Ditan ("Temple of Earth") Park is home to the Temple of Earth, one of the four "cosmological" temples of Beijing that each occupy one of the four compass directions: Temple of the Sun, in the east; Temple of Heaven, in the south; and Temple of Moon, in the west.* The park is situated in the north, just beyond Anding ("Peace and Stability") Gate of Beijing's old, rectangular, wall-and-moat bulwark, which, today, is additionally bounded on all sides by the 2nd Ring Road. The bulwark is in two parts: an inner bulwark and an outer bulwark (the two share a common wall – the inner bulwark's southern wall/ the outer bulwark's northern wall), where the outer bulwark is contiguous to and lies south of the inner bulwark that houses, among other things, the Forbidden City.
Anding Gate lies on the northern side of the bulwark near the juncture with the bulwark's eastern side (there are, not surprisingly, nine gates along the inner bulwark, the number 9 being reserved for all things royal, and each gate was (maybe still is) equipped with a drawbridge that extended across the moat), meaning that Temple of Earth Park lies just above the northeastern quadrant of the inner bulwark, also known as the Dongcheng District of Beijing.
History and Layout
The Temple of Earth was constructed in CE 1530 during the reign (CE 1521-1566) of the Jiajing Emperor, aka Emperor Shizhong, of the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty. Earlier, the Temple of Earth had functioned as a part of the Temple of Heaven and Earth that had been built in the period CE 1406-20 during the reign (CE 1402–1424) of the Yongle Emperor, Emperor Chengzu, also of the Ming Dynasty. The other two separate temples, representing the sun and the moon, were added in order to complete the capital's set of "cosmological" temples. The Temple of Earth fell into disuse during the troubled transition period of civil strife when the Chinese people freed themselves of the yoke of feudalism, but it reopened in 1925 during the Republic of China (1912-1949) period, though it was first made into a park in 1957, under the People's Republic of China (1949 – ).
Temple of Earth Park is situated in a wooded area crisscrossed with stately, tree-lined, flagstone-paved walkways that connect to broad, flagstone-paved plazas surrounded by lush gardens. The park has largely been permitted to remain in its original state, despite the fact that the wooded park in question is relatively large (about 43 hectares), and, considering that real estate in the center of the capital city, to put it in the modern vernacular, is ab understandably scarce and therefore expensive commodity, this is quite remarkable.
Temple of Earth Park, dotted with ponds – the largest with a rockery – that help to cool and freshen the air, is characterized by tall pine and cypress trees, some of them over three hundred years old. The pine trees are more erect, more compact, while the matronly cypress trees are skimpier and irregular-looking, with "needles" that are softer than those of the pine trees (the cypress, despite its evergreen look, is a deciduous tree). The two tree types complement each other admirably in Temple of Earth Park. The Temple of Earth's main building is a square-ish, massive-looking, two-storey structure, where the lower storey is considerably taller than the upper storey. The building has a high, center archway that runs the length of the lower storey and explains the lower storey's extra height. All of the buildings of the Temple of Earth have distinctive engravings that depict dragons and phoenixes and which serve, in this context, as representations of the yin and the yang (the "cosmological" temples of Beijing are decidedly Taoist/ Daoist inspired).
At the main entrance to the park is a tall stone archway in the facade-like style of stone archways throughout China. This type of archway is not designed to provide pathway access though a building (the classic example of an archway that is also a building is the Arc de Triomphe in Paris), but is simply an impressive, towering, facade-like gate that marks an entrance (to my mind, the towering, facade-like stone archway is as quintessentially ancient Chinese as is the upturned eave!). Another entrance consists of a low, rectangular, one-storey building with three archways with paths leading through it, where the center archway is taller and broader than the two side archways. The scene on the inner side of this archway opens out onto a broad, tree-lined plaza that leads to the main building.
Deeper within the temple complex – perhaps at its center – is a sacrificial altar, Fangze Tan ("Square Altar"). Again, it is no coincidence that the altar is square, since this is the altar for performing sacrifices to the God of Earth, given that the symbol for the earth is a square. The raised, two-tiered platform of the altar is made of marble, each tier standing 2 meters in height. As indicated above, the number 9 represents Heaven – and, by extension, the Emperor; the number 6 (or any multiple thereof, such as 66, 666, etc.), in contrast, represents the Earth, which is reflected in the measurements of the altar's two tiers: the upper tier measures 20 square meters, or, in ancient Chinese units, 60 chi, while the lower tier measures 22 square meters, corresponding to 66 chi. In former times – that is, when the altar was in use by the emperor – the depression that the altar stands in was filled with water, though nowadays it is left dry.
Besides the altar, the temple comprises four other main building blocks all lined up along a north-south axis, with the altar in the extreme north: the Imperial Ancestor-Worship Hall; the Sacrificial Pavilion; the Palace of Abstinence; and the Imperial Storehouse . The Square Altar is the main structure, spanning some 18,000 square meters.
