Enter the Dragon, Exit the Tiger

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There's a lot of etiquette to be observed in a temple, and a lot of taboos to be avoided. Perhaps the most familiar rule of all is: “Enter by the door of the dragon to pray for happiness. Exit by the door of the tiger to ward off misfortune.”

step through the doorway with your left foot firstThe main door to a temple is not usually opened except on special occasions, and even then it is not for people to go in and out of. It is reserved for the deities. Ordinary mortals have to use the dragon and tiger doors on either side of the main door. As you face the temple, the dragon door is on the right, and the tiger door is on the left. On the right side of the courtyard, in front of the dragon door, there is a man-made waterfall. Hidden among the rocks of the water is the trigram that stands for water. What is the significance of this? Well, we Chinese regard flowing water as a symbol of wealth. So when you enter the door of the dragon, you’re symbolically attracting wealth to yourself.

 tiger door

dragon door

When you enter the temple, you have to step through the doorway with your left foot first. That’s because the left-hand takes precedence over the right in Chinese tradition. And here’s another tidbit to remember: As you enter through the doorway, you step over the threshold beam, not on it. This is done to show respect for the gods. So there’s more than just beautiful architecture to be on the lookout for. These little customs are also very interesting!

Without a doubt, though, the most distinctive feature of the dragon and tiger doors is the ornate carving on them. It comes in two basic types of low relief: raised relief and sunken relief. With raised relief, the figure being depicted protrudes out from an otherwise flat background (as in the photo above). With sunken relief, the form of the figure being depicted is incised into an otherwise flat surface.
The low-relief carving in the photo at the upper right features a vase with plum, lotus, and peony blossoms in it. At the bottom is the hand of the Buddha, and to one side there is an incense burner. This motif symbolizes the many good things that the gods give to us.
In addition to sculpture, Lungshan Temple also has a lot of beautiful Chinese calligraphy. Even we Chinese don’t necessarily understand it all!




The dragon and tiger doors are both topped with an inscribed board that has been crafted to resemble an unfurled scroll. The board over the dragon door is inscribed with two characters (bao gai) referring to the palanquin that the gods ride in when they are out and about. The characters reading “ci hang,” on the board over the tiger door, literally mean “merciful voyage” and refer to the trips that the boddhisatva Guanyin makes to lead the faithful to paradise.
Another interesting little detail about the dragon and tiger doors is the fact that the details of the door frames have not been executed in quite the same manner. Chinese architecture demands symmetry, and the two doors are supposed to be mirror images of each other, but they were built by two different teams of craftsmen. Although the dimensions are the same, the carving styles are not.


Written by Tsu-Yi and photographed by Chiu-Hui

Temple Gate |Flagstones |Roof  |Corbel brackets |"Pillar dragons" of bronze and stone |
Stone Drums |Trigram window with bamboo bars |Qi Qiu & Ji Qing |
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