The Temple of Heaven is one of the most strictly protected and preserved cultural heritages of China. There are 12 million visitors every year.
The Circular Mound Altar The largest group of architectures ever to be dedicated to Heaven, the Temple of Heaven served as an exclusive altar for Chinese monarchs during the Ming and Qing dynasties. It was decreed that rulers of successive dynasties would place altars in their own capitals to worship Heaven and pray for good harvest.
The ancient Chinese believed that Heaven was the supreme ruler of the universe and the fate of mankind, and thus worshiping rites dedicated to Heaven came into being.
The Heaven the ancient Chinese referred to was actually the Universe, or nature. In those days, there were specific rites of worship. This was especially true during the Ming and Qing dynasties when elaborate ceremonies were held.
The Temple of Heaven was built in 1420 during the reign of Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty. Situated in the southern part of the city, this grand set of structures covers an area of 273 hectares. To better symbolize heaven and earth, the northern part of the Temple is circular while the southern part is square. The whole compound is enclosed by two walls, a square wall outside a round one. The outer area is characterized by suburban scenery, while the inner part is used for sacrifices. The inner enclosure consists of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest and the Circular Mound Altar.
The Circular Mound Altar is enclosed by two walls, each containing four groups of Southern Lattice Star Gate, each in turn consisting of three doors, with 24 marble doors altogether. Standing on the passage facing north, you will notice that with each pair of doors one is narrower than the other. This reflects the feudal hierarchy: the wider door was reserved for monarchs, while the narrower one was used by courtiers.
On the day of the ceremony, the emperor would don his ritual costume and be ushered in by the official in charge of religious affairs. He ascended the three terraces in the forefront to pay tribute at the altar.
Each terrace has a flight of 9 steps. At the center of this terrace lies a round stone surrounded by 9 concentric rings of stone. The number of stones in the first ring is 9, in the second, 18, up to 81 in the 9th ring. Even the number of carved balustrades on these terraces is a multiple of 9.
According to ancient Chinese philosophy, yin and yang were two opposing factors. Heaven and the odd numbers belonged to yang while the Earth and even numbers belonged to yin. Nine was the largest heavenly number accessible to man. What is more, the ancient people also believed that heaven consisted of nine layers and that the emperor's abode was on the uppermost tier.
Once more look at the round stone in the center. The upper terrace is nine zhang (a Chinese unit of length, one zhang equals 3.3 meters) in circumference, while the middle is 15 zhang, the lower, 21 zhang. Classified as yang numbers, the sum of these numerals is 45 zhang which was meant to symbolize success. What is more, by applying the concept of odd numbers and strengthening nine and its multiples, the concept of heaven was thus illustrated and realized.
On the Winter Solstice, the memorial tablet dedicated to Heaven would be set up on the north side of the terrace, while tablets dedicated to the emperor's ancestors would be enshrined on the flanks. The service would begin around 4 o'clock in the morning. All of the lanterns would be lit. In the foreground, a sacrificial calf is being barbecued. tar.
On the square in front of the altar, the emperor, under heavy escort of nearly a thousand courtiers, princes of royal blood, musicians, dancers and uniformed soldiers, would slowly ascend the altar to offer sacrifice and pray in honor of Heaven. when the service drew to a close, the sacrifice offered in front of the memorial tablets would be incinerated. All of participants would watch the thick smoke rise upward as if they were seeing God off. Music and dancing would follow. In the end, the emperor would return to the Forbidden City secure in the belief that he would be blessed and protected by Heaven until the next winter Solstice.
It is interesting to note that, the stone in the very middle of the altar was of major importance, since it was where the emperor used to stand to say his prayer. The stone, which is known as the God's Heart Stone, is peculiar in that it is characterized by a specific acoustic phenomenon: it made the emperor's voice clearer and louder, thus adding to the mystic atmosphere of the service.
Heaven's Storehouse. It is entered through the Gate of Glazed Tiles. The roofing, beams, and brackets are all made of glazed tiles or bricks. This is the only structure of its kind in china today.
