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Tian Tan / Temple of Heaven

The Temple of Heaven, founded in the first half of the 15th century, is a dignified complex of fine cult buildings set in gardens and surrounded by historic pine woods. In its overall layout and in that of its individual buildings, it symbolizes the relationship between earth and heaven which stands at the heart of Chinese cosmogony, and also the special role played by the emperors within that relationship.

The Temple of Heaven is located in the southeastern part of modern-day Beijing, on the east side of Yongdingmennei Street. It once lay outside the ancient city precinct and was the site of imperial offerings to heaven during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Over the course of thousands of years of imperial offerings in China, it is the only one of such sites remaining today. A group of buildings, gardens, and surrounding groves, it is highly symbolic and is a museum of a very special nature. The State Council has declared it to be a key cultural protected unit and in 1998 it was listed by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage Site.

Construction of the Temple of Heaven was begun in 1420, during the Ming dynasty under the Emperor Yongle. After Yongle had settled on Beijing as the site of the capital, the buildings and surrounding areas were later rebuilt and enlarged during the reigns of Jiaqing and Qianlong of the Qing dynasty.

In the 18th year of Ming Dynasty Emperor Yongle's reign (1420), the Alter of Heaven and Earth was completed together with the garden wall. It was located 3.5 kilometres to the southeast of Zhengyang Gate of Beijing. The central building was a rectangular Great Sacrificial Hall to be used for "offering sacrifice to heaven and earth." To the southwest of Great Sacrificial Hall was the Fasting Palace. Pines were planted in the temple area.

In the 9th year of Ming Dynasty Jiajing Emperor's reign (1530), separate sacrificial rites were held for the heaven and earth. To the south of Great Sacrificial Hall was built a Circular Mound Altar to be used for worshipping heaven. Meanwhile, temples of earth, sun and moon were constructed respectively in the north, east and west of the city. The Altar of Heaven and Earth was then called the Temple of Heaven.

In the 24th year of Emperor Jiajing's reign (1545), the Great Sacrificial Hall was dismantled, and the round Hall of Daxiang was built on the original site and used to pray for bumper harvests. In the 32rd year of Emperor Jiajing's reign (1553), an outer city was built around Beijing city. The Temple of Heaven was included in the outer city and thus encircled by two rings of wall. The Imperial Music Office and Office of Animal Offerings outside the Temple of Heaven were also surrounded by the outer city wall.

In the 14th year of Qing Dyansty Emperor Qianlong's reign (1749), the Circular Mound was expanded. White marble was used instead of blue glaze. In the 16th year of Emperor Qianlong's reign (1751), the Hall of Daxiang was renovated. The three layers of blue, yellow and green tiles were replaced by blue glaze tiles. The hall was renamed Hall of Prayers for Bumper Harvests. Covering 273 hectares, the Temple of Heaven witnessed its heyday.

Tiantan / Temple of Heaven Tiantan / Temple of Heaven

Tiantan / Temple of Heaven Tiantan / Temple of Heaven Tiantan / Temple of Heaven Tiantan / Temple of Heaven

The three principal cult structures are disposed in a line on the central north-south axis. The sacrificial buildings are mainly in the Inner Altar, which is subdivided into two by a wall running east-west, the southern sector, known as the Circular Mound Altar, and the northern, the Altar of the God of Grain. The two altars are connected by an elevated brick path 360 m long, known as the Red Stairway Bridge. The main Temple of Heaven, the Circular Mound, repeats the symbolism of the walls, as the central round feature (Heaven) is inside a square enclosure (Earth). It consists of three circular platforms of white marble, decreasing in diameter, surrounded by balustrades in the same material.

Entry to the enclosure is effected by means of a series of monumental gates. There are 360 pillars in the balustrades, representing the 360 days of the ancient Chinese lunar year. The imperial throne would have been set up in the centre of the uppermost platform, symbolizing the role of the Emperor as the Son of Heaven and hence the link between Heaven and Earth. To the north of the Circular Mound is the Imperial Vault of Heaven. It was here that the emperor made offerings before retiring to the Fasting Palace (Palace of Abstinence).

The general layout of the Temple of Heaven incorporates the ancient Chinese configuration of a 'round heaven and a square earth.' This symbolic form ties in to a north-south geographic alignment, with the concept of 'north-round-south?square.' Two layers of walls surround the temple precincts. The outer wall's circumference is 6,553 meters with a space inside of 270,000 square meters, which is about four times the size of Beijing's Palace Museum. The site once occupied a large percentage of what was the outskirts of ancient Beijing.

