The Temple of Heaven was used by Emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties to worship Heaven, offer sacrifices and pray for good harvests and favourable rain. The architecture in the Temple of Heaven is amazing, it’s history enthralling and it’s cultural significance profound. A must see attraction for anyone visiting Beijing.
Purpose & Function
Throughout China’s history from the unification of China in 221 BE by the King of Qin to the fall of the last emperor Yuan Shikai in 1916, China’s emperors were referred to as the son’s of heaven. The emperor was heaven’s representative on earth and administered earth on behalf of the gods. Part of the emperors duties as the son of heaven was showing respect to the gods by making sacrifices to heaven.
The Temple of Heaven was built so the emperor could make sacrifices to heaven and pray for the god’s benevolence. Two key ceremonies were held at the Temple of Heaven on the Winter solstice and in Spring when the emperor, the court and Beijing’s royal A list would dress in their Sunday finest, leave the Forbidden City and travel to the Temple of Heaven where they would set up camp for the ceremonies duration.
Agriculture was the foundation of wealth in imperial China so praying for good harvest was believed to be very beneficial. If harvest were bad, the stability of the emperor’s reign would be threatened so annual trips to the Temple of Heaven, like visits to the in-laws, could not be avoided. You can be sure that after a bad year, the emperor’s prayers would be very passionate and fervent.
The temple was built from 1406 to 1420 by Emperor Yong Le of the Ming Dynasty who died four years after construction was complete. When the temple was built it was called the Temple of Heaven and Earth. Later in the 16th century a Ming Emperor Jia Jiang built the Temple of Earth in the north of Beijing so the Temple of Heaven and Earth had to be renamed as the Temple of Heaven.
The Temple of Heaven was renovated and extended in the 16th century and renovated again in the 18th century by the Emperor Qianlong.
In 1900 a group of foreign nations that included USA and the UK took over the Temple of Heaven and used it as a headquarters for a year during the ill fated Boxer Rebellion. Later in 1918 the Temple was turned into a park and opened to the public for the first time in history. In recognition of the temple’s unique architecture and key role in China’s history, UNESCO listed it as a world heritage site in 1998.
As the son of heaven, the emperor was not able to make his home bigger than the symbolic home for heaven so the Temple of heaven covers 2.73 square kilometres which is over three times larger than the Forbidden City. The Temple of Heaven itself is divided into two parts, the inner temple and the outer temple. The outer temple is mainly heavily wooded parkland that is now used by Beijing locals for recreation and sport. If you visit the temple early in the morning, you will see many people out and about enjoying themselves in the outer temple parkland.
The inner temple is built on a straight line running from north to south and holds the temple’s main buildings which are the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, the Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Circular Mound Alter.
Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest (Qinian Dian)
You can see from the map that the part of the temple holding the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest is enclosed by a wall. The northern part of the wall that holds the hall is circular which symbolizes heaven and the southern part of the wall is square which symbolizes earth that ancient Chinese believed to be square. Very similar to the European belief at the time that the world was flat!
The hall is 38.2 meters high, has a diameter of 24.2 meters and built on a raised 3 tier marble terrace with eight stairways. The terrace elevates the temple to show that heaven is high and earth is low. The hall and was used during the Spring ceremony to pray for bumper harvest.
The hall was first built in 1420 as a rectangular hall called “Great Hall of Sacrificial Rituals”. It was rebuilt in 1545 and named “Great Hall of Offering Sacrifices”. Keeping the same basic design, it was rebuilt again in 1751 and named the “Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest.
Imperial Hall of Heaven
The Imperial Hall of Heaven is just north of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest. This hall is often called the Heavenly warehouse because it stored the stone tablet of “the God of Heaven” and the tablets of the Emperor’s ancestors. The tablets were transferred to the Hall of Prayer for rituals and ceremonies then returned again at the end.
On the day of ceremonies the emperor would come here to burn incense and pay respect to his ancestors before officials from the ministry of rituals transferred the tablets to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest.