Restoring a Lion - From the Temple of the Forest Beneath the Clouds

John Foster
Senior State Archaeologist (Retired)

Linda Cooper
Museum Curator at Weaverville Joss House State Historic Park

One of the most successful State Parks artifact conservation efforts in recent years was made possible through funding from the Statewide Resource Management Program. The "Chinese Lion Dancer's Headdress" was brought back to life and placed in a beautiful exhibit case in the Visitor's Center of the Weaverville Joss House.

  Image of Weaverville Joss House SHP
  Image of Weaverville Joss House SHP
 Image of entrance to Temple
 Image of alter

The Weaverville Joss House is considered the oldest original Chinese house of worship in California. About 1852 or 1853, the Chinese erected a place of Taoist worship at Chimney Point in Weaverville, Trinity county. In its original form, Tao-"The Way" aimed at serenity through harmony with Nature, to be achieved by each individual's eliminating ambition and attaining purity and simplicity. However, even as Christianity borrowed from Judaism, elements of Buddhism and Confucianism, as well as ancient Chinese ancestor worship and animism, soon entered Taoism. It acquired eight "Immortals," or gods, who achieved that status through study of nature's secrets, and veneration was also given Chinese heroes and sages.

The original temple building and most of its furnishings, some of which had come from China, were destroyed by fire in 1873, and local Chinese contributed generously to build a new temple (a record of the contributors' names, written in Chinese, still hangs in the conference room next to the temple). Construction of the new temple began in February 1874, and it was dedicated the following April.

Symbolic Furnishings
As you enter the temple, the ornate wooden gate to the porch and the fanciful gables and cornices on the building set the Oriental theme. The front of the building is painted bright blue with white lines to resemble the tile on the temple's Chinese prototype.

Just beyond the two large doors, the entrance to the temple proper, are two more high wooden doors, "spirit screens" to keep out evil spirits. According to traditional Chinese belief such spirits can go only in straight lines, not around corners.

There are three ornately carved wooden canopies containing images of gods along the back wall opposite the spirit screens, and in front of them is an altar holding candles, incense sticks, oracle fortune sticks and an oracle book, wine cups, and pictures of Immortals painted on glass. Before this altar is a small wooden table on which food offerings are placed and a stone urn used to offer alcoholic beverages, usually whiskey.

The temple has been in continuous use as a place of worship since its construction. The family of Moon Lee, whose grandfather contributed toward its building, are known to worship here, along with other Chinese from all over California. Worshippers visit the temple alone, with their families, or with a small group of close friends to pray and to place some incense, candles and other offerings such as food and paper money before the images of the gods of Health, Decision, or Mercy. Worshippers are forbidden to pray for such things as wealth (though they might ask for help in making the right business decision) or revenge on an enemy, and the temple attendant would punish with a fine those who made such requests.

Connected to the temple building is another structure, containing a conference room sometimes used as a Chinese courtroom and two small rooms that served as the temple attendant's quarters. Despite the cramped accommodations, the post of temple attendant was eagerly sought. It was auctioned off to the highest bidder for as much as $600.

Temple Becomes State Historic Park
In the 1950s Moon Lim Lee and his wife Dorothy, realizing that the temple might become a ruin after their deaths with no one to look after it and wishing to preserve this important part of California's Chinese tradition, began the process of placing it under the protection of the State. Since the temple became a unit of the California State Park System in 1956, many of the historical objects have been restored and the structure itself stabilized. Weaverville Joss House State Historic Park is located 50 miles west of Redding on Highway 299-West.

A Lion Comes to Life
One of the most successful conservation efforts was carried out recently on the "Chinese Lion Dancer's Headdress" through a grant from the department's Statewide Resource Management Program. This beautiful artifact was donated by the San Francisco Chinese Chamber of Commerce in 1962 to State Parks. It is thought to have been made in Hong Kong about 1900. For many years it was displayed on the wall of the Visitor's Center at the Weaverville Joss House. It was last used in 1974 for the Joss House Centennial festivities. But the ravages of time had taken their toll, and the headdress was badly in need of conservation.

Under the guidance of curator Linda Cooper, assisted by textile conservator Teresa M. Heady and exhibit specialist Andrew J. Wood of Fordham and Wood Fine Art Services, the painstaking job of restoring the headdress was undertaken. The lion skirt, made of brightly colored silk strips running the length of the headdress, was mended and a silk backing was applied to provide support for the fragile textile. Next, the head was repaired. It is made of paper-mache over a bamboo frame. Careful restoration of it was done from the interior to insure historic accuracy. Finally, a new exhibit case was designed, fabricated and assembled in the Visitor's Center. The pedestal and mounts were custom made to provide support, and the exhibit enclosed in a plexi-vitrine case to provide UV protection.

The final product is spectacular. The Lion can now be appreciated along with other Chinese art objects, pictures, mining tools, and wrought iron weapons used in the 1854 Tong War.

   Image of the Lion's skirt    
  Image of headdress restoration  
Image of Lion head restoration
Image of the Lion's skirt

Image of pedestal and mounts
 Image of plexi-vitrine case
Image of restored headdress
 Image of headdress

To learn more about Weaverville Joss House State Historic Park visit:
Weaverville Joss House SHP