The Temple of Heaven ( 天壇 Tiantan) was where the Emperors from the Ming and Qing Dynasties worshiped and prayed to the heavenly gods. The emperors visited the temple twice a year, once during winter to worship the heaven, and again during spring to pray for a year of copious rain and an abundance of crops. The Temple of Heaven takes up a monstrous area of 237 hectares with multiple buildings in the compound including Hall of Prayers for Good Harvest (祈年殿), the Imperial Vault of Heaven (皇穹宇), Circular Mound (圜丘坛) and Fasting Palace (齋宫). If you’ve been to the Forbidden City and thought it was a gigantic place to walk around, the Temple of Heaven is 4 times the size of Forbidden City, so be prepared to walk!
The Temple of Heaven was designed with the notion of “Heaven and Earth” where circular shapes represented heaven and square shapes represented earth.
If you look at this map, the temple compound is not enclosed in a rectangular wall . The north end of the wall has rounded corners whereas the south end of the wall has regular 90 degrees corners, symbolizing the unity of heaven and earth.
You might also notice that the explanation boards also have the same rounded corners on the top, and squared corners below!
The main building in the compound is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest. It was constructed with meaningful designs where the four major pillars represent 4 seasons, the 12 inner pillars represent 12 months and the 12 outer pillars represent 12 traditional Chinese hours. The addition of 12 inner and 12 outer pillars represent the 24 traditional Chinese solar cycles which calculates the leap year precisely; and the total of all 28 pillars represent 28 Chinese constellations. Some amazing stuff there!
The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest was where the emperors came during the spring to pray for a year of good harvest. The tablet that you see in the photo here is the tablet of “Emperor of Heaven”, who is the boss of all heavenly gods (in Chinese culture).
The protected stone carving that leads to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest.
Normally, during non-ritual days, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest did not house any divine tablets. Instead, the tablet of Emperor of Heaven and the emperor’s ancestral tablets were housed in the Imperial Hall of Heaven (皇乾殿 Huangqian Dian), which was also known as the “heavenly warehouse”. On the night before the worshiping ritual, the emperor came in here, made his prayers and respectfully transferred the tablets to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest.
The placard placed on the Imperial Hall of Heaven was written by Emperor Jiajing (1521- 1567) from the Ming Dynasty. The emperors’ handwriting never fail to impress because the handwriting always look so perfect as if printed by machines!
The Imperial Hall of Heaven has an amusing “70 – years -old door” at one corner of the compound. When Emperor Qianlong was 70 years old, it was suggested by one of his officials to make a shortcut to the prayer hall through the back door to save some energy. The emperor agreed to that but at the same time he was afraid that his descendants would use the “backdoor” way of doing things so he prohibited anyone from using the door unless they were 70 years old and above. It turned out Emperor Qianlong was the only one to use the door because his descendants never lived past the age of 70.
To the east and west of Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, there are two annexed halls showcasing the worshiping rituals and the evolution of prayer halls.
From very simple altars made with wooden logs and straws,
to much more complex structures and eventually, the altars were no longer one single building but multiple buildings with specific purposes to complement the worshiping ritual.
Walking across the 380 m long Vermilion Steps Bridge (Danbi Qiao 丹壁橋) takes you to the Imperial Vault of Heaven (皇穹宇), located to the south of Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest. The emperors visited during winter solstice to perform the heaven worshiping ritual.
The Imperial Vault of Heaven is a mini-version of Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest at only 1-story high and it sits on a one-level stone base. It was used to house the Emperor of Heaven’s tablet and ancestral tablets.
Like the Hall of Prayers for Good Harvest, the Imperial Vault of Heaven has two annex halls adjacent to it. The East Annex Hall houses the tablets of the Sun God, the Polar Stars, and other celestial stars like Venus, Jupitar, Mercury and Saturn.
The East Annex Hall houses the tablets of the Moon God and the Weather Gods of Thunder, Cloud, Rain and Wind.
The circular wall that encircles the compound of the Imperial Vault of Heaven and the two annex halls is known as the “Echo Wall” because the wall is extremely smooth which has the ability to prolong sound waves, resulting in echoes and hence the name.
