The Temple of Heaven was used by Emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties to worship Heaven, offer sacrifices and pray for good harvests and favourable rain. The architecture in the Temple of Heaven is amazing, it’s history enthralling and it’s cultural significance profound. A must see attraction for anyone visiting Beijing.
Purpose & Function
Throughout China’s history from the unification of China in 221 BE by the King of Qin to the fall of the last emperor Yuan Shikai in 1916, China’s emperors were referred to as the son’s of heaven. The emperor was heaven’s representative on earth and administered earth on behalf of the gods. Part of the emperors duties as the son of heaven was showing respect to the gods by making sacrifices to heaven.
The Temple of Heaven was built so the emperor could make sacrifices to heaven and pray for the god’s benevolence. Two key ceremonies were held at the Temple of Heaven on the Winter solstice and in Spring when the emperor, the court and Beijing’s royal A list would dress in their Sunday finest, leave the Forbidden City and travel to the Temple of Heaven where they would set up camp for the ceremonies duration.
Agriculture was the foundation of wealth in imperial China so praying for good harvest was believed to be very beneficial. If harvest were bad, the stability of the emperor’s reign would be threatened so annual trips to the Temple of Heaven, like visits to the in-laws, could not be avoided. You can be sure that after a bad year, the emperor’s prayers would be very passionate and fervent.
The temple was built from 1406 to 1420 by Emperor Yong Le of the Ming Dynasty who died four years after construction was complete. When the temple was built it was called the Temple of Heaven and Earth. Later in the 16th century a Ming Emperor Jia Jiang built the Temple of Earth in the north of Beijing so the Temple of Heaven and Earth had to be renamed as the Temple of Heaven.
The Temple of Heaven was renovated and extended in the 16th century and renovated again in the 18th century by the Emperor Qianlong.
In 1900 a group of foreign nations that included USA and the UK took over the Temple of Heaven and used it as a headquarters for a year during the ill fated Boxer Rebellion. Later in 1918 the Temple was turned into a park and opened to the public for the first time in history. In recognition of the temple’s unique architecture and key role in China’s history, UNESCO listed it as a world heritage site in 1998.
As the son of heaven, the emperor was not able to make his home bigger than the symbolic home for heaven so the Temple of heaven covers 2.73 square kilometres which is over three times larger than the Forbidden City. The Temple of Heaven itself is divided into two parts, the inner temple and the outer temple. The outer temple is mainly heavily wooded parkland that is now used by Beijing locals for recreation and sport. If you visit the temple early in the morning, you will see many people out and about enjoying themselves in the outer temple parkland.
The inner temple is built on a straight line running from north to south and holds the temple’s main buildings which are the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, the Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Circular Mound Alter.
You can see from the map that the part of the temple holding the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest is enclosed by a wall. The northern part of the wall that holds the hall is circular which symbolizes heaven and the southern part of the wall is square which symbolizes earth that ancient Chinese believed to be square. Very similar to the European belief at the time that the world was flat!
The hall is 38.2 meters high, has a diameter of 24.2 meters and built on a raised 3 tier marble terrace with eight stairways. The terrace elevates the temple to show that heaven is high and earth is low. The hall and was used during the Spring ceremony to pray for bumper harvest.
The hall was first built in 1420 as a rectangular hall called “Great Hall of Sacrificial Rituals”. It was rebuilt in 1545 and named “Great Hall of Offering Sacrifices”. Keeping the same basic design, it was rebuilt again in 1751 and named the “Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest.
The Imperial Hall of Heaven is just north of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest. This hall is often called the Heavenly warehouse because it stored the stone tablet of “the God of Heaven” and the tablets of the Emperor’s ancestors. The tablets were transferred to the Hall of Prayer for rituals and ceremonies then returned again at the end.
On the day of ceremonies the emperor would come here to burn incense and pay respect to his ancestors before officials from the ministry of rituals transferred the tablets to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest.
The Dianbi Bridge is a 360 meter long 4 meters high raised walk way connecting the Hall of Prayer and the Circular Mound alter. The bridge is also called the Sacred Way because the emperor used the bridge during the ceremonies.