There were a number of rites which were performed only by the emperor, who appeared in the character of high priest; the ceremonies were separate and distinct in their character from that of the other religions of the people of China. For these rites there were several temples in Peking, and some of them, although not of sufficient height to justify the name of towers, are composed of a series of terraces, the Temple of Heaven being constructed in this way.

The Chinese did not apply any word in their language which means "temple" to these places of worship; the use of this word is wholly European. According to the Chinese there are two altars, one called the south, and the other the north. Most of the travellers who have visited the place describe only the north altar, because it has a large and imposing house upon it. The south altar, which is really the most important of the two, but being less imposing, is generally overlooked. It is here that the emperor celebrated at the winter solstice, the most solemn of all the religious rites he has to perform.

The Yuanqiu Altar in the Temple of Heaven are located in the northern part of the Tiantan complex. They comprise a large and imposing set of buildings and are the most representative architecture of the Temple of Heaven. The lower part of the Qinian Hall is a three?tiered white marble round platform, surrounded by a stone railing. The upper part is a round-shaped hall that is built without cross beams. Its ceiling is arched and pointed and its roof is covered with blue glazed tiles. The circumference of the lower tier of the platform is 90.8 meters and its total height is 5.56 meters. The Hall is located in its very center, and has a diameter of 32.72 meters and a height of 38 meters, making the total height a bit more than 141 feet.

The top part of the Hall holds a round-shaped baoding or topknot that is gilded. Twenty-eight cypress (nanmu) pillars are arrayed around the Hall. Inside the hall, stand four dragon-well pillars with diameter of 1.2 meters, and height of 19.2 meters. The ambiance of this hall is enhanced by the way the ceiling rises towards the sky. On the northern side inside the hall is a dragon-carved throne on a supporting dais, and a stele to the ancestors and gods of the emperors. On a special day of the first month of every year, the emperor would lead his princes and officials here to pray for good harvests, and, if they were encountering drought, they would come here to pray for rain. On the various sides of the Qinian Hall are subsidiary buildings that were used for various imperial purposes. Altogether they form a harmonious group.

This altar is not as grand as the Qinian Hall but is still a very important part of the Tiantan, for this is where the emperor made sacrifices to heaven. The altar was built in the 9thyear of Jiaqing, or 1530. It was originally covered in blue-glazed tiles. In the 14th year of Qianlong (1749) it was expanded and was faced with marble, taking on its current aspect. The altar is round and divided into three levels, each with nine stairs leading up it on each of the four cardinal directions. In the center of the top level is a round central stone, with nine circles of stones arrayed around it. Each level has numerous indicators of nine or of multiples of nine. The craftsmen took pains to emphasize this number, since it was seen as an indicator of 'yang' or the male principle, and this in turn was seen as a confirmation of the intent of heaven.

Behind the circular altar lie a group of buildings including a round structure called the Emperor's mystic realm or Vault of Heaven. These buildings were begun in the 9th year of Jiaqing (1631). They were repaired in the 8th year of Qianlong (1743). They include a circular hall with pointed roofline, inside which the ceiling extends upward in layers. A carved stone base holds a stelae that celebrates the emperor. The thing that most attracts people's attention at this place is the 'echo' wall that surrounds it as well as the so-called triple-sound stones.

In addition to the temples and altars comprising the main architecture of the Tiantan, a number of subsidiary buildings exist that were used for operational purposes. These included rooms for cooking, preparing the sacrifices, and storing things. A building called the Zhaigong is where the emperor would sleep before making the sacrifices and praying to the gods of harvest. Another site of interest is believed to be one of the earliest groups of buildings at the Tiantan. It was built in the 18th year of Ming-dynasty Yongle (1420), and was specifically made for music to accompany the sacrifices. It served as a practice room for the music masters, and was also used for storing the instruments.

Ceremonial sacrifices to heaven were banned by the government of the Republic of China in 1911. By that date, 490 years after its foundation, the Temple of Heaven had witnessed 654 acts of worship to heaven by 22 Emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. It was opened as a public park in 1918 and has been so ever since.

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Page last modified: 18-06-2012 20:34:21 ZULU