The visitor must pass through a series of gates to reach the altar area, the latter of which is raised, with a concrete staircase leading up to it. The gates here each have a tall, facade-like stone archway at its center (though these are not as tall as the archway at the main entrance, of course), heightening the sense of ceremonious solemnity as one approaches the sacrificial altar. The sacrificial altar was used during the Ming and Qing Dynasty era to offer sacrifices, officiated over by the emperor, to the Earth god, where one typically – such as during the summer solstice – made sacrifices and prayed for a good harvest, good weather (or an end to a spell of bad weather) and the like, but also prayed for peace among peoples as well as peace among one's immediate neighbors (the winter solstice was the occasion for similar sacrificial rites at the Temple of Heaven).
All of the structures within Temple of Earth Park were erected in accordance with ancient Chinese Taoist principles concerning the interaction of the 5 elements: earth, water, fire, metal, wood. If one were to use a single word to describe the layout of Temple of Earth Park it would have to be the word "spacious".
Temple of Earth Park is used today as a general, everyday park – not unlike the uses to which Central Park in New York City might be put – where Beijingers promenade, lie in the sun, sit and read, perform physical exercises, jog, fly kites (during the windy seasons, that is, i.e., spring and autumn), play board games and the like, and sing and dance. During the summer, the park is frequently the venue for rock music concerts. The park is also a venue for temple fairs, and in this connection, hosts its main temple fair during the Lunar New Year Temple Fair arrangement, where, in recent years, a local theatre troupe, the City of Beijing Traditional Art Troupe, have staged performances and where other, regional theater troupes such as Sichuan Opera troupes as well as lesser-known theatre troupes from northeastern China (think: Manchuria), have performed. In addition, puppet shows that can delight both young and old are also regularly staged at the park during the Lunar New Year celebrations.
During the Lunar New Year celebrations, the park is decked out in a myriad of lanterns, the color red being especially popular since it signifies good fortune. But the visitor will encounter tree-lined paths with a canopy formed of colorful, highly decorative rice-paper fans, creating an ambience that is uniquely Chinese. Every year, Maoi-Hui ethnic minority groups come to the park dressed in their gay costumes to perform ethnic song and dance routines, an event that broadens and enriches the festival. In addition to the traditional Lunar New Year/ Lantern Festival events at the park, other events have been introduced during Lunar New Year in recent years, including fashion shows and various cultural exhibitions. For example, in 2010 an exhibition devoted to China's intangible cultural heritage was staged here, with how-to demonstrations of 16 different crafts such as Suzhou embroidery, wood engraving, the sculpting of clay and dough figurines and the decoration of lanterns with the year's relevant Lunar New Year theme (i.e., relevant to the particular zodiac animal for the year in question).
But Temple of Earth Park is very family friendly, with activities such as mini-golf and water calligraphy (one can purchase oversized brushes and removable water-based "paint" and paint one's own fantasy design on the pavements). Temple of Earth Park also has a special children's amusement park where children can frolic to their heart's desire. For those interested in cultural exhibits, there is also a museum here where one can learn more about Beijing's Temple of Earth. The park also features a regular restaurant, and of course there are clothing, sundry and food stalls spread around the park – and beginning with 2010, vendors from Taiwan were invited to sell their Taiwanese Lunar New Year specialties here.
The vendors offer snacks to suit every taste, including traditional sweet or salty Yuanxiao ("Night of the Lantern Festival") balls whose shell is made of rice flour and whose filling is either sweet and combined with any of the following: soyabean paste, Chinese date (Ziziphus jujube) paste, sesame paste, tangerine peel, osmanthus flowers, rose petals and walnuts, or salty and made with a mixture of minced meats and vegetables, seasoned with salt, pepper and other tasty spices.
Like many other cultural relics in China, the Temple of Earth suffered a certain amount of damage at the hands of young zealots during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Thankfully, Temple of Earth, which has been used by over a dozen Chinese emperors for the annual summer solstice sacrificial ceremony, could be put to rights, and the temple has since been complete restored.
The government of the PRC has listed Beijing's Temple of Earth among the country's most culturally significant and therefore preservation-worthy monuments. During the Lunar New Year celebrations it is a great place to rub shoulders with the Chinese people in an informal setting, when they are likely to let their hair down, as it were, but if the opportunity ever presents itself, you should definitely visit Temple of Earth Park during autumn, when the park is at its most radiantlyy beautiful, as any Beijinger will tell you.
* The shapes of these four temples symbolize the conceptions that were popular at the time concerning the shapes of the heavenly bodies that they represent. Thus, since it was believed that the earth was flat – and square – the Temple of Earth was made square, whereas the Temple of Heaven, symbolic of the abode of the gods, was believed to be round – and was thus made round on earth (it is quite likely that, seeing all of the other heavenly bodies that could be distinguished in the evening skies such as the sun, the moon and nearby stars such as Venus (known alternately as the Evening Star and the Morning Star), the ancient Chinese astronomers believed that "heaven" (the abode of the gods) was round as well, though it seems odd that they would believe Earth to be square when all other heavenly bodies were perceived as round... however, the logical explanation is that they probably believed – like the Romans (think: the Vatican) and the Greeks before them – that Earth was the center of the universe, around which everything else revolved).
For sure, the ancient Chinese astronomers believed that the sun, the moon, the earth and heaven all were interlinked metaphysically, and that this interaction influenced life here on earth. Each of the "cosmological" temples in Beijing is set in a park surrounded by numerous other buildings, including restaurants, as well as an amusement park or two.