Temple of Heaven – Beijing’s Imperial Sacrificial Altar

Temple of Heaven is where the emperors of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) hold their Heaven Worship Ceremony. It is considered the largest and the best representative existing work of art among China’s ancient sacrificial buildings. The temple was initially constructed in 1420, during the 18th year of the ruling of the Ming Dynasty’s Emperor Yongle. It was then enlarged and reconstructed when Ming Emperor Jiajing and Qing Emperor Qianlong took the throne. It was in the year 1988 when the Temple of Heaven was opened as a park to the public, showcasing ancient history, religion, and philosophy. Its imposing architectural design and philosophical cultural connotation provide an overview of the ancient Eastern civilization’s practices.

With an area measuring 2.7 million square meters, the Temple of Heaven is bigger than the Forbidden City. The Chinese emperors are known as the ‘Sons of Heaven’ who were not allowed to build a house for themselves that is greater than the earthly dwelling devoted to Heaven. That’s why there is a huge difference between the overall size of the Forbidden City, which is the royal residence of the emperors, and the Temple of Heaven.

The temple is bounded by a long wall. Its northern part inside the wall has a semicircular shape which signifies the heavens while the southern part has a square shape to symbolize the earth. The northern part is elevated and higher than the southern part to show that the heaven is high and the earth is low. The design also reflects the ancient Chinese thought that ‘the heaven is round and the earth is square’.

The stunning structure of the Temple of Heaven is divided into 2 parts, an inner part and outer part that is separated by two encircling walls. The main buildings are located at the south and north ends of the inner part’s central axis. Considered as the most significant and magnificent buildings are the Circular Mound Altar or the Huanqiutan, the Imperial Vault of Heave or Huangqiongyu, and the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest or the Qiniandian.

 

Circular Mound Altar (Huanqiutan)

An open three-layered circular shaped stone altar, the Circular Mound Altar is where the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties would annually offer sacrifices to Heaven during the Winter Solstice day. They conduct the said ceremony to thank the heaven and pray that everything in the future will be good. The altar was founded during the 9th year of the Ming dynasty’s Emperor Jiajing (1530) and was also named as the Terrace of Worshipping Heaven. Since then, it is regarded as the heart of the Temple of Heaven.

Lingxing Gates

When you enter the southern gate of the temple called the Zhaoheng Gate, you would see a white marble road extending out to the Circular Mound Altar. It is bounded by 2 walls where the circular inner portion symbolizes the heaven and the square outer portion symbolizes the earth. The walls’ tops were all covered with green glazed tiles and around the walls are 24 groups of Lingxing Gates. Each of the 24 groups includes 3 openings which include the middle, the biggest one and the special passage for the Heaven Great; the west, a smaller one intended for the emperor; and the east, the smallest opening used by the accompanying people of the worship ceremony.

 

Lantern Viewing Pole

A pole which was used to hang a cylindrical bamboo-woven lantern is located at the southwest of the altar. Its height is measured at 29 meters and used a lever and pulley to raise and lower the lantern. In history, there were 3 poles previously standing in the area but the other 2 were destroyed. The Lantern Viewing Pole is a location sign of the worshipping ceremony as well as a sign of the starting and ending time of the ceremony.

Architectural Art of 9

The odd numbers were known as the positive numbers and the even numbers were known as the negative numbers during the ancient times in China. Since 9 is the highest positive number, the said number was often used to showcase the imperial authority. The fences and steps of the Circular Mound Altar were constructed in 9s or multiples of 9s. It also has three layers wherein the upper layer is consist of stones that are fan-shaped and has a total of 9 circles. On the other hand, the innermost circle is consists of 9 stones and 9 pieces of stone were supplemented progressively in every circle to the outside. The total diameter of the three layers is 45 (9×5) Zhang (135 meters) which symbolizes the ‘Non-Five Dignity’ of an emperor.

Heaven Heart Stone

Also known as Sun Store, the Heaven Heart Stone is one of the most unique structures on the Temple of Heaven. It is located at the center of the altar and has a round shape which makes it a little protruding. If you go and stand on it, the sound waves will definitely echo if you try to shout or knock. In history, during the Worshipping Heaven Ceremony, a ritual officer would stand here to read the oration and the echoing sound seemed to reach the heaven.

Firewood Stove

On the southeast portion of the Circular Mound Altar is the Firewood Stove. It is an enormous, circular, and green glazed stove that is made out of brick. The north side of the stove has an opening intended for firewood while the east, west, and south sides have nine stairs that lead to the top of the stove. Before the worshipping ceremony would start, a calf that is washed and shaved is put and burned on the stove with pine twigs and reeds. Right after the ceremony, all the ceremonial placards, silk roles, and offerings were also put inside the stove to be burned. The ancients assumed that the burning smoke goes up to heaven. There are also 8 small stoves located to the north of the Firewood Stove that were intended for the offering burning of the first 8 emperors of the Qing dynasty.

Divine Kitchen Courtyard

It is the common name used for the Divine Kitchen, the Butcher Pavilion, and the Divine Storeroom. The Divine Kitchen is actually a specialized kitchen that is used to prepare more than thirty kinds of offering including wines, cereals, silks, jade, and sacrificial cattle. The Butcher Pavilion is used for slaughtering sacrifices for the ritual while the Divine Storeroom is the storing place for the offerings.

 

Imperial Vault of Heaven

Sitting at the south of the Altar of Prayer for Good Harvests and north of the Circular Mound Altar is the Imperial Vault of Heaven. It is facing the south with a wall that is circular in shape and gates that are glazed in 3 colors. It was founded in the year 1530 during the time of Emperor Jiangjing as the place for housing the tablets of the Gods that are used at the Ceremony of Worshipping Heaven. The structure’s major buildings are the Imperial Vault of Heaven, the West Annex Halls, and the East Annex Halls while the most fascinating features are the Echo Wall, the Three Echo Stone, as well as the Dialogue Stone.

The Imperial Vault of Heaven is a pavilion that has a round shape and a double-eaved roof situated on a 2-meter-tall white marble podium. From afar, the vault looks like a blue umbrella with a head made of gold. The platform is enclosed by stone fences but is intertwined finely by a wooden structure. Its roof is a blue tile with a glided sphere and its ceiling is coffered with a blue-green decoration of a glided coiling dragon that is playing with a pearl at its core. There are also 360 small dragons around. The Heavenly Great Tablet is placed in the middle of the hall at a circular stone seat decorated with carved patterns. There are also various imperial ancestral tablets that are sitting on its 2 sides.

On the other hand, the West Annex Halls, as well as the East Annex Halls, were built particularly for the memorial tablets of the star, moon, rain, cloud, lightning, and thunder gods.

Echo Wall

This wall bounds the Imperial Vault of Heaven and has a perimeter that measures 193 meters. The wall permits sound waves to pass smoothly because it is flat and smooth. If one stands behind the East Annex and Hall and another behind the West Annex Hall, they can clearly hear each other even if they only whisper a word creating a “mysterious atmosphere” in the structure.

Three Echo Stone

This refers to the 3 stones from north to south of the stone road located outside the gate of the Imperial Vault of Heaven. If you try to stand and speak on the first stone facing the vault, you will hear one echo. Standing and speaking on the second and third stone will make you hear two and three echoes respectively.

Dialogue Stone

The 18th stone from the platform is known as the Dialogue Stone. If you are standing right on the Dialogue Stone, you can easily have a dialogue with another person who is located at the northwest corner of the West Annex Halls and the northeast corner of the East Annex Halls. The magic of these 3 points which is about 36 meters away from each other is because of the equilateral triangle with a 36-meter side length. If you stand other than 3 points, such effect will not work.

 

Danbi Bridge

Also known as the Vermillion Steps Bridge, the Danbi Bridge is the one connecting the northern portion and the southern portion of the whole Temple of Heaven structure. The northern end is higher than the southern end and the emperors believed that they can go to heaven by passing the bridge, that’s why it is called the Sacred Way. It has 3 routes, the route in the center is called the Imperial Route and can only be used exclusively by the Emperor. One of the 2 sides is the Prince’s Route while the other side was the high officials’ route.

 

Altar of Prayer for Good Harvests

Located at the northern part of the Temple of Heaven Park is the Altar of Prayer for Good Harvests that was used by the emperors in the ancient times to hold worship ceremonies for good weather and abundant harvest prayers. It was built during the 18th year reign of the Ming dynasty Emperor Yongle (1420) which made the altar the oldest building complex of the Temple. It has two major buildings namely the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and the Imperial Hall of Heaven. There are also various subsidiary buildings in the complex which include the Dressing Terrace, the Long Corridor, the Divine Kitchen, the Danbi Bridge, the Butcher Pavilion, the Divine Kitchen, the Seven Star Stone, and others.

Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests

This is a circular building which measures 32 meters in diameter and has a 30 meters height. It is situated on an enormous circular white marble platform that is called the Altar for Grain Prayers. The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests covers an area of 5,900 square meters, has an altar with a 6-meter height, and is composed of 3 floors.

