Temple of Heaven

As famous as the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven is a "must" to visit for every tourist coming to Beijing. 

The main hall in the park, Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, has been used everywhere, on book covers, as brands or on countless tourist objects as the symbol of Beijing, so tourists may be quite familiar with it even before they come to Beijing to have a real look at the imperial park.

Lying in the southern part of Beijing in Chongwen district, Temple of Heaven covers an area of 270 hectares, about three times the size of the Forbidden City. The main buildings in the park were built in the Ming Dynasty in 1420 by Emperor Yongle for worshipping the heaven and the earth.

The emperor was regarded as the "Son of the Heaven", who administered matters on the earth on behalf of the heavenly authority. Any natural disasters, bad harvests or instability in society were signs that the emperor had lost the favour of the heaven or was being punished by heaven. Therefore ceremonies for sacrifices to heaven were extremely important to the imperial rulers. The Temple of Heaven was built for this purpose.

When it was built, the temple was used for the worship of heaven and earth, but later after the Temple of Earth was constructed the Temple of Heaven was reserved for the worship of heaven and prayer for good harvests. The temple is enclosed by a double wall, the upper or northern half of which is circular, representing the Earth. The main buildings are clustered at the northern and southern ends and connected by a long central causeway, which is 2.5 metres high and 360 metres long. The causeway is known as Vermilion Steps Bridge or the Sacred Way.

Just before the winter solstice, the emperor would start from Qianmen to arrive at the Temple of Heaven in a silent parade including elephant chariots, horses chariots, flags, lancers, nobles and officials. The emperor would change his robes in Imperial Vault of Heaven and meditate. Then he began fasting in Abstinence Palace until the solstice. When the firsts rays of the sun appeared, the ceremony began and sacrifices and prayers were offered at Circular Altar or the Altar of Heaven.

Hall of Prayers for Good Harvest, the most important hall in the temple and the symbol of Beijing, is a circular wooden structure built in the traditional Chinese architectural style. Without the use of iron nails or cement or steel rods, the complete structure is supported by wooden mortise and tenon joints and wooden brackets on huge supporting pillars. Those interested in traditional Chinese architecture will find it a good example to study.

The whole structure is 38 metres high and 30 metres in diameter. It stands on a three-tiered circular marble terrace called Altar for Grain Prayers. The terrace is edged with white marble balustrades on each level which are carved with dragon, phoenix and cloud patterns.

The wooden pillars supporting the structure are arranged to convey symbolic meanings. There are altogether 28 pillars which represent 28 constellations. The four thick pillars in the centre symbolize the four seasons of the year, while the inner 12 pillars around the four represent the 12 months and the outer 12 pillars symbolize the 12 two-hour intervals in a complete day. The 24 pillars altogether represent the 24 solar terms, of approximately 15 days each, into which the lunar year is divided. The system of the 24 lunar terms was and still is very important to farmers in their agricultural production since it indicates obvious weather and natural changes at the time when it comes round.

The coffered ceiling of the hall is unique, carved in a design of dragons and phoenixes. This may remind visitors of the dome structure in Western churches or Arabic mosques, but they are different in style and design. 

The original furnishing in the hall is well-preserved. In the centre, there is a long table, a throne and a screen, where memorial tablets of the gods of the heaven and earth were placed. To the east were tables and screens where offerings were made to imperial ancestors, and to the west was the place where the emperor rested after ceremonies.

Due to the influence of Confucianism, ancestor worship by the emperor had also become an important feature of his cult among the common people. Therefore, tablets engraved with the names, the birth dates and the death dates of his ancestors were enshrined in the Ancestral Temple as well as in the Temple of Heaven.

Towards the southern end of the causeway is a wall which encircles a round building. The building looks like a smaller version of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, and was used to house the memorial tablet of the "Supreme Ruler of Heaven". It is called Imperial Vault of Heaven. 

The wall around the building is the famous Echo Wall, made of brick and 65 metres in diameter. It was built on the principle that a sound wave may bounce off a curved wall many times in succession. A whisper at any place to the wall may travel to any point where your friend stands, and your friend can clearly hear what you say. Visitors to the temple should have a try, but whether they are able to hear the whisper simply depends on luck: if there are not many people around and the whole area is quiet enough.

The three stone slabs in the courtyard are called Three Echo Stones which produces another peculiar effect. If you stand on the first stone and clap once, you will hear a single echo; on the second stone, a double and on the third, a triple. The mystery may lie in the different distances between the Echo Wall and the three stones.

South of the Echo Wall is a three-tiered circular marble terrace, known as Circular Altar. Enclosed by a double wall, an outer square one and an inner round one. The three tiers are respectively seven, five and three metres in diameter, and there are 360 balusters on the balustrades symbolizing 360 degrees in a circle. The lowest tier represents the Earth, the second the human world and the third Heaven. The innermost circle is made up of 9 blocks of stone and the outermost has 81. They are in odd numbers, because according to ancient Chinese cosmology, the sun is yang and the number of various parts of the altar should also be yang, that is, and odd number or a multiple of odd numbers.

If you stand on the central stone on the top of the altar and make a whisper, the sound you hear is much louder than the bystanders hear. This is because the sound hits the balustrades and walls and is bounced back to the centre.

Every year at the time of winter solstice, in the old days, the emperor would come here personally to offer sacrifices to heaven. The tablet of the god of heaven would be moved from the Imperial Vault of Heaven and placed on the altar for the ceremony. The Circular Altar was built in 1530 and has survived several earthquakes.


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