Temple of Heaven, Beijing
The Temple of Heaven in Beijing is a place where Imperial Emperors come every winter solstice to pray for the goodness of their people.
In ancient China, emperor was believed to be ‘Son of Heaven’. Therefore only emperors were allowed to worship heaven.
Temple of Heaven (Chinese official name Tian Tan 天壇) was originally built in Ming Dynasty in 1420 for Ming emperors to worship heaven annually. Qing emperors kept up with the tradition.
If you are interested in Chinese culture, here is a place worth spending some time. The exhibition gallery here describes the praying ceremonies in detail. You would find it extremely impressive.
A Cosmological Design
The round Temple of Heaven sits on a square site. Its design reflects ancient Chinese thought of ‘heaven is round’ and ‘earth is square’.
Looking at its appearance, Temple of Heaven might be just another classical Chinese architecture. However from a cosmological perspective, it is something completely different. Its design is tightly associated with shapes and numbers. Pay attention to them and you’ll find it extremely amazing.
For example, The Hall of Annual Prayer (Qi Nian Dian) has four inner, twelve middle and twelve outer pillars, representing the four seasons, twelve months and twelve traditional Chinese hours respectively.
At the Circular Altar, look down at the concentric circles and count the stones. Also count pillars, steps, and marbles and see if they are in multiples of nine. Ancient Chinese believe ‘nine’ is the most significant digit and always associate it with imperial things.
Exploring the Temple of Heaven
Leading to the Hall of Annual Prayer, it is a 360-meter long and 29-meter wide straight pathway of white marbles. It elevates gradually from 1 meter in the south to 4 meters in the north, symbolizing the emperor walking towards heaven.
The central path is a ‘Holy Path’ for Gods. On the left is the ‘Royal Path’ for emperors only. On the right is the ‘Staff Path’ for Court members and honor guards.
The Temple of Heaven consists of three main groups of constructions:
The Circular Altar (圜丘坛 Yuan Qiu Tan). It has an empty platform on three levels of marble stones, where the Emperor worships heaven.
The House of Heavenly Lord (皇穹宇 Huang Qiong Yu). A single-gabled circular building, built on a single level of marble stone base, where the altars of the imperial ancestors were kept. It is surrounded by a so-called ‘Echo Wall’. Clap hands to test it.
The Hall of Annual Prayer (祈年殿 Qi Nian Dian). A magnificent triple-gabled circular building, built on three levels of marble stone base, where the Emperor prayed for good weather and good harvests.
Fasting Palace (斋宮) is a mini, simple however comprehensive palace where the emperor stayed prior to the Praying Ceremonies. Here the emperor kept his body and mind in an extremely peaceful state in order to show his highest respect to Heaven.
Seventy-year Old Door (古稀門) is right outside the Hall of Annual Prayer. The door is there exclusively for emperors of 70 or older. The Court members of Qianlong invented this to please him.
Qianlong succeeded the throne at the age of 25 and remained in reign for the next 60 years. The young emperor certainly had no problem walking the 360-meter long. But it would be difficult for a 70 year old to do it. Therefore the aged emperor was taken here on a sedan chair and walked a much shorter way towards the Hall of Annual Prayer. To avoid his descendants being lazy, Qianlong set the rule of 70. No one was allowed to walk through this door if they were younger than 70.
The Praying Ceremonies
Exhibition of Rite for Worshipping Heaven
In the Exhibition Gallery beyond the Hall of Annual Prayer, it described in texts and drawings, the details of the Praying Ceremonies conducted by Qianlong, 4th Rank of Qing Dynasty. There is nowhere else and no other resources that you can check this out. If you are interested in ancient Chinese culture, please do spend some time here.
The economies of ancient China mainly depend on farming. Praying for good weather and good harvest was therefore of national importance. The ceremonies were solemnly conducted by the emperor accompanied by thousands of his Court members.
Emperors arrive through the south gate. Along a straight north-south axis, there is the 360-meter long Royal Path leading to the Hall of Annual Prayer. The emperor had to walk through the Royal Path towards the Temple of Heaven. While emperors always rode on horses or sedan chairs, this was the only occasion that they had to walk on their own feet for such a long distance. As this is a solemnly important national occasion that he had to show heaven and his people his absolute piety.
The entire worshipping group consisted of Emperor Qianlong and 3,700 of his Court members and honor guards. The group arrived the Temple of Heaven three days before the Ceremonies. During such period the emperor had to refrain from meat, wine and sex. Emperor Qianlong had to change to his formal dragon robe and pray personally to Heaven. The whole process took a few days and over 40 steps.
The exhibition closes sharp at 5pm. Please allow sufficient time if you want to check details of the ceremonies.
Tian Tan Park is open from 06:00 to 20:00. Hall of Annual Prayer closes sharp at 17:00.
Low season: November 1 – March 31
Entrance ticket: ¥10 / Through ticket: ¥30
Peak season: April 1 – October 31
Entrance ticket: ¥15 / Through ticket: ¥35
Morning Exercise at the Tian Tan Park
(Temple of Heaven in Beijing)
Temple of Heaven was a somewhat a restricted area in imperial times. Nowadays, it is open to public at a minimal fee. Commonly known as Tian Tan Park, it is a popular place for Beijingers to do their morning exercises.
You would be surprised by the number of people and the variety of exercises they do. Elder people might be practicing their slow-motion Tai Qi. Young ones might be practicing their kung fu fighting or sword fighting. Ladies could be doing some traditional dances.
Should you want to do some exercise before visiting the Temple of Heaven, try wake up early and come join one of the groups. It’s free. Alternatively you can choose to be an observer.
Happy with Temple of Heaven? Continue to see Hutong and Old Beijing