Temple of Heaven — Ancient Imperial Sacrificial Building Complex of Ming and Qing

Qi'nian Dian on the Qigu Altar of the Temple of Heaven or Tiantan in Beijing

Qi'nian Dian on the Qigu Altar of the Temple of Heaven or Tiantan in Beijing, Photo from Official Site of Tiantan Park.

What is the Temple of Heaven?

 

Temple of Heaven was a sacred place of emperors of the Ming (1368 — 1644) and Qing (1636 — 1912) Dynasties to hold sacrificial ceremonies to the heaven, a masterpiece with exceptional cultural and architectural values. 

 

Today, it is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage as a representative of the imperial heaven worship altar in ancient China, and the existing largest building complex to offer sacrifices to heaven in the world.

 
Ancient Building Complex of the Temple of Heaven or Tiantan

Ancient Building Complex of the Temple of Heaven, Photo from Official Site of Tiantan Park.

What's the relationship between Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, and other imperial sacrificial temples? 

 

The Forbidden City in the center of Beijing, built from 1406 to 1420, was the imperial palace for emperors to work and live.

 

Surrounding the Forbidden City, there are five altars for emperors to hold imperial sacrificial ceremonies, based on Yin-Yang and Five Elements theory.   

 
Exquisite Roof Decorations (Tianhua and Zaojing) of Qi'nian Dian of the Temple of Heaven

Exquisite Roof Decorations (Tianhua and Zaojing) of Qi'nian Dian of the Temple of Heaven, Photo by Wang Qiong.

  • Temple of Heaven (or Tian Tan) on the southeast, constructed in 1420, was the place to worship the heaven on Winter Solstice;

 

  • Temple of Agriculture (or Xiannong Tan) on the southwest, constructed in 1420, to worship Shennong the Deity of Agriculture in early spring;

 

  • Temple of Earth (or Di Tan) on the north, constructed in 1530, to worship the earth on Summer Solstice;

 

  • Temple of Sun (or Ri Tan) on the east, constructed in 1530, to worship the sun on Spring Equinox;

 

  • Temple of Moon (or Yue Tan) on the west, constructed in 1530, to worship the moon on Autumn Equinox.

Yuanqiu or Circular Mound Altar of the Temple of Heaven

Yuanqiu or Circular Mound Altar of the Temple of Heaven, Photo from Official Site of Tiantan Park.

Of all these five sacrificial temples, the Temple of Heaven was the most sacred. 

 

Therefore, the Temple of Heaven (2,730,000 square meters) is about 4 times bigger than the Forbidden City (720,000 square meters) and is located in the southeast of the Forbidden City, which according to the ancient masterpiece I Ching, is the brightest place with the most Yang power.

Memorial Tablet of Huangtian Shangdi or Haotian Shangdi on Main Hall of Temple of Heaven

At Noon of Winter Solstice, Sunlight Would Shine on the Memorial Tablet of Huangtian Shangdi or Haotian Shangdi, the Paramount Deity in ancient Chinese culture that Enshrined on Main Hall of Temple of Heaven. 

History of Temple of Heaven.

 

Under the command of the Yongle Emperor, the Temple of Heaven and Earth (or Tiandi Tan) was constructed in the year 1420, to offer sacrifices to heaven and earth.

 

Later, Jiajing Emperor insisted that heaven and earth should be worshipped separately, according to ancient rituals.

 

So from 1530 to 1534, he changed the altar's name to Temple of Heaven and did some renovations, to offer sacrifice to heaven and pray for good harvests.

 

Meanwhile, he commanded to build the Temple of Earth on the north to exclusively worship the earth.

 
Qi'nian Dian or Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest of the Temple of Heaven Under the Moon

Qi'nian Dian or Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest of the Temple of Heaven Under the Moon, Photo from Official Site of Tiantan Park.

Centuries later, Qianlong Emperor in 1751 changed the main hall's name and renovated and expanded the Temple of Heaven several times. 

 

In 1900, Eight-Nation Alliance occupied the Temple of Heaven, caused damages to buildings and ancient plants, and took away many valuable ritual relics preserved there. 

 

After the Qing Dynasty ended in 1912, the Temple of Heaven gradually opened to the public, and more resources have been invested to preserve these masterpieces in recent decades. 

 

In 1998, it was inscribed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage, as a perfect combination of exceptional architectures and landscape, of sacred ancient rites and modern leisure activities. 

Symbolism and cosmology in the layout and architectural designs of the Temple of Heaven.

 

Temple of Heaven has two main altars: Yuanqiu in the south to worship heaven, and Qigu in the north to pray for good harvests. 

 

The inner wall of Yuanqiu is a circle and the inner wall of Qigu is a square, together they represent the ancient Chinese cosmology, the Round Heaven and Square Earth. 

 
Aerial Photography of Temple of Heaven, the Yuanqiu Altar in the south and Qigu Altar in the north

Yuanqiu Altar in the South and Qigu Altar in the North in Aerial Photography of Temple of Heaven, Photo from Jizheng/Longhang Aerial.

Danbiqiao or Vermilion Steps Bridge

These two altars are connected by Danbiqiao or Vermilion Steps Bridge, three paths on the bridge are designed for deities (in the middle), emperors (in the east), and officials (in the west) to walk during the grand ceremony.

Vermilion Steps Bridge or Danbi Qiao of the Temple of Heaven

Danbiqiao or Vermilion Steps Bridge of the Temple of Heaven, Photo from Official Site of Tiantan Park.

Yuanqiu or Circular Mound Altar

 

Yuanqiu, or Circular Mound Altar for emperors to offer sacrifice to heaven on Winter Solstice, has three marble layers that represent heaven, earth, and human. 

 

Every layer has 9 stairs in each direction, and the numbers of railings and plates of each layer are 9 or multiple of 9. 

 

Because according to I Ching (or Book of Changes), 9 is the largest number (or the largest single digit) of Yang, hence the representative of heaven, paramount power, and majesty of emperors.

 

In ancient Chinese mythology, there are 9 layers of heaven (in Chinese named Jiu Chong Tian).

Yuanqiu or Circular Mound Altar of the Temple of Heaven

Yuanqiu or Circular Mound Altar of the Temple of Heaven

Tianxinshi or Celestial Heart Stone or Heart of Heaven

 

In the center of the top layer is Celestial Heart Stone, or Heart of Heaven (in Chinese is Tianxinshi), the place emperors would stand during worship ceremonies to heaven. 

 

When standing on the stone and speaking, echoes from all sides would make the emperor's voice loud and clear and feel like the whole world is responding at the same time.

Celestial Heart Stone or Heart of Heaven (in Chinese is Tianