The Man Mo Temple, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong, China Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Man Mo Temple, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong, China

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Hong Kong is a relatively new city. Not only is it less than 200 years old, but the inhabitants also have a culture of constant rebuilding and cultural assimilation so that most things in the city are modern looking and not that unusual to the Western eye.

You'll find an exception in the Man Mo Temple, which is one of the oldest buildings in the city and a little gateway into a traditional Chinese world which is far removed from anything Western.

The Man Mo Temple is Taoist, a religion that defies description and discourages analysis.


Taoism is a philosophy or religion which is very popular in China. It is said to have been founded by Lao Tzu, a philosopher from the 6th Century BC. Whether Lao Tzu himself existed or not, his book of poems Tao Te Ching certainly does. It is at least as old as the 2nd Century BC and sets out many of the beliefs of Taoism. The Chinese word Tao, often spelt Dao1, means 'Way'. Many religions talk about the 'Way' - Jesus Christ, for example, said 'I am the Way'. But in Taoism, the word means a specific thing - the Tao is an all-encompassing guiding principle of the universe, which Taoists claim is undefinable. It bears a distinct resemblance to the 'Force' of the Jedi Knights in the Star Wars films, although it doesn't appear to give the ability to use light sabres. This is not just a chance resemblance; if you understand the Force of Star Wars, you're half way to knowing what Taoism is about, although Taoists reject the idea of having to know something before you can act.

The Bagua Symbol

Taoists believe in the duality of nature - what is there and what is not there combine to make the working universe - darkness is the absence of light, but we need darkness as well as light to be able to see. The walls of a house keep out the outside world, but we can only live in the house because of the holes in the walls (doorways) which allow us to enter it. Things can be good only because other things can be evil. This duality is represented by the yin-yang symbol - two comma shapes, one black, one white, which interlock to make a single disk.

Taoists believe in luck - the world is chaotic and impartial to humans, but there are things we can do to improve our standing in the world. The gods can help us, so we pray to them. We can use lucky charms to increase our luck, or choose auspicious names for ourselves or our children. And we can use the various fortune-telling methods to predict what the universe has in store for us. These include the I-Ching, a prediction method based on trigrams, symbols consisting of a stack of three horizontal lines, each of which may be continuous or broken with a gap in the middle. There are eight possible trigrams, and these are often displayed around a central yin-yang to form the symbol known as the Bagua.

One of the central features of the religion appears to be the acceptance of the chaos of life rather than insisting on imposing order on the world. The world is not a place of suffering meant to test us or from which we are trying to escape. It is an experience which we should enjoy and live in harmony with.

Taoism is very flexible; each person approaches it in their own way and it encompasses a huge range of different beliefs. Some Taoists believe in gods, others don't. The Man Mo Temple complex has two temples: in one the gods Man Cheong and Mo Tai are venerated; the other is dedicated to all gods.

A common practice in the temples is the burning of incense. Both temples in the Man Mo Complex have numerous 'incense cones' suspended from the ceilings. These are long, thick sticks of incense which have been formed into a conical spiral, narrow at the top and widening out at the bottom. These are suspended from the point of the cone and burn slowly at the other end, filling the air of the temples with fragrant smoke. There is a circular plate suspended under each incense cone to catch any falling ash and prevent burns. Visitors to the temple also bring incense sticks or give a small donation to use the temple's own sticks. These are stood in trays filled with sand and lit to add to the smoky atmosphere.

Another common practice is the offering of fresh fruit to the gods.

The Imperial Examination

The Chinese Empire in the past was organised by a huge Civil Service. To become an official of the Empire, applicants had to do an entrance exam known as the Imperial Examination. This was standardised in about the 10th Century AD and was used right up to 1905. The exam tested the applicants' knowledge of the arts, philosophy, mathematics, calligraphy and law. It promoted a sense of unity within the Empire, as every official had passed the same exam and therefore had the same views and knowledge. It also meant that the Empire was controlled by scholars rather than military generals. In later years the exam was criticised because it discouraged change, causing China to fall behind as the rest of the world advanced in the Industrial Revolution.

The examination was open to all male adults and was attempted by many each year. A job in the Civil Service was extremely well-paying and would raise a man and his family from a life in farming to the world of the middle class. There are stories of a man attempting and failing the exam every year until he died of old age - the position was worth that much.

Applicants would frequently pray to Taoist gods for help in the examination. Man Cheong and Mo Tai were the gods of Literature and Martial Arts2 respectively, the qualities considered ideal for a ruler of the Empire. Temples dedicated to this particular pair of gods became very common, there being three of them in Hong Kong alone. Due to the Chinese practice of shortening important names to two syllables, the temple name became simply Man Mo. The Man Mo Temple in Hollywood Road is the biggest of these.

