To write about Chinese religion is not exactly straightforward. In fact many believe the word ‘religion’ is not strictly accurate. Instead we should think about a way of life, a philosophy, a set of moral standards and obligations. Approximately 75% of Singaporeans are of Chinese descent and many of their customs and beliefs are still reflected in their everyday lives here in Singapore.
Confucianism, Daoism (also known as Taoism) and Chinese Buddhism were, once upon a time, three very distinct philosophies. Confucius was a real man who taught of moral obligation and the concept of filial piety. These teaching were not popular during his lifetime, it was only many years after his death that his moral teachings were picked up and elaborated by others. Filial piety is the concept of paying respect to ones elders and the elderly respecting the young. This respect and support should continue into the afterlife. Upon death one should continue to revere and present offerings to their ancestors. Filial piety is alive and well in Singapore, just watch the locals jump from their MRT seat when an elderly person boards the train. Or consider that you receive priority for an HDB apartment if your parents already live in the building.
Daoism is, by contrast, full of mythical figures. Feng Shui, the power of the forces of nature (wind & water) and the concept of Yin and Yang (opposite forces) both come from Daoism. Popular in Daoism is the concept of immortality and the 8 immortals are often seen in Daoist art. These 8 immortals collectively represent 8 different conditions in life: poverty, wealth, aristocracy, age, youth, the common person, masculinity and femininity. They are believed to have magical powers which allow them to heal the sick, predict the future and transform themselves and objects around them.
Buddhism travelled from India to China along the ancient trade route known as the silk road. In Buddhism there is a belief in a never ending cycle of birth, death and rebirth and in fact the ultimate goal is to escape this cycle and reach a place free from suffering. Buddhism also believes very strongly in the concept of Karma. Karma is the belief that all actions, mental and physical, have a consequence. If you are a bad person in this life you might find yourself in one of the 10 courts of hell in the next life. These 10 courts and other figures from Chinese culture can be seen in detail at Singapore’s Haw Par Villa.
Over time these three philosophies were adapted and modified to suit the cultural needs of China and, despite their very different roots, they are now often referred to collectively as The Three Teachings of China. One of the best places to see this in Singapore is at the oldest Chinese temple, built in 1842. Thian Hock Keng temple translates to ‘the temple of heavenly happiness’.
This temple sits on Telok Ayer Street which used to be a coastal road and this is why this temple is dedicated to the sea goddess Mazu. The large statue of Mazu sits in the centre of the temple and if you look up to the roof space above you will see the 8 immortals I mentioned earlier, four on each side.
After visiting Mazu if you work your way clockwise round the temple, as is practiced by the Chinese, you will first meet the black and white gods of impertinence. You can consider these gods the constables of hell, they carry out law and order in hell and they also capture wondering spirits on earth. The Chinese also pray to these gods for success in gambling and you will often see offerings left for them in the form of coffee and cigarettes.
Next is the sacred governor, he was popular when the temple was first built as people wold pray to him when they had come to Singapore to make their fortune. Following on we have Dizang, he is a Buddhist figure who you can ask for help if you, or a loved one, is trapped in one of the 10 courts of hell. Be sure to look at the cabinets behind him as you will see many ancestral tablets. These are placed here by people struggling to keep up with the offerings they are expected to make to their ancestors at home. Instead they can have a tablet made and pay the temple to look after it. The temple will make offerings on their behalf and this allows them to still be filial. This is part of the Confucian values of filial piety and respecting and revering their dead ancestors. This is popular with the elderly (and perhaps the young and busy) who feel the constant burning of joss (incense) sticks in the house it getting too much for them. The tablets covered in red are for people still alive who have reserved a space.
At the back of the temple you will find Guan Yin, a Buddhist deity of compassion and then, continuing round, the Buddha. Next is Confucius, he is very popular at exam time as many parents working locally will come to pray that their children get good exam results. If they do well, they will return and hang banners to thank him. Finally we have another Buddhist deity this time with a Daoist twist, he is there as protector of the temple. If you look closely you will see each deity gets certain types of offerings and some are more popular with worshipers than others. The joss sticks are generally presented in sets of three representing heaven, earth and man. Be sure to remember to look up at the temple roof to see the dragons chasing the pearl, representing wisdom. Also on the ceiling at the back, above Guan Yin, you see a token to the Indian community that helped build the temple as their small carved images hold up the roof.