The Temple of Heaven

Temple of Heaven
Temple of Heaven

Brief Introdution to Temple of Heaven

The Ming emperor Yongle (Zhu Di 1360-1424, reigned 1403-24) decided to build a temple more than 500 years ago, where the emperors could worship heaven, a ritual, which he hoped would serve to perpetuate imperial rule. The result was a masterpiece of Chinese architecture——the Temple of Heaven. Today, although the imperial rule has been toppled over, yet the buildings remain as splendid as ever. They have been valued not only by the Chinese people but by people throughout the world as creative masterpieces of the working people of ancient China. The temple buildings and surrounding area make up one of the largest popular public parks in Beijing.

The Temple of Heaven is situated in the southern part of the city. It was first built in 1420, and reconstructed in 1530, encompassing 273 hectares (674 acres). The walls are 1,700 meters from east to west, and 1,600 meters from north to south. The perimeter of the Temple of Heaven is 6, 369 meters with 6 meters high. The three major structures used in the sacrifices are circular in plan, corresponding to the supposed shape of Heaven. The glazed-tile roofs of the temples are deep blue and the platforms constructed of slabs of white marble. Each of the three platforms consists of three tiers, making a total of nine Tiers——nine in Chinese cosmology symbolizing Heaven. In fact, the number and layout of every single slab used in the platforms is determined according to cosmological principles.

The temple was the place where the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties worshipped heaven and prayed for good harvests. They came here twice a year, on the 15th day of the 1st lunar month and on winter solstice. At first, both heaven and earth were worshipped here. After 1530 when the Temple of Earth (Altar of Land) was built in the northern suburbs of Beijing, only heaven was worshipped in this temple.

The greatest architectural structures

The temple of Heaven is regarded as one of the greatest architectural structures in the world. Some environmental artists and gardeners describe the temple as a place where people can talk to heaven. In Beijing, four imperial temples were built during the Ming and Qing dynasties. At the southern end of the city axis is the Temple of Heaven. It is the most important of the four, the other three being the Temple of the Earth (Altar of Land) in the north, the Altar of the Moon in the west, and the Altar of the Sun in the east just behind the Beijing Friendship Store. All of them are still standing, but the Temple of Heaven is the largest group of temple buildings of its kind in China, nearly four times larger than the Forbidden City. The Temple of Heaven was originally known as the great Sacrificial Hall.In1545 during the Ming emperor Jiajing’s reign (1522-66), it was revamped and renamed Great Offerings Hall, and the present name was bestowed by the Qing emperor Qianlong (1736-95). The whole building complex was designed in a way that makes you feel close to heaven. In making the heaven-like structures, the designers made good use of color, sound, geometric figures of the circle and the square, and changes in height. The combination of building and garden help make it appears mysterious and magical.

The temple’s architecture has two themes. One is “on the earth,” while the other is “in heaven.” The square-shaped palace for fasting in the west of the temple appears like a “forbidden city “in smaller size. A delightful legend relates that the circular shaped Qiniandian (Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests) and Yuanqiu(Circular Mound Altar) are thought to be connected with heaven. This symbolizes the second theme, which dominates the whole temple.

In imperial days, the Chinese people believed that the sky was in circular shape and the earth was square. On the basis of this traditional concept, the circle was widely adopted in the design of the temple’s main buildings. It is in accord with people’s imagination of heaven.

Nowadays, in the temple grounds there are more than 100,000 trees o various kinds, of which 60,000 are evergreen pines. Out of 60,000 pines, 2, 566 are ancient cypresses. Of these ancient trees, 100 trees reach the age of more than 1,000 years. The Temple of Heaven has the most ancient trees in Beijing.

After the completion of the Temple of Heaven in 1420 in more than 500 years until the Qing Dynasty, 22 emperors made 654 sacrifices to heaven in the Temple of Heaven, of whom Qing emperor Qianlong made sacrifices to heaven for more than 90 times. Yuan Shikai (1859-1916, a warlord, once the president of the Republic of China, and in December 1915, he declared himself the emperor for 83 days and abolished the autocratic monarchy on March 22, 1916 and died on June 6, 1916) did the last sacrifice on December 13, 1914. Yuan Shikai had just taken the throne when he kicked the bucket.

In ancient China, sacrifice to heaven by people has a history of about 5,000 years. It originated from natural worship. People thought that everything was dominated by heaven due to underdeveloped science in ancient China. Ancient Chinese hoped that heaven could help them by sacrifice. This objectively reflected the people’s wishes to nature. But emperor regarded sacrifice to heaven as his patent and tried to consolidate his rule through sacrifice to heaven. In ancient China dozens of temples of heaven were built and only the Temple of Heaven in Beijing is still standing. It is the largest architectural group of buildings and unique in the world today. In 1860 and 1900, the Temple of Heaven was occupied and sabotaged by the Anglo-French Allied Forces and the Eight-Power Allied Forces respectively. The Republic of China (1912-49) in 1912 abolished the activities of sacrificing to heaven. The park was open to the public in 1918. It is an ideal place for amusement and relaxation.

The Temple of Heaven is a worthwhile visiting place in Beijing

It is located in southern Beijing and much bigger than the Imperial Palace (the Forbidden City) and smaller than the Summer Palace with an area of about 2.7 million square meters. The Temple was built in 1420 A.D. in the Ming Dynasty to offer sacrifice to Heaven. As Chinese emperors called themselves “the Son of Heaven”, they dared not to build their own dwelling “Forbidden City” bigger than the dwelling for Heaven. It is included in the UNESCO world heritage list in 1998.

The Temple of Heaven is enclosed with a long wall. The northern part within the wall is semicircular symbolizing the heavens and the southern part is square symbolizing the earth. The northern part is higher than the southern part. This design shows that the heaven is high and the earth is low and reflects an ancient Chinese thought of “The heaven is round and the earth is square”.

The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests

The Temple of Heaven is divided by two enclosed walls into inner part and outer part. The main buildings of the temple lie at the south and north ends of the middle axis line of the inner part. The most magnificent buildings from south to north are the Circular Terrace, the Imperial Heavenly Vault and the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Also, there are some additional buildings like Three Echo Stone and Echo Wall.

Circular Terrace has three layered terraces with white marble. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368A.D.-1911 A.D.), the emperors would offer sacrifices to Heaven on the day of the Winter Solstice every year. This ceremony was to thank Heaven and hope everything would be good in the future. Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is a big palace with round roof and there layers of eaves, the roof is covered with black, yellow and green colored glaze representing the heavens, the earth and everything on earth. Another important building in the Temple of Heaven is Imperial Heavenly Vault. If you look at it from far away, you will find that the vault is like a blue umbrella. The structure of it is like that of Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, but smaller in size. The vault was made of bricks and timber, with white marble railings surrounded.

The echo wall in Temple of Heaven
The echo wall in Temple of Heaven

Three Echo Stones is outside of the gate of Imperial Heavenly. If you speak facing the vault while standing on the first stone, you will hear one echo; standing on the second  and the third stone, you will hear two and three echoes respectively.

Another interesting and famous place for you to visit is called Echo Wall owning special feature. The wall encloses Imperial Heavenly Vault. Its perimeter is 193 meters. If you and your friend stand at the east and the west roots of the wall respectively and you whisper a work, then your friend will hear clearly what you say. Isn’t it interesting? The phenomenon utilizes the theory of sound wave.