The Temple Complex

The Man Mo Temple Complex was built between 1847 and 1862 by wealthy Chinese merchants. Since 1908 it has been managed by the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals. It was declared a Grade I historic building in 1993 and became a 'declared monument' in 2010. It is open from 8.00am to 6.00pm daily and on certain special days from 7.00am. There is no admission charge, but you are welcome to leave a donation.

The temple complex is on the south side of Hollywood Road. Within the complex are three buildings - there are actually narrow alleys between the buildings but they are joined by a single fa├žade so they look like one big building. The general look of the outside of the building is white-painted walls with a green tiled roof, but a closer look shows a riot of small carvings of people, dragons and other creatures up on the roofs.

The Man Mo Temple Building

On the left (East side) is the biggest of the three buildings, the Man Mo Temple itself. This temple is dedicated to Man Cheong, god of Literature, and Mo Tai, also known as Kwan Tai, god of Martial Arts, but you will find altars to other gods in here as well.

The temple is divided into three:

  • Closest to the door is the entrance area, with a few small shrines and a 'divine' bell and drum. This section is separated from the next by a line of columns and in the centre a pair of brightly painted, carved wooden doors. These are purely ceremonial as you can walk on either side of them.

  • The central area was once a courtyard open to the air, with covered galleries on either side. It is now roofed over, but there is a lot of glass in the roof to provide light. This area is where most of the incense burning takes place - the hanging incense cones are all here, and there are big metal 'censers' filled with sand into which you can put incense sticks. There are also stands on either side holding visitors' prayers written on red cards.

  • There are three small sets of steps up to the third area which is raised slightly above the other two. In this higher area are the altars to the gods. In the middle is the altar of Man Cheong dressed in red and carrying a calligraphic brush, and Mo Tai, dressed in green and carrying a sword. There are also smaller altars on either side to other gods (Pau Kung, god of justice, on the left and Shing Wong, the City God, on the right). In front of the statues are tables for fruit offerings and for more incense sticks.

The Lit Shung Temple Building

The central building is the Lit Shung Temple, dedicated to all heavenly gods. It is like the Man Mo Temple in miniature but on a more chaotic scale, with everything packed into a much smaller space. There are altars to many different gods and there are small statues of other gods on the walls.

Again there are incense cones hanging from the ceiling and lots of places for supplicants to light incense sticks as well. There are fruit offerings in front of many of the statues.

The Kung Sor Assembly Hall

'Kung Sor' means Assembly Hall. It was a place where Chinese people could meet and sort out their differences. Such halls were common throughout China, and trials could take place under Chinese law by a Chinese judge. In Hong Kong where English Law was in place, this was presumably a way that Chinese people could sort out issues among themselves without resorting to English Law.

The Kung Sor building is the rightmost of the three buildings in the complex. No longer serving its original purpose, it has been converted and now contains two services which typify Taoism:

  • On the right side is a gift shop selling lucky charms. There are very specific charms for all sorts of occasions: good luck in exams (of course), financial well-being, health and so on. There are also charms specific to the different signs of the Chinese zodiac, which is based on the year a person is born in rather than the month.

  • On the left side are the offices of two fortune tellers. In the West, fortune tellers tend to be dressed exotically to evoke the mystery of the unknown. You can imagine a gypsy woman in a room full of hanging ornaments, for example. In China, everything is much more business-like. The fortune tellers are neat men in business suits. They sit at desks and have lots of books around them. The person consulting the fortune teller fills in a form giving name, date of birth and other information. The fortune teller consults his books, charts and tables, then delivers his prediction. The Chinese often consult fortune tellers - it is common to get the fortune teller to pick an auspicious name for your child, for example.

At the back of the Kung Sor is an entrance into a new building dating from 1994, the Virtue Court (Shan Yi Gong), which is for people to worship their ancestors.

How to Get There

The Temple Complex is in the Sheung Wan area of Hong Kong Island. It's on the south side of Hollywood Road at the junction with Ladder Street.

The easiest way to get to there is to take the metro to Sheung Wan station (Dark Blue Line). It's about a 400m walk from here, up Cleverly Street and the steps of Ladder Street. You should refer to a map.

If you can walk but can't climb steps, you could consider taking the metro to Central and taking the Central to Mid-Levels escalator up as far as Hollywood Road, although this will mean a longer walk.

1The actual sound at the start of the word is something between a T and a D: it's an unaspirated, unvoiced T.2Despite the official sign saying 'Marital Arts'.

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