The Temple of Heaven is an ancient temple complex in Beijing. It is important both architecturally and culturally. The Temple of Heaven, like no other imperial structure, is saturated with various symbols.
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On the outdoor terrace on the longest night of the year, the emperor offered sacrifices to Heaven and its elements (constellations, weather phenomena) in a multi-hour ritual accompanied by music, while in spring in the northern temple hall he asked for weather conducive to a good harvest: hence the complex is called the Temple of Heaven.
The vast area – 2.5 km from Tiananmen Square – is overgrown with trees. When the emperor performed the sacrificial ritual on the torch-lit altar terrace, he was completely detached from the bustle of the city. The Confucian empire’s conviction that it is the center of the world given by nature itself and the consciousness of the rulers that they are responsible for the harmony of the world are transmitted here to today’s visitors.
The Temple of Heaven was built in 1420 and in 1530 it received its present form. After 1949 the outer area of the temple was mostly built up with housing estates and other buildings. The approaches to the south, north and east are also new. The complex is oriented to the south and from there it is best to start walking through it. If you want to walk the way of the emperor, however, go in through the west entrance and start your tour with the Posta Palace.
In the square hall complex near the west gate (it covers 4 hectares), completely surrounded by a stone wall and moat, the emperor fasted in preparation for the sacrificial ritual. As he set out to perform the sacrifice, the “bell of supreme harmony” rang in the north of the outer forecourt.
As round as the heavenly dome, the altar terrace was the true center of the cult of Heaven. Geometrically, the temple of Heaven is arranged so that the main elements of the structure are multiples of “9,” that is, the sacred number. The terrace has three levels, the entrance to which leads by three times nine steps, the stone in the center of the terrace is surrounded by nine concentric rings, the innermost of which consists of nine stone slabs. The second ring has twice nine, the third has three times nine stone slabs, and so on up to the outermost ring of the lower level, consisting of 3 x 9 x 9 = 243 slabs. The number of segments of the marble railing also follows this numerical symbolism. The supporting walls are decorated with reliefs depicting cloud swirls; “cloud dragons” dance in relief at the railing tips. The terrace is encircled by a circular wall covered in blue glazed bricks. On the southeast corner of the square wall surrounding it stands a green stone vessel: a grill for roasting a sacrificial calf. Twelve large metal baskets served to burn the sacrificial silk.
Nine times on this terrace the emperor bowed low, as a humble servant of heaven, facing north, in the same way as his subjects did toward him. Above and on the terrace were the “tabernacles of the souls” of Heaven and his appearances in the blue tents. Altogether about ninety members of the court and high nobles, not counting the inferior aides, were present at the ceremony.
The Imperial Vault of Heaven
The blue-roofed circular wall to the north of the terrace surrounds the halls in which the “soul tablets” of the recipients of sacrifices are kept; today they are displayed again according to the ancient order: on the left are the soul tablets of the Moon, Rain, Clouds, Wind and Thunder; on the right, the Sun, the North Bucket (constellation of the Great Bear), five planets, twenty-eight “moon houses” (constellations), as well as the firmament of the sky. The most noticeable structure is the Imperial Vault of Heaven: a round hall on a high marble plinth. In it, on a pedestal resembling a throne, are the tablets of Heaven, on either side on smaller pedestals are the tablets of the deceased emperors of the last dynasty. The blue cone-shaped roof is carried by curved wooden beams forming a regular circle, a masterpiece of carpentry. The wall surrounding the Heavenly Vault is known for the phenomenon of the echo: the word spoken before it is clearly audible on the opposite side. But this effect is hardly perceived because of the crowded visitors.
The path along the dam
A path along the white marble causeway leads from the south altar area through the triple gates to the north areal. Where the path from the west gate crosses the causeway, a terrace protrudes on the east side of the causeway: there the emperor changed clothes in a special tent for the spring ceremony.
Hall of Prayer for the Harvest
The Hall of Prayer for the Harvest is undoubtedly the most beautiful piece of Classical Chinese architecture on the north side of the causeway. It was rebuilt after a fire in 1896. The three-stage round white plinth rising above the rectangular terrace is matched by the three-stage blue roof surmounted by a golden capitol. The hall is carried by 28 columns: the four large ones on the inside represent the seasons; the inner crown of 12 columns represents the months; the outer ring of small columns represents the 12 double hours of the day. The entire structure was thus seen as a running circle of time, echoing its cultic significance in the annual repetition of offerings to nature. In the interior, on podiums resembling thrones in front of richly carved wooden screens are placed “tablets of souls” of Heaven and former emperors. The wooden details are painted with dragons and phoenixes. The floor is painted with an animal pattern dominated by a dragon and a phoenix. However the most brilliant element of the construction is the dome, the center of which is formed by a golden relief also depicting a dragon and a phoenix.