The firewood stove was used for burning offerings to heaven. Before heaven worshipping ceremonies began, a washed and shaved calf was placed in the firewood stove and burnt to welcome the god of heaven. After ceremonies were complete, all offerings such as placards and silk scrolls were burnt in the stove while the emperor stood nearby keeping warm and watching. This was a ritual called “Observation of the burning”.
Next to the Fire wood stove is a pit called the Pit of Blood and Hair because the hair and blood of sacrificial victims was buried there. Given China’s history of human sacrifices and references to the Pit of Blood and Hair, there is a strong possibility that the Temple of Heaven used human sacrifices before 1464.
The Imperial Vault of Heaven was first built in 1538 and called the “Hall of Appeasing Gods. It was later named Vault of Heaven in 1538 and rebuilt to its current state in 1752.
With a height of 19.5 meters and a diameter of 15.6 meters, the Imperial Vault of Heaven is the least imposing of the three main structures in the Temple of Heaven.
The vault is surrounded a 3.72 meter high 90 centimeter thick and 65 meter long circular wall called the Echo Wall that is famous for its acoustic properties that can transmit sound over long distances.
The Circular Mound Alter was built in 1530 and used to for holding the ceremony to worship Heaven at the winter solstice. The Circular Mound Alter is also called the Heaven Worshipping Terrace and was later redesigned and enlarged in 1749.
Like the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, the Circular Mound Alter is built on a three tier marble terrace. The bottom terrace represents hell, the middle terrace represents the mortal world and the top terrace represents heaven. The top terrace has an alter stone called the Heaven's Heart Stone that is surrounded by 9 rings of stone slabs.
The subway is the easiest way to get to the Temple of Heaven. Catch the subway on line 5 then get of at Tian Tan Dong Men station and use the A exit. You’ll exit the station near the east gate of the Temple of Heaven.
There are also many buses that run to the Temple of Heaven and the best buses are buses 6, 34, 35, 36, 106, 110, 687, 707 or 743 that stop at the temple’s north gate.
If you are coming from the centre of the city near Tiananmen Square, walking is by far the best way to get to the temple which is less than four kilomters from the Forbidden City.
How the emperor got there- The emperor travelled from the Forbidden City to the Temple of Heaven and back on a 12 meter long, 2.8 meter wide and 3.6 meter high sedan that was carried by 36 bearers. There were over 10 groups of bearers and thousands of officials, eunuchs and royal guards. Traffic was not a problem because commoners where not allowed to see the emperor and his entourage.
Tips for visitors to the Temple of Heaven
Do the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City on the same day – The Temple of Heaven and Forbidden City are connected and complement each other so if possible, see both on the same day. See the temple in the morning which should take no more than 2 hours, walk from the temple to the Forbidden City which should take around 40 minutes then enjoy the rest of the day in the Forbidden City. If the emperor and his entourage could do it, so can you.
Walk through the hutongs – If you walk from the Temple of Heaven to the Forbidden City, walk through the hutongs which are a fascinating and hidden part of Beijing. You can reach the hutongs from the northern entrance of the temple and follow them north for at least one kilometer.
Go in the morning – Nearly all of the outer temple is parklands with large open areas used by Beijing locals for recreation and fun. If you visit the temple in the morning around opening time at 8am, you will see locals in the park practising Tai Qi (Taiji), Kung Fu, dancing, badminton and lots more. A walk through the temple grounds in the morning will provide you with an enjoyable and refreshing insight into an important part of Chinese culture and lifestyle.
Tickets and hours
Entry to the outer temple and parklands cost 10rmb and entry into the inner temple is 20rmb.
The outer temple is open from 6am to 8pm and the inner temple opens at 8am and closes at 5pm.
Temple of Heaven LInks
More Temple of Heaven Photos – My entire Temple of Heaven Photo Collection
Wikipedia on The Temple of Heaven – Dry, dull and very few pictures but may have a few facts I missed
The Forbidden City – A guide to the Forbidden City to help you with your visit when you leave the Temple of Heaven