The Temple of Heaven is one of the most brilliant ancient architectures in China. It is an outstanding masterpiece of classic imperial buildings of Chinese history. The Temple of Heaven was built in 1420 by Emperor Yongle, then expanded by the subsequent emperors of both the Ming and Qing Dynasty, and had served as the holy place for emperors to pay homage to Heaven and to pray for a year of a rich harvest.
According to the Lonely Planet on Things to do in Beijing. It holds fifth place in the top 10 on “Things to see in Beijing”. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage listed site since 1998.
We walked that beautiful winter day from the Novotel Beijing Xin Qiao to the Temple of Heaven 4km, and after paying our entrance fee at the North Heaven gate, we were inside the complex. We were in for such a treat, as we walked up the avenue of trees with their autumn leaves in bright yellow. We knew the Temple of Heaven was going to be special, due to the colours and architecture of the site. I had taken a copy of the Beijing pages of the Lonely Planet with me from New Zealand as we knew nothing about this place, but as we walked around, we got more and more drawn into this beauty and history.
As mentioned in my previous blogs on Beijing: “AN IMPRESSIVE PALACE OR PRISON – THE FORBIDDEN CITY, BEIJING, CHINA”. To understand the significance of the Temple of Heaven, you first need to understand the history of the urban planning of ancient Beijing.
HISTORY OF BEIJING IN RELATION TO TEMPLE OF HEAVEN
Emperor Yongle, the third Ming Dynasty Emperor was responsible for bringing the ancient Chinese capital from Nanjing to Beijing in 1424.
The Imperial City of Beijing was established Emperor Qin in 221 BC when China was united. It has had several names over the centuries from Jin City to Beiping under Emperor Yongle. It was really under the Min Dynasty that Beijing as we now call it, become an important strategic stronghold. The Forbidden City and Ming Tombs were established in 1421 to 1424. At that time, the old Imperial city was established using a central axis. The central axis is the best-preserved core area of the old city of Beijing. The central axis of Beijing is 7.8km long starting in the south of the city from Yongding Gate, running across the Zhengyang Gate, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Jingshan Hill, and ending at the Drum Tower and Bell Tower in the North. The central axis organises the imperial city with its imperial palaces, temples, markets, and the Tiananmen square.
The central axis of Beijing has its roots dated back to the planning and the design of the Dadu City in the Yuan Dynasty. The Yuan Dynasty determined the location of the central axis based on the water system, today referred to as the six lakes like the lake at Jingshan Park. (see my blog “DRUMS IN ANCIENT BEIJING CHINA”) The overall layout of Beijing City remained intact throughout the Ming and Qing Dynasty.
The central axis has undergone re-organization during the Republic of China and People’s Republic of China with the renovation and expansion of Tiananmen Square in 1949 and thereby shifting the symbolic focus of the central axis from the Forbidden City to Tiananmen Square.
So, the site at the Temple of Heaven was chosen as part of the Central Axis in southeast location to the Imperial Place because this is where solar power was supreme – that’s why the Temple of Heaven was built southeast to the Forbidden City. Once we learned about these facts, it was all starting to make sense.
Nowadays, tourists like us are drawn to the Temple of Heaven for its magnificent architecture and 800-year-old Cypress trees plus its parklands as well as to understand the link to the solemn ceremonies in ancient times. It was such a breath of fresh air to walk in this beautiful parkland. We had started to feel quite overwhelmed by the sheer number of people in Beijing, after having come out of the Australian Outback a month earlier. It was wonderful to just walk and take in the sights that day.
CHANGES TO TEMPLE OF HEAVEN OVER THE CENTURIES
Originally, the site was called the Temple of Heaven and Earth, it was built from 1406 to 1420 during the reign of Emperor Yongle. The temple was enlarged and renamed Temple of Heaven during the reign of Emperor Jiajing in the 16th century.
The tradition had lasted more than 160 years until the Emperor Jiajing changed it. He built four sites separately as Temple of Heaven, Temple of Earth, Temple of Sun, and Temple of Moon in the 16th century. Since then, the structure had been kept by the following emperors.
ANCIENT CHINESE MYTHOLOGY
Ancient Chinese mythology believed the Heaven is circle and the Earth is square, which is fully embodied in the design of Temple Heaven.
The Round altar-building was the only building in Beijing with a three-tiered roof. Only the Imperial family were allowed two or three-tiered roofs, also all houses in Beijing were to be grey as only the Imperial family could use colour.
If one stands at the Round Altar, one gets a good view of Beijing. The Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven were built on the highest hills in town.
As it was believed that the Emperor was the Son of Heaven, and therefore Heaven’s supreme power was bestowed upon him. The Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven were the tallest points in old Beijing, so the Emperor was always at a higher level than anyone in Beijing and the Emperor would be closer to Heaven. The road from the Palace goes straight south to the Temple of Heaven.