In the two side halls of the Temple of Heaven, on the left and right before the round hall, special exhibitions show how the sacrificial ritual took place. In the hall on the north side of the great terrace stand the “soul tablets” of Heaven, which were brought here for the cult actions in the Hall of Prayer for the Harvest.
Covered Gallery, Auxiliary Structures
To the east of the Hall of Prayer for the Harvest, a long covered gallery leads to auxiliary buildings: the Sacred Kitchen where sacrificial offerings were prepared, the Sacred Storage Room for ritual utensils, and the Sacrificial Slaughterhouse. The inner altar area with the Hall of Prayer for the harvest: daily. 8.30-17.00.
The long, south-facing gallery leading from the Harvest Prayer Hall toward the east gate is a favorite meeting place for amateur musicians. Other musicians – especially nonprofessional singers – can be heard in the square in the evenings, in the area from the altar along the ancient city moat, which is about 900 meters west of the south entrance, near the (newly rebuilt) Yundingmyin City Gate. One can often hear arias from Beijing operas.
The multi-story market building just down the street from the eastern gate of the Temple of Heaven is filled with colour and exoticism – from fresh fish in the basement, handbags and electronics on the mezzanine, to shoes, silk and cashmere, as well as all manner of arts and crafts and a huge pearl department. Everything is very cheap – provided you haggle vigorously.
Temple of Heaven (Tiantan) in Beijing
The Tiantan Temple of Heaven 天坛 is located south of the Gugong and covers an area of 267 hectares. In addition to the temple proper, there is also a large park, palaces and pavilions. This place is one of the symbols of Beijing.
Temple of Heaven – Harvest Temple
History of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing
The temple complex was built in 1420 and was originally called the Temple of Heaven and Earth (for more on their significance in Chinese culture, see the post “The Great Triad”). After a separate Temple of the Earth was built in 1530, the complex was renamed the Temple of Heaven. The temple complex area retained the old structure: its northern part has a semi-circle shape, which symbolizes Heaven (circle – the symbol of Heaven), the southern part – a square, the symbol of Earth.
On the Winter Solstice, the emperors, who held the title Son of Heaven 天子, made offerings to Heaven, praying for wind, rain, heat and cold to come at the right time and thus help the crops to grow.
The Palace of Abstinence
We begin at the Palace of Temperance (斋宫 Jaigong ), located on the west side of the complex. The emperor, before making sacrifices to Heaven, was obliged to spend three days here in fasting, abstinence and concentration, tending to the tombs before the ceremony. Only after that could he begin the sacrifice. The palace complex occupies an area of 40,000 square meters and is surrounded by two fortress walls and a moat with water.
The Abstinence Palace in the Temple of Heaven The Pavilion in the Abstinence Palace
Today the Palace of Abstinence is a museum that displays items from the Qing dynasty that were used for sacrifices.
Abstinence Palace Museum Exhibit Smokestack Drum Tower Gates
Terrace in the Abstinence Palace Fragment of tile roof in the Abstinence Palace Dragon-headed gutter
After visiting the Abstinence Palace, you can walk towards the temple complex. There are garden pavilions, galleries, and beautiful flower gardens in the park.
Pavilions in the Temple of Heaven Park
The galleries have an important aesthetic function: they guide people along a certain route and frame the space, so that it seems that you see natural pictures created by nature itself in the frame of man-made frames. The ceilings of the galleries are richly painted. There are scenes from classical Chinese works, historical episodes, and views of the Celestial Empire.
Gallery in the Temple of Heaven Park
The gallery offers beautiful views of the pavilions. Next to one of them are stones of fanciful shapes, without which no Chinese garden or park is without.
The Garden Pavilion in the Temple of Heaven Park
A Chinese park is unthinkable without people passionately playing cards or mahjong.
Chinese playing cards Game of cards
Very beautifully decorated ceilings of the gallery and pavilions.
The painting of the dome in the pavilion
Walking along the long gallery sometimes you just want to sit down and enjoy the beautiful view paintings.
Galleries and Pavilions in the Temple of Heaven
After walking through the gallery, we gradually approach the temple complex. There are more and more people, and if before it was mostly the Chinese, here in the crowd are more and more glimpses of foreigners, mostly Americans.
At the entrance to the temple complex
A luxurious dragon flower garden catches your eye. Tourists eagerly photograph its large head and some even try to get into its mouth.
Dragon Head Dragon Flowerpot
Temple of the Harvest (Temple of the Harvest Prayer)
Finally, the main attraction of the Temple of Heaven is the Temple of the Harvest, or the Temple of the Egg Prayer in the Temple of Heaven (祈年殿 Qinyangdian ). Despite the crowds of tourists, you are enveloped by a sense of awe. The central structure of the Temple is the Hall of Prayers for the Good Harvest, which stands on a three-tier circular white stone platform. On the north-south axis are three marble slabs with bas-reliefs: the lower slab – with clouds, the middle – with phoenixes, and the upper – with dragons, which symbolizes the highest, imperial status of the temple. The Hall of Prayers is round in plan, symbolizing Heaven. All structures of the temple complex are covered with blue tiles, which also symbolize Heaven.