It has numerous magnificent designs and patterns like the blue colored glaze covering the 3 layers of eaves and its wood frame that was constructed like a masterpiece.

Imperial Hall of Heaven

Situated at the north side of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is the Imperial Hall of Heaven which connects with the Altar for Grain Prayers through three glazed doors. The hall was previously used as the place for the God tablets’ consecration. Its west side gate is called the Guxi Gate which means seventy years old gate. There are house-shaped shrines inside the hall that hold the God tablets. During the first and fifth day of the lunar month, the officials would remove the dust in the hall by sweeping and burn some incense inside. The emperor would then hold a ritual there on the Ceremony of Worshipping Heaven’s eve.

Long Corridor

Stretching a width of 5 meters and a length of 350 meters at the east side of the Altar for Grain Prayers is the Long Corridor. It has 72 rooms which share the same back wall, eave, and roof, that’s why it’s called the Seventy-Two Corridor. On the sacrificial ceremony’s eve, the corridor would lit up by lanterns and was used as the transporting passage of the offerings. The Long Corridor is an enclosed passage that connects the Divine Kitchen, Butcher Pavilion, and the Divine Warehouse. At the south of the corridor is the Seven Star Stone where different patterns are carved.

Palace of Abstinence

This palace is where the emperor would stay to abstain from food before the Worshipping Heaven Ceremony starts. It is located next to the west gate of the Temple of Heaven Park and to the northwest of the Circular Mound Altar. It is consists of some unique buildings like the Beamless Hall, the Belfry, and the Rest Palace.

The Function of the Palace of Abstinence

Three days before the formal Heaven Worshipping Ceremony, the emperors during the Ming and Qing dynasties spent their time in the Palace of Abstinence to live alone and eat a simple vegetarian meal with no wine. Entertainment, as well as court intrigue, were also avoided and the emperor bathed several times to be well-prepared for the ceremony. But Emperor Yongzheng of the Qing dynasty modified the ritual in 1731 because he was worried of his safety being alone outside the Forbidden City. An Inner Palace of Abstinence was constructed inside the Forbidden City and used it instead of the palace. He would only transfer to the Palace of Abstinence in the Temple of Heaven at 11 pm of the day and stay there for 4 hours.

Beamless Hall

This is the main hall of the palace where the ceremonial rites were conducted on the days of the arrival and departure of the emperor. It got its name due to the fact that the hall was only supported by walls and a brick dome, there were no beams. It used to have 7 rooms but the 4 rooms were converted into exhibition halls namely the Architecture Exhibition used to showcase the history and evolution of the rooms, the Abstinence Ceremony Exhibition where the sacrificial relics and abstinence system and rituals are displayed, the Official’s Abstinence Exhibition which depicts the official fasting, and the Emperor Abstinence Exhibition which shows the pictures of the 22 emperors who came of the Temple of Heaven to conduct the Worshipping Ceremony.

Resting Place

Located at the back of the Beamless Hall is the Resting Palace. It has a Study Room with bookshelves, tables, as well as “the four treasures of study” composed of a writing brush, ink stick, paper, and ink slab. Its bedroom has a couch intended only for the use of the emperor. There are other 5 rooms where the meals, tea, and fruit are prepared and at the back of it is a palace where the princes fast.

Belfry

The Bell of Supreme Harmony, a double-layered bell tower which faces the south, was constructed to house a huge bell that was cast during Emperor Yongle’s reign. The bell has a gigantic and thick body which measures 2.8 meters in height, 0.1 meters in thickness, and 1.55 meters in diameter. Its body is carved with stunning pictures and the bell itself can be heard wide and far when struck. In history, the bell was struck once to proclaim the departure of the emperor from the Palace of Abstinence, his entrance at the altar, and when the ceremony has ended. Today, the visitors of the palace can enjoy striking the bell to pray and hope for good fortune and happiness.

Divine Music Administration

Situated at the southwestern part of the Temple and Heaven is the Divine Music Administration that covers an area of almost 10,000 square meters. It is the managing organ of the musical instruments for the ceremonies in the temple and the rehearsal place of the ritual music and dance. It is also known as the highest ritual music academy during the Ming as well as the Qing dynasties.

The complex is a rectangular building with three courtyards and faces the east.

History

The initial team managed by the Divine Music Administration was the 300 music royal musicians and dancers of the Ming Empire who moved to Beijing during the initial year of the empire’s reign. The performers, as well as the officials of the administration, were Taoists. Soon enough, the number of the administration’s members increased to 600 people and they have reached their peak during the time of Emperor Jiajing of the Ming Dynasty when the count of the performers totaled 2,200.

