and sacrifices, the family would hope to gain blessings from their ancestors and avert their potential anger and punishment. These rituals and sacrifices varied in scale depending on the wealth of the family, but some form of offering would be made at an ancestral altar in the family home. Ancestor veneration was usually done in the home, but in cases where the lineage or individual passed an important government examination, they might have a memorial built to honor their family. A testament to the importance of filial piety and its link to the state lies in the fact that the Confucian cleaned marble white was reserved for government officials to honor their parents. In giving up career and success, there was no greater expression of devotion to one’s family than the Confucian ideal that Merrill suggests was revived in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was during these same centuries that the architecture of vast and intricate familial memorials and government-built “spirit ways” to imperial tombs reached its zenith.

Ancestor worship is among the key cultural practices carried in different periods of Chinese history and reflected in various architectural forms. The social and political strife of the Warring States period and the rise of the scholar-bureaucrat during the Han dynasty set the tone for ancestor veneration as a rite of great piety designed to display the beneficence of the state. Its complexity can be vividly illustrated in the preserved ruins at the archaeological site in Shanxi, China. In this text, the writer will illustrate these practices and explore the architecture built to serve their purpose.

Ancestor Worship

The spirits of the deceased ancestors are believed to bring good fortune to not only the descendants but also to living family members. In order to receive such fortune from the ancestors, an altar with a full set of food (using mock money) and incense are placed in the main hall of the home. Although it may seem that happiness is the only thing wished upon, sometimes deviant behaviour of the offspring and their wrongful deeds cause the ancestors to become vengeful spirits, bringing them misfortune instead. This situation can be undone with the performance of a ‘spirit seduction’ ceremony. When the time comes that the effectiveness of the altar ceases to work, the tablets can often be relocated to a columbarium, especially if the land of the original grave is needed for some other purpose. The spirit seduction ceremony involves the preparation of another altar at home and enlisting the help of a medium to aid in the invitation of the ancestor’s spirit to the altar. Several rituals are performed to purify the spirit and lead it to the altar. Once this is done and the ancestors are well settled at the new altar, the original altar at the grave of the ancestors is abandoned, symbolizing the end of the previous caretaking period. This act is done in hopes that the ancestors will bring prosperity to the family, it is still widely practiced and performance of this and other ancestral rites can still be seen today at festivals in various rural parts of China.

Rituals and Traditions

Chinese rituals and traditions provide the context for the construction of a columbarium. According to Yu Hai, the construction of a temple for a funeral rite has deeper significance and symbolic meaning, such that every piece of its architecture should have proper guidance from ancient records; and every procedure must follow a set of norms. This is because ritual must accord with the order of Heaven as an image of the ideal world and an expression of man’s place in the cosmos. It serves as a communication to bridge the gap between the concrete and the abstract, the visible and the invisible, the temporal and the eternal. Ritual, be it large ritual or small ritual, serves to establish cultural identity and provide valuable insight into the worldview of the society concerned. It is the tangible enactment of myth; the performance of a myth that serves to bring the participants into a realization of the truth of that myth and into direct experience of its power. The ritual act is understood to possess cosmological significance, it is a reflection of the way things should be done in the world and a reiteration of the ordering of the cosmos. All ritual is an offering to higher powers and an act of establishment; an act of foundation for the construction of a temple, the founding of a home, the enshrinement of a deceased ancestor would all be rituals of this type.

Significance of Columbarium in Chinese Culture

The cabinet-for-urns tradition had its beginnings in Taoist practices of funerary commemoration. Employing stela inscriptions to provide dwelling places for the spirits of family forebears, alternating at the renewal of these inscriptions between portable wooden tablets and specially selected tiles on which the inscription could be fixed. The transition in the status of these abodes for ancestor spirits, known as “cabinet-for-urns,” should not be confused with another practice employing a similar structure to store on a temporary or lasting basis tablets or slips of paper inscribed with disparaging remarks and sentences of punishment for certain contemporaries or opponents. At various points in history, carts and storehouses were utilized, but a thorough investigation would undoubtedly reveal that these said abodes and the practices relating to them were nested into one and the same pattern.

The significance of columbarium in Chinese culture has been insufficiently dealt with by scholars studying Chinese religion. Resting China in general, instead domestic focuses on one remarkable institution, the cabinets for urns occupying San Yüan monasteries of the Ch’an (Zen) sect. Over a period of roughly seven centuries, dating from the fourth century AD, a distinct tradition developed, extant nowhere else in East Asia, with no parallels in the West, and finally disappeared under the impact of the Modernization Movement beginning in the 20th century. Displaying only fragments of this workshop, recovering history and charting the evolution of the typology of cabinets, seeks to convey a sense of uniqueness and identify the conditions conditioning its arousal and demise.