The Temple of Heaven – Hall of Prayers for a Good Harvest The Temple of Heaven – Hall of Prayers for a Good Harvest The Temple of Heaven – Hall of Prayers for a Good Harvest
The Hall of the Imperial Heaven
To the north of the Hall of Prayers is the Hall of the Imperial Heaven *(皇乾殿 Huangqian ), where the so-called Tablets of God were kept. A distinctive feature of the Imperial Heaven Hall is a separate gate on the side, made especially for Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799, on the throne 1736-1795) when he was already at an advanced age.
* The name of the Hall uses the character Qian 乾, the first of the eight trigrams in the Book of Changes (I Ching), which symbolizes Heaven, the male active principle, the sun, spring, father, husband.
Hall of the Imperial Heaven
From the Temple of the Harvest, through the Good Harvest Prayers Gate (祈年门 Qinyanmen ) to the south runs the Scarlet Steps Bridge* (丹陛桥 Danbianqiao ), or the Sacred Road . It is 360 meters long and 30 meters wide.
* “Scarlet Steps”. – figurative designation of the emperor and the imperial palace.
The Bridge of the Scarlet Steps
Echo and the Hall of Heavenly Steps
We move on to the next pavilion, surrounded by a high wall. We now walk in the opposite direction to the way the solemn procession moved. The wall reflects all words, even those spoken in whispers, so it is called Echo.
In the center is the Hall of Heavenly Vault (皇穹宇 Huangqunyu ), built in 1530. This is where the memorial tablets were kept between sacrifices.
Hall of the Vault of Heaven The plaques in the Hall of the Vault of Heaven
On the northwest side, on the outer side of the wall, there is an ancient cypress tree that is over 500 years old and according to some sources even 1000 years old. It is called the Nine Dragon Cypress (九龙柏 Jiulunbai).
Cypress of the Nine Dragons.
Even further south is the Round Altar (圆丘坛 Yuanqutan ), surrounded by an outer square wall. I think you already remembered that the circle symbolizes Heaven and the square symbolizes Earth. On the winter solstice, the emperor performed a sacrifice ceremony here. The last ceremony here was performed in 1914 by General Yuan Shikai, who declared himself emperor.
The Round Altar and the area of the Round Altar temple complex
To the east of the Round Altar adjoins the Sacred Kitchen (神厨 Shenchu ), an obligatory attribute of Chinese temples. The sacrificial furnace is located here.
In the park around the temple complex grows ancient cypress trees.
A cypress trunk in the park
Music, dancing and other activities in the park at the Temple of Heaven
On weekdays and weekends, the park is full of people. Many of them come here just to relax. Music can be heard coming from behind the trees. Some are practicing Tai Chi chuan 太 or qigong 气功.
Weekend at Tiantan Park. Tai chi chuan class Weekend at Tiantan Park. Tai chi chuan class.
Others play national instruments and sing… Anyone can join in and start chanting. People are very friendly and are clearly enjoying themselves.
Musicians and listeners.
Somewhere people just sit and talk and play cards. There are also janitors who keep the place perfectly clean. Yes, the days when the Chinese spit on the ground seem to have passed into oblivion.
A day off in Tiantan Park A day off in Tiantan Park
But most of all people in the gallery. What caught my attention was an elderly Chinese man who was carving hieroglyphs on the tiles. And he was using … water as an ink! Truly, if calligraphy expresses the spirit of China, then water calligraphy is the spirit of China twice over. “There is only one thing constant in the world, Change. There is nothing eternal and unchanging. And nothing is left of the hieroglyphs, painstakingly written with a brush of a master, in a few minutes.
A Chinese person writes hieroglyphs with water.
If you happen to be in Beijing, be sure to visit the Temple of Heaven Tiantan. It may seem a little cold and formal, or at least that’s how I felt. At one point I felt small-tiny, literally crushed by the majesty of the sky-blue dome of the Temple of Heaven.
Information for visitors: how to get there and a map of the Temple of Heaven (Tiantai)
- How to get there: Tiantangdongmen 天坛东门 subway station (East Gate of the Temple of Heaven), line 5
- Opening hours: park – 6.00-22.00, temple complex – 8.00-20.00
- Ticket price: park and temple complex 35 yuan, park 15 yuan (April 1 – October 31); 30/10 yuan (November 1 – March 31).
- Excursion: you can book a tour of the Temple of Heaven online.
Photos taken in 2008-2014.
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