Ningxi Hall

The main hall in the first courtyard is called the Ningxi Hall. It was initially intended for the display of the Shao music instruments and a place for the court officials and ceremonial performer’s rehearsals. Today, its “Zhonghe Shaoyue Performace Room” which houses the instruments is also a venue for ancient sacrificial music and dance performances.

Xianyou Hall

Behind the Ningxi Hall is the Xianyou Hall which was dedicated to the Taoist Emperor Xuanwu and other music gods. The ceremonial robes and costumes were also stored in the rear of the hall. Now, the hall serves as a Centennial Hall for Ancient Chinese Musical Figures. Sculptures and murals of famous ancient Chinese musicians are found in the hall.

79 Verandas

There are 79 verandas that surround the Divine Music Administration. Today, the verandas are used as exhibition pavilions where the history of the building, harps and psalteries, and other musical instruments are displayed.

 

Heaven Worship Culture

Preparation Work

To safeguard the “divine right of emperor”, the worshipping ceremony during the Ming and Qing dynasties were highly emphasized with exceptionally strict precepts. Anyone who commits an error would be punished severely. All the buildings and roads in the Temple of Heaven would always be renewed on a large scale to prepare. Five days before the actual ceremony, princes would demand that all the livestock to be used as sacrifices in the ceremony be checked carefully. Two days before, the prayer words should already be written. On the last day before the ceremony, the livestock is slaughtered, sacrifices are all made, and the articles for the ceremony established. Also on the last day, the emperor would read the prayer and give a ritual at the Imperial Vault of Heaven. He would also watch the divine tablets at the Circular Mound Altar, see the ceremonial articles in the Divine Storeroom, check the sacrifices at the Divine Kitchen, and go back to his fasting at the Palace of Abstinence. The Ritual Department’s officials would then perform an overall check at the eve before the ceremony.

Worshiping Time

The starting time of the ceremony is 15 minutes before the sunrise or Seven Ke, as known during the ancient time. The Bell of Supreme Harmony in the Palace of Abstinence is struck to signify the emperor’s start off to the Circular Mound Altar.

Worship Music and Dance

The Zhonghe Shaoyue music which was played on the ceremony has nine chapters. While the “Wugong Dance” has eight independent part. Both the music and dance acts during the ceremony made the celebration spectacular and grand.

 

Today’s Temple of Heaven

There are more than 60,000 different varieties of tree that can be seen all over the temple today. The most popular one is the grandfather tree which is a 500-year-old Nine-Dragon Cypress that has branches which look like nine dragons twisting each other. The many trees depict a quiet and peaceful environment in the temple and make it an ideal place for locals to perform their morning exercises. The residents near the palace would go there to enjoy different activities such as flying kites, running, singing, dancing, cycling, playing chess, and others. The tourists can also come here to get involved in the locals’ activities and experience firsthand the leisure pursuits of the Chinese people.

 

How to get there

  • You can take the Subway Line 5 to go to the palace and get off at the Exit A of the Tiantan Dongmen Station.
  • You can also take buses 36, 53, 122, 525, 958, Te 3, Te 11, Te 12, and Yuntong 102 to go to the Tiantan Nanmen Station and walk to the palace’s South Gate. On the other hand, buses 2, 17, 36, 53, 71, 72, 93, 120, 922, Brt 1, and Te 11 will bring you to the West Gate by getting off at the Tiantan Ximen Station. To go to the North Gate, you must ride the buses 6, 34, 35, 36, 72, 106, or 110 and get off at the Tiantan Beimen Station.

 

Tickets

  • Entrance fee – CNY 15 from Apr-Oct and CNY 10 from Nov-Mar
  • Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, Circular Mound Altar, and Echo Wall – CNY 20 from Apr-Oct and CNY 20 from Nov-Mar
  • Combo Ticket for the first 2 bullets above – CNY 34 from Apr-Oct and CNY 208 from Nov-Mar
  • Divine Music Administration – CNY 10 from Apr-Cot and CNY 10 from Nov-Mar
  • Audio Guide – Rental is at CNY 40 at deposit is at CNY 100. These can be rented from the palace’s four gates from 8 am to 5 pm. The languages available for the audio guide are Cantonese, English, Korean, French, Japanese, Spanish, and German

Opening Hours

  • April to October
    • All 4 gates – 6 am to 10 pm
    • Main attractions – 8 am to 5:30 pm
    • Combo ticket selling – stops at 4 pm
  • November to March
    • All 4 gates – 6:30 am to 10 om
    • Main attractions inside – 8 am to 5 pm
    • Combo ticket selling – stops at 43:30 pm

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