The Intersection of Columbarium and Ling San Si

Ling San Si which means The Temple of Soul’s Retreat, which in reality is a mortuary monastery not a Temple. From the naming course, shows that Ling San Si is a monastery for people who are dead as well as a place to reflect on ourselves to remain calm in life and get closer to death. This makes the central function of Ling San Si as a place to practice (cultivate one’s soul) in the teachings of Buddhism. In this respect, Ling San Si almost equated with a columbarium building, the difference is that the clearest is the stored objects, in columbarium stores ashes or bone fragments, while in Ling San Si that can be stored is a memory due to the noble behavior (citakara) of a monk who died when he still was alive. Though in some cases still found also a monk who died buried in a graveyard monument. This shows that in some respects Ling San Si can be said as a form of epitaph monument.

Columbarium is always being said as a house for someone’s last laugh. The term house refers to the building, indicating that it is a place. The term last laugh refers to what is meant by death, the end of life in the world. So, a columbarium is a place to keep the ashes of the dead and the human bones are no longer intact, with the aim of buried.

Historical Background

The origin of the Ling San Si is traced to the Ming Dynasty. The Ming period saw the great prosperity of the Hokkien immigrants in building and renovating ancestor halls. With newly created wealth and heightened social status, these Hokkiens built splendid columbaria temple halls for the long-deceased immigrants or their parents. Ashes were positioned in these halls according to the status previously held in life by the deceased. This was a brand new concept of sepulchral architecture that the Hokkiens transplanted from South China to Southeast Asia. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, large-scale construction of such temple halls was interrupted in Southeast Asia due to political unrest. Ming Dynasty architecture and the notion of an eminent position for the dead were therefore essentially preserved and still remain most visible in the temples of the five southern provinces of China. The present cultural revolution in China has spelled destruction for a large portion of contemporary history Ling San Si architecture. With the dissolution of certain traditional social institutions and the cessation of material conveyance of memorial tablets, the potential for maintaining or constructing new temple halls is obviously very scarce. For the purposes of understanding our heritage or for those fortunate enough to trace their ancestral origin from Southeast Asia back to China, the study of columbarium temple hall architecture and the role it once played in social organizations can best be achieved through observations and studies in the five southern provinces.

Architectural Features of Ling San Si

The main emphasis of this particular session is architecturally mandapa, the four-pillar hall, which was both an assembly hall and a shrine. It was an essential building in all Buddhist temples. The shrine area was unique; different statues of Buddha were often placed in a square layout in the center of the wall with some space. Steps leading to the front of the statues were used to light oil lamps. This is different from other lands as the custom of wall painting for the enlightenment of the Bible and Asian spectrum was already existent and less sensorial.

The architecture of the Ling San Si incorporates the designs of villa monasteries. Generally, these temples were built on hillsides far from the noise of the city and suburbs. This idea of being close to nature is based on the Buddha’s love for the environment, and it was an ideal place for meditation and reconciliation. The temple layout included an entrance gate that leads onto a long walkway.

The Ling San Si dates back to the Eastern Han dynasty, which lasted from 25 AD to 220 AD. This particular temple was the prototype for many later Buddhist temples in China. The fourth century was a tough time for Buddhism in China, where it was given the status of a religion and confined to villa monasteries. Temples built during the time that Buddhism was in the shadow of the native Chinese religion borrowed features. These Ling San Si temples represent a transition between religious Chinese architecture and the Song Dynasty building reviewed above, a time when Buddhism became fully part of Chinese culture. The transition is evident in the characteristic buildings of these temples; Buddhism was no longer the foreign idea of a foreign religion. During the earlier periods, not much art is found in China where Buddhist art can use its own masters to prepare the images and oils identified icons in many traditions.

Cultural Significance of Ling San Si

One important brief account on a Chinese temple is given in a footnote to The Three Musketeers as the home of a needed rest by the fat King Louis XIII after a ride; so the setting of Ling San Si in its garden of great trees, secluded in its walled village, suggests a refuge from the world. Although official Chinese temples have a public function, the soul of Ling San Si is quiet and meditative. It has never been the scene of a brilliant or dramatic history; it is an ideal of the peace that a great people seeks in troubled times. And this mood of Ling San Si, and something of its basic idea, are expressed in the traditions and superstitions relating to it. Much has been said of the influence of Buddhism in China as a refuge from the harshness of Confucian despotism, or from the distractions of a world too keenly felt; of its appeal to the poor and neglected, to women and to slaves. But in the Zen monasteries, which have always accounted for a minority of Chinese Buddhist establishments, were found a government by study and self-discipline of the superior man, and a culture of the arts of life in a leisured and privileged class. This was the life of the Sung dynasty, and the golden age of Chinese Buddhism is associated especially with the growth and decay of the Sung, and with China’s nearest approach to a great hierarchical church and a Buddhist state. This phase of Buddhism was essentially a higher religion for the cultured and the fortunate. And it broke down before the coming of the Mongols, a movement of crude and illiterate barbarians, and the mandarins of Mongolia entrenched themselves in the office and the social system of the Sung. In the long disorder that followed the Mongol conquest, the old gentle Buddhism which could not serve the world, nor fight the world, nor slip away from the world, was extinct. But its tradition survived in the ideal of the Chinese gentleman and the culture of the Confucian literatus. And if the tradition seeks a refuge today, anywhere in the bustling east, where shall it find a fitter abode than Ling San Si built in the very last days of the now alien Ming and quite unmodern Sengoku period?

Recent Stories