Recommended visiting time: 2 hours
Highlights: the largest altar complex in China; one of the world’s most unique architectural structures
What is the purpose of the Temple of Heaven? ̶ people may ask.
The Temple of Heaven was a special altar for the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties to worship heaven (in winter), to pray for rain (in summer) and to pray for a good harvest (in spring). It was built in 1420, when the city of Beijing was designated as the capital of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and a full range of palaces were therefore constructed.
With an area of 273 hectares, four times the size of the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven is the largest group of altar architecture in China and has been considered a masterpiece of architecture that is unparalleled in the world. This page will show you some details about the grand Temple of Heaven.
Unique Layout and Architecture of the Temple of Heaven
Guide Map of the Temple of Heaven
The layout of the Temple of Heaven is in the shape of a Chinese character, “回”. The architecture of the temple represents two themes: in heaven and on the earth. It is separated into two parts: the outer altar and the inner altar, encircled by two walls respectively.
The 6-meter-high walls constitute a semi-circle in the north and a semi-rectangle in the south, which illustrates the important belief in ancient China that “the heaven is round and the earth is rectangular”. The northern section of the wall is high while the south is low, which means that the heaven is higher and superior to the earth.
All the essential architecture within the Temple of Heaven was built along the north-south central axis of the inner altar. The inner and outer altars are linked by the 360-meter-long Danbi Bridge (丹陛桥), on both sides of which is a large area of cypress forest.
Main Buildings of the Temple of Heaven
Built as a place of worship, the temple is different from any other imperial structures. It uses a combination of subtle figures to construct a sacred place of “oneness of heaven and humanity”, for Chinese emperors to “communicate with the gods” hundreds of years ago.
The main buildings in the temple are in the inner altar, lined up along the north-south axis. All the palaces and altars are rounded to the south to symbolize heaven. Here we’ll discuss the four most representative and striking buildings of the Temple of Heaven.
1. Circular Mound Altar (圜丘坛)
Circular Mound Altar (Yuan Qiu Tan) is the place where the emperor held a winter ceremony to worship the heavens. Built in 1530, the whole altar is an open-air three-story round stone terrace with white marble panels.
Standing on the round stone in the middle of the uppermost layer of the altar, your voice will sound loud even if you whisper. Therefore, when the emperor spoke there, his loud voice was like the one from heaven, making the ceremony solemn and mysterious.
People in ancient times believed that the number 9 was the extreme of all positive numbers, which meant supreme power. They believed that the emperor was the Son of Heaven, so the entire Circular Mound Altar used a multiple of 9 to represent the authority of the emperor. All the numbers of the decorations of the altar, like slates and steps, are 9 or multiples of 9, implying the imperial throne.
2. Imperial Vault of Heaven (皇穹宇)
Also built in 1530, the Imperial Vault of Heaven (Huang Qiong Yu) was the venue to consecrate the gods of the Circular Mound Altar, where the spirit tablets were stored and used in the worship of the heavens.
It is a round, single spire structure with a sliding roof. The roof is covered with blue glazed tiles, symbolizing the sky. With 15.6 meters in diameter and 19.02 meters in height, the main hall is supported by 8 golden columns and 8 eave columns. The three-story sunk panels are ingeniously layered and constructed.
3. Echo Hall (回音壁)
The Echo Wall is the enclosure of the Imperial Vault of Heaven. With a height of 3.72 meters, the wall is built of brick and covered with blue glazed tiles. The radian of the wall is very regular and the surface is extremely smooth, which helps the refraction of sound waves. If two people stand against the wall in the east and west respectively and speak northward, they can make the other hear clearly even when whispering. The drawn-out sound creates the mysterious atmosphere of “interaction between heaven and mankind”, hence it’s called the “Echo Wall”.
4. Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest (祈年殿)
Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest
In the northern part of the Temple of Heaven, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest was originally constructed in 1420. It is the main building within the temple, and the earliest and most worthwhile one to visit. The emperors in ancient times worshipped heaven there every year, praying for favorable weather and good harvest.
The building is 32 meters in diameter and 38 meters in height. It is a circular hall with triple eaves and a golden dome, supported by 28 nanmu pillars. The eaves are covered with blue glazed tiles, also symbolizing the sky.
Heaven Worship Ceremony
Temple of Heaven in Winter
Heaven Worship was the most solemn ritual of the Chinese, which originated some 5,000 years ago. It was a form of “communication” between mankind and heaven.
The ceremony was usually presided over by the “Son of Heaven”. In ancient China, emperors were regarded as the Sons of Heaven, who represented humans to offer sacrifices to heaven, expressing gratitude for the nourishment of nature, and asking God to bless the Chinese people.
The Temple of Heaven, as the name suggests, was built for these ceremonies, mostly including prayers for good harvest. The main ceremony was at the Winter Solstice. It had to be strictly organized and perfectly completed, otherwise it would turn into a bad omen for the whole nation in the coming year.
Today’s Temple of Heaven – an Experience You Should Not Miss
Morning Exercise at Temple of Heaven
The Temple of Heaven is often likened to the lungs of Beijing because of the luxuriant greenery in the park. The park is a very popular place where local people, the elderly and retired in particular, gather to practice tai chi, to play Chinese chess and cards, mahjong, Chinese musical instruments such as the erhu, and to sing. It is a good place to experience the local life of Beijing.