The Heaven's Storehouse was where memorial tablets dedicated to the gods were kept. Douglas Hurd, a former British foreign secretary, once said, 'God attends to His affairs on the Circular Mound Altar but stays here.
The Imperial Vault of Heaven is the main structure of Heaven's Storehouse. It was built in 1530 and is 17 meters in height and 19 meters in diameter. The structure features blue roofs topped by a gilded ball, and carved wooden doors and windows. It is decorated with colored paintings. Founded on a 3-meter-high round marble terrace, the building also features a gigantic carved marble ramp laid in the stone staircase leading up to the front entrance. The ramp is carved in 'Two Dragons Playing with a Pearl' design in relief.
The arch of the hall is buttressed by 16 giant pillars on two rings. On top of the pillars there are gilt brackets supporting a circular caisson, or covered ceiling. The ceiling is characterized by a golden coiling dragon design. The 8 pillars of the inner ring are painted scarlet and decorated with golden lotuses.
Aside from exquisitely laid out architectures, Heaven's Storehouse is also famous for two structures with peculiar acoustic features, i.e. the Echo Wall and the Triple-Sound Stone. A mere whisper at any point close to the wall can be heard clearly on the other side, although the parties may be 40 or 50 meters apart. This is possible because the wall is round and hermetically constructed with smooth, solid bricks.
In front of the steps leading away from the hall is the Triple- Sound Stone. If you stand on the first stone and call out or clap your hands, the sound will echo once; on the second stone, the sound will be heard twice; and on the third stone, the sound will repeat three times. Hence the name.
The Temple of Heaven is also famous for its cypress trees - there are more than 60, 000 cypress trees in all, among which over 4,000 are more than one hundred years old, adding to the solemn atmosphere of the temple. This tall cypress was planted more than 500 years ago. Its thick branches and twisting trunk resembling nine coiling playful dragons; thus it is known as the Nine-Dragon Cypress. It is said that this tree was here to welcome the monarchs. Now it is here to welcome visitors from all over the world.
The brick-arched gate is known as Chengzhen (Adopting Fidelity) Gate. 'This gate is the northern gate of the Circular Mound Altar, serving as a line of separation for the Circular Mound Altar and the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest. The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest is situated at the extreme end of the axis. It was used by the emperor in the first month of every lunar year for services dedicated to good harvest.
Entering the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, we set foot on a raised passage 360 meters long, which the emperor also took to proceed to the hall. This broad north-south walkway, called Danbiqiao (Red Stairway Bridge) , connects the two sets of main buildings in the Temple of Heaven and constitutes a single axis.
The passage is divided into left, central and right paths by the cross arrangement of slabs. The central and the widest path is known as Heavenly Thoroughfare, which was reserved exclusively for God; nobody, including the emperor, was allowed to set foot onto it. The emperor used the path on the east, which is known as the Imperial Walk. The ministers and princes used the one on the west. Interesting enough, there is no walkway left for ordinary people. This is because the Temple of Heaven used to be off-limits to them.
Contrary to appearances, this walkway is not a bridge at all. But how so? This road is 4 meters above the ground and there is a cavern underneath that was reserved for sacrificial oxen and sheep. The cattle were slaughtered at a slaughterhouse about 500 meters away and brought here for sacrifice. All in all, it can be said this walkway did serve as bridge and can be looked upon as the first cloverleaf in Beijing.
The marble terrace up ahead is called Jufutai, or Costume-Changing Terrace. It is located to the east of the Red Stairway Bridge and covers a space of 25 square meters. It has marble Slab balustrades. The day before the service, officials in charge would put up a yellow satin tent on the terrace for the emperor to change out of his yellow dragon robe into blue ceremonial clothes. After the service, the emperor would return to the tent and change back into his imperial robe before returning to the palace.
At the Gate of Prayer for Good Harvest, we can catch a slight glimpse of the central building, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, through the colonnade of the Gate. A gigantic and lofty group of buildings, the complex includes the Gate of Prayer for Good Harvest, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, eastern and western annex halls, the Huangqian ( Imperial Heaven) Long Corridor, Heaven Kitchen, slaughterhouse, etc.
The annex halls were symmetrically built on a 1.5-meter-high brick-and-marble terrace, to set off the loftiness and magnificence of the main hall. This unique building, 38 meters in height, is characterized by a cone-shaped structure with triple eaves and a top that is crowned by a gilt ball. The roofing is made of blue glazed tiles, the color of the sky. Underneath the roof, the beams and brackets are decorated with colored paintings. The base of the structure is a triple-tiered, circular marble terrace. At a distance, the terrace looks like a gigantic, spiraling cloud with the structure perched on top of it.
Today the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest is the hallmark of Beijing, which enjoys a prolonged history of civilization.
The base of the hall is a triple-tiered, circular marble terrace, which is 90 meters in diameter and 6 meters in height, covering a space of 4,000 square meters. Meticulous accuracy was given to the layout of the structure. In the middle of each three-tiered flight of stairs, there is a giant marble ramp carved in cloud, dragon and phoenix designs. To set off the ramps, the top of the balustrades and downpipes are designed with corresponding floral scrolls. In southern part of each tier, a gigantic bronze incense burner is placed. Sandalwood was burnt in them when rites were observed.
Climbing up this marble terrace, we see the main hall, a masterpiece of ancient China. Looking up you will see the caisson, or covered ceiling, characterized by complex designs of dragons and phoenixes. In and out, the hall is decorated with colored drawings of dragons and phoenixes.
Without the use of steel, cement and nails, and even without the use of big beams and crossbeams, the entire structure is supported by 28 massive wooden pillars and a number of bars, laths, joints and rafters. The four central pillars, called the Dragon-Well Pillars, are 19.2 meters high and painted with designs of composite flowers, representing the four seasons. There are two rings of 12 scarlet pillars each. The inner ring represents the 12 months and the outer ring the 12 divisions of the day and night. Between the two rings there are 24 partitioned spaces to mark the solar terms of the Chinese lunar year. The pillars, 28 in number, also represent the 28 constellations in the universe - the ancient Chinese believed that there were 28 constellations that made up the sky.
The center of the stone-paved floor is a round marble slab, which is 88.5 centimeters in diameter. Interestingly, the slab features natural black and white veins, corresponding to the dragon-phoenix design on the ceiling. This particular slab is known as the Dragon-Phoenix Stone and is regarded as a treasure inseparable from the hall.
The furnishings within the hall are placed in their original positions dating back to when Emperor Xianfeng ruled. In the forefront and above the throne are enshrined tablets in commemoration of Heaven. On either table on each side tablets of the emperor's ancestors were placed. Each tablet is fronted by an altar. A total of 24 kinds of offerings were made on it, including soup, wine, assorted cereals, and a calf.
The sacrificial rites were observed in the wee hours of the morning, sometime in the first month of the Chinese lunar year. Because it was still dark, candles, lanterns and torches were lit. This lighting coupled with the incense being burnt inside the hall , helped make the ceremony both grand and mystical.
By the time the service began, 207 musicians and dancers would be performing on platforms outside the hall. The emperor, in his blue sacrificial robe and with an air of piety and sincerity, would walk slowly into the hall, kowtow, and offer wine and prayer in honor of the deities and his ancestors. All of the offerings would then be taken to incinerators on the eastern side of the Gate of Prayer for Good Harvest. With this we conclude our visit to the Temple of Heaven. The feudal monarchs and their sacrificial rites have long vanished in history. However, this group of magnificent and lofty structures remain as a fine testament of the ancient Chinese' ingenuity and as one of the cultural heritages of mankind.
The 300-meter-long corridor consists of 72 sections, this corridor served as a connecting building between the Slaughterhouse, Heaven Kitchen, and the main hall. It is said that this once served as a sacrificial food production line.