IMPORTANCE OF WINTER CEREMONIES
This park is so full of symbols. It is wonderful, once you start to understand what they all mean and its importance. The Emperor of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the Son of Heaven, visited the Temple of Heaven twice a year. Winter visit was most important as it was thought that this ritual decided the nation’s future. It was an annual ceremony of prayer to Heaven for a good harvest. The symbol of the Temple of Heaven is the magnificent Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest. It is this structure that most people are familiar with. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, the emperor would come to the Temple of Heaven every January.
It is hard to gain perspective of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest before you walk around it. The hall looks almost the same in every direction, including its doors. This is due to the Emperor Jiajing (1507 – 1567) of the Ming Dynasty, who succeeded his brother (1491 – 1521), who did not have a son. In order, to demonstrate that his succession was by the will of heaven, Emperor Jiajing ordered architects to build the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest round, instead of square, as per the ancient philosophy that the heaven is round, and the ground is square.
THE PILLARS HAVE THEIR STORIES
The Temple of Heaven architecture is fascinating. The details in the pillars of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests are the four dragons pillars in the inner circle embody the four seasons; the 12 inner pillars represent 12 months of the year; the 12 outer pillars stand for 12 two-hour periods of the day – the two groups of 12 pillars, added up to 24, implicate the 24 solar terms, while the three groups of pillars (28 pillars altogether), represent the 28 Mansions of the Moon. Unbelievable someone could think about all these details.
Once you come out of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, there is a long corridor and next to it is the Animal Killing Pavilion was where oxen, sheep, deer and other beasts were slaughtered and prepared before being presented as divine offerings. Here you find these beautiful big copper pots. Next thing, that caught our attention was the wall around the Hall of Prayer. The roof tiles of the wall captured my interest. The colours were intense in the autumn sunlight, so blue. I had never seen just blue ceramic tiles before in my life. I must have taken 100 photos that day.
THE NUMBER NINE
Once you walk thru the gates at the Hall of Prayer, you enter the Imperial Walkway before you come to the Circular Mound Altar. It is a magnificently built altar lavishly decorated with carved dragons. The architect carved the number nine into all possible elements of the altar, from balusters to steps to the marble tiles on the three levels, to imply the supremacy. The number nine is considered to be the supreme number in Chinese culture.
The Circular Mound Altar is an outdoor platform of three levels all built out of white marble. Again, how did the architect come up with this idea to build something so beautiful? Every carved dragon looks the same, just incredible.
Next, we came to the Echo Wall, we were so excited by this wall and its magic, that we forgot to take photos or a video, as we had so much fun. The Echo wall encloses the Imperial Vault of Heaven. Its perimeter is 193 meters.
Due to its unique acoustic properties, a quiet-spoken word or two against this circular wall can be heard at the opposite point, some 65m away.
As we wander around, we came across this palace. Now I am home I realize it was the Palace of Abstinence. It lies to the northwest of the Circular Mound Altar and next to the west gate of the Park of the Temple of Heaven.
THE RESTING PLACE OF THE EMPEROR
It was a place for the emperor to abstain from food before the Worshipping Heaven Ceremony started. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the emperor would go to the Palace of Abstinence three days before the formal Heaven Worshipping Ceremony. During the three days, the emperor would live alone and eat a simple vegetarian diet without wine. Entertainment and court intrigue were avoided. The emperor would bathe several times to prepare well for the ceremony.
In 1998, the UNESCO listed the Temple of Heaven in the World Heritage Sites List with the description as “a masterpiece of architecture and landscape design which simply and graphically illustrates a cosmogony of great importance for the evolution of one of the world’s great civilizations…” on. Haven’t you fell in love with the hall already? For us, it was heaven on earth, that day. A nice quiet spot in central ancient Beijing.
Highly recommended site for history, art and architecture lovers.
COSTS, VISIT TIME AND HOURS
Recommended Visiting Time: 1~4 hours
|COSTS – ENTRANCE||CNY 10 pp||CNY 15 pp|
|COSTS – THROUGHT||CNY 28 pp||CNY 34 pp|
Entrance Ticket: With the ticket, you to get into the park, see local people do morning exercises and have an outside look at the historical buildings in the park as well.
Through Ticket: With this ticket, you can enter the park and go to visit the three areas in the park – Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, The Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Circular Mound Altar.
Made with Love and Passion for the Open Road,
Traveller’s Nest Overland team,
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TRAVEL TRAIN SERIES S1E10: UNESCO TEMPLE OF HEAVEN BEIJING, CHINA |TRAVELLER’S NEST OVERLAND