Weaverville Joss House Historic Park
History Around Every Turn
The term “joss” is believed to be a corruption of the Portuguese word Deus,” meaning “God.” Thus, a temple where Chinese gods were kept and worshipped was called a joss house.
The Weaverville Joss House, a Taoist Temple of Worship, is now a state park and is the oldest still-in-use Chinese Temple in California. The adjoining priest’s quarters and community meeting room was also a combination social hall, fraternity house and travelers’ hotel, and served as a home for the priest and his family.
Although the Temple is a house of worship, services are not held in the manner in which we are accustomed from western Christianity. It is used by followers of Taoism to consult the gods on an individual basis.
The true historical significance of the Joss House is that during China’s Cultural Revolution, many of the old rural-style temples were dismantled or destroyed. The Weaverville Joss House is an intact and complete temple of that
era, which no longer exists in many parts of China.
Hours and Contact
Contact the Joss House State Historical Park at (530) 623-5284
The Chinese New Year Lion Dance
The Temple is the site of the Lion Dance, held in January or February of each year to celebrate the arrival of the Chinese New Year. A lion dance is also held on the Fourth of July Weekend.
The current Joss House was built in 1874, after previous structures had been destroyed by a series of fires. After many of the contents of the temple were taken during a robbery in 1934, the historical significance of the temple and its contents were realized, and in 1938, Moon Lee, a descendant of an early Chinese settler, was named trustee for the Joss House.
By 1956, now fully preserved, the temple became a state park. Except for electric lights and protective railings, the interior of the Joss House is the same as it was over 100 years ago, although improvements have been made to the adjoining grounds. These include a visitor center, parking lot, and the Kuan Yin pool.
Moon Lim Lee, the last Chinese caretaker for the Weaverville Taost Temple, formed the Weaverville Joss House Association in 1983. Mr. Lee and his wife Dorothy donated the “The Temple of the Forest beneath the Clouds” to the California State Parks in 1956 to preserve the structure and increase awareness of the cultural contributions made by the Chinese in California. Today the association continues to support the State Park effort in preserving the temple, built by Mr. Lee’s ancestors in 1874.
The Joss House is a remarkable structure; except for the installation of protective railings and electricity, its interior has not been changed since 1874. Its historical significance lies in the fact that very few such temples still survive.
The ornate wooden gate to the porch and the fanciful gables and cornices on the building reflect the Chinese presence. The front of the building, painted bright blue to replicate the color of the sky, a symbol of heaven to the Chinese, has white lines that resemble the tile work of similar temples in China.
On the temple roof sit two Chow Win Dragon Fish, once believed to keep wooden structures safe from fire. Just beyond the very high thresholds of the entrance doors stand two more wooden doors—“spirit screens”—to keep out evil spirits. According to traditional Chinese belief, such spirits are unable to travel over barriers or around corners.
Inside, three ornately carved wooden spirit houses contain clay statues of male and female deities. An altar table holds candles, incense sticks, oracle fortune sticks, wine cups, and pictures of immortals painted on glass. A small wooden table holding food offerings sits in front of the altar, and a stone urn under the table offers beverages, including sweet plum wine. Along the side walls, processional banners, drums, gongs and association flags used in the Chinese New Year parades are displayed.
A conference room, living quarters for the temple attendant, and a boarding room with bunk beds for Chinese travelers are separately attached to the temple building.
Hundreds of faded orange papers with the names of contributors and the amounts of their contributions for temple upkeep hang on the walls of the conference room. Worshippers would visit to pray and to place incense, candles, food and paper money before the spirit houses and altars. Any worshipper overheard asking for such things as revenge on an enemy could count on being fined by the temple attendant.
An interpretive museum tells the story of the Chinese Americans in California, and displays such items as the handmade weapons from the Chinese War of 1854 and equipment used by Chinese miners.
The temple itself contains a wealth of religious artifacts brought to the area by the Chinese during California’s gold rush.
Among them were a pair of Lion Dogs, or “Dogs of Foo”, stolen in the early 20th century. One day in 1989, a box was mysteriously left at the visitor center. Inside was one of the original Dogs of Foo. By now, relations with the Republic of China had been normalized for several years, and the Weaverville Joss House Association commissioned craftsmen on the Chinese mainland to create two new pair, which are now on display inside the temple.