South to the Imperial Vault of Heaven is the three-tier circular mound, where the emperors worshiped the heaven with elaborate rituals during winter solstice, and prayed for favorable rain for their people. Interesting numerology was used into the making of this altar. The number “9” was thought to be biggest number, which signified the emperor and the heaven, and hence “9” steps were used to connect the tiers and multiples of “9” were the numbers of slabs used for each tier.
On the uppermost tier lies the Heavenly Center Stone which serves as a concentric center where 9 stone slabs encircle it, which also symbolizes Nine Layers of Heaven. The first circle has 9 pieces of stone slabs with subsequent circles having increasing number of stone slabs in multiples of 9. In the 9th circle, there is 9×9 pieces of stone slabs, emphasizing the greatness of divine heaven. The altar was designed to “communicate with heaven” where volume and resonance are enhanced as one stands and speaks on the Heavenly Center Stone.
Most of the people probably end their visit here after visiting The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Circular Mound, and also because the through ticket (RMB 30) covers the fees to these three places. There are two more places within the Temple of Heaven that’s overlooked – The Fasting Palace (also known as the Hall of Abstinence) and the Divine Music Administration which can provide a better understanding to the heaven worshiping ritual.
Forty days before the ceremony, the officials at the the Divine Music Administration started to practice music and dances three times a week. You can see how unfrequented the place is with hardly anybody.
I went inside nonetheless and I had a nice surprise when I saw a group of musicians practicing in there! What could be a better venue to practice other than the Divine Music Administration? For a moment I thought I was back in Qing Dynasty, listening to music meant for the heavenly prayers.
Thirty days before the ritual, sacrificial animals were selected and raised in the Sacrificial Hall. Ruins of the Sacrificial Hall was discovered during a recent construction work and now it can be found next to the Fasting Palace.
Three days before the heaven-worshiping ritual began, the emperor stayed in the Fasting Palace and prepared himself for the ritual where he refrained from any form of indulgence including meat, drinks, music, and women.
The main hall in the Fasting Palace is the “Beamless Hall” which has no beams and is supported by a brick dome. The emperor practiced rituals in this hall as he arrived and departed the Fasting Palace.
On the night before the heaven-worshiping ritual, three 28.8 meter tall lanterns were lit to create a solemn atmosphere for everyone to observe. Pulley devices allowed lanterns to be raised to the tip of the pole.
When the the emperor departed the Fasting Palace to perform the ritual, the bell was rung until he reached the altar to perform the ritual. And now the musicians that had been practicing the music and dances for months now make their contribution.
As the heaven-worshiping ritual began, a thoroughly cleansed calf was burned at the green, glazed, brick stove as an welcoming act for the Emperor of Heaven and other heavenly gods. The emperor was required to observe the burning process.
The emperor’s ancestors took part in the ritual too. The ancestors had their tablets placed in front of the iron stoves and offerings were burnt in the iron stoves. The emperor then made his way to the Circular Mound to “communicate” with heaven and worshiped the heaven.
The historical buildings within the Temple of Heaven are no doubt the key attractions but the vast forest of juniper and cypress trees are impressive too. There are some areas that are much less visited that exude beautiful serenity which perhaps is what it would have been during the ancient times, when the compound was only for sacred rituals.
Some of the trees like this gigantic one here is more than 500 years old.
The Temple of Heaven today is a fascinating place for visitors and a park for the locals. The locals sit along the corridor pondering over their next chess move, and some play sports.
I saw this sport that looks like a fusion between ping pong and badminton. Looks like ambidexterity is required as it’s played with two hands holding ping-ping-like rackets, hitting on a shuttlecock !
You can probably visit the main places in about 2 hours in a whiz if you only have limited time. But the best is to spare a few hours to visit the Temple of Heaven at leisure, enjoy the breeze and marvel at the gorgeous architecture and find out all the stories behind the buildings!
Temple of Heaven Official Website
Temple of Heaven Wiki
Opening Hours: Gate：6：00-22：00
The scenic spots inside the Temple of Heaven：
Mar 1 to Jun 30： 8 am – 5.30 pm
Jul 1 to OCt 31： 8 am – 6 pm
Nov1 to Feb 28： 8 am – 5 pm
Admission Fee: Through Ticket RMB 30 (Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, Hall of Imperial Vault, Circular Mound). Additional RMB 10 for Fasting Palace and Divine Music Administration.
Getting there: Tiantan Dongmen MRT Station.