Built during the Ming dynasty, Tiantan, commonly called the Temple of Heaven, is one of the largest temple complexes in China and a model of Chinese architectural balance and symbolism. It was here that the emperor, after a ceremonial procession from the Forbidden City, would make sacrifices and pray to heaven at the winter solstice. As the Son of Heaven, the emperor could intercede with the gods on behalf of his people and ensure a good harvest. Off-limits to the common people during the Ming and Qing dynasties, the Temple of Heaven is situated in a large park that now attracts early-morning practitioners of Tai Chi.
LAYOUT OF THE TEMPLE OF HEAVEN
The temple is replete with cosmological significance. All the major structures lie on the favored north-south axis. The ancient Chinese saying “sky round, Earth square” is represented by the interplay of squares and circles. Heaven is suggested in the round, conical roofing and the blue tiles of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and the Imperial Vault of Heaven. The Round Altar symbolizes heaven, while Earth is there in its square enclosure. Also important is numerology, with odd numbers being the most fortunate, hence the triple eaves of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and the Round Altar’s three tiers.
CEREMONIES AND RITES
The emperor would perform the ceremonies at the Temple of Heaven following natural disasters, which required the appeasement of heaven, or to ensure rain and good harvests. After fasting for three days, he would be conveyed in a spectacular procession from the Forbidden City to spend the night before the sacrifice in the Palace of Abstinence. The next day, before dawn, he would be ceremonially robed. Then, proceeding north to south, with sacred music and dance, he would ascend the Round Altar to burn a freshly killed ox and bundles of silk before an array of wooden spirit tablets (shenpai), including those of his ancestors, who were thus also “participating.”
THE LAST CEREMONY
Observed by China’s emperors since the Zhou dynasty (1100-771 BC), the winter solstice rites at the Temple of Heaven were last performed by the first president of the Republic of China, General Yuan Shikai (1859-1916). Yuan had helped modernize the Chinese army and, as the head of such a force, could easily ask for positions of influence in return for his and the army’s support. Once he was made president, he aimed to install himself as emperor and reestablish an imperial dynasty. He performed the ceremony at the Temple of Heaven in 1914, clearly asserting his imperial ambitions. However, despite donning the appropriate robes, he failed to achieve the traditional majesty of the occasion by arriving in an armored car.
HALL OF PRAYER FOR GOOD HARVESTS
The Qinian Dian, or Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, is the most famous structure at the complex and is often thought to be the “Temple of Heaven.” In fact, Tiantan refers not to one building, but to the whole complex.
Dragon and Phoenix Motifs
Used inside and out, these represent the emperor and empress.
These often copied the calligraphy of an emperor.
Three tiers of marble form a circle 300 ft (90 m) in diameter and 20ft (6 m) high. The balustrades on the upper tier are carved with dragons to signify the imperial nature of the structure.
Dragon Well Pillars
The roofs of the hall are supported on 28 highly decorated pillars. At the center, the four colossal columns known as Dragon Well Pillars represent the seasons, while the outer 12 pillars represent the months of the year. The inner circle of 12 pillars represents the 12 two-hour periods into which the Chinese divided the day.
The splendidly decorated, circular caisson ceiling has a beautiful gilded dragon and phoenix at its center.
Sitting atop the temple, the finial is 125ft (38m) high and prone to lightning strikes.
The Center of Heaven Stone
The Center of Heaven Stone at the heart of the Round Altar
This Ming emperor ruled from 1403 to 1424 and was responsible not only for moving the capital from Nanjing to Beijing, but also for starting work on the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, and the Ming Tombs.
TEMPLE OF HEAVEN COMPLEX
The main parts of the complex are all connected by the Red Step Bridge (an elevated ceremonial path) to form the focal point of the park. The doorways at each triple gate are for the emperor (east), the gods (center), and the officials (west). The circular Echo Wall is famous for its supposed ability to carry a whisper from one end of the wall to the other.
1420: Qinian Diari is built. It is originally called the “Temple of Earth and Heaven.”
1530: The Round Altar is constructed by Emperor Shizong.
1889: Qinian Dian burns down after a lightning strike.
1918: The Temple of Heaven is opened to the public.
1998: UNESCO inscribes the Temple of Heaven onto the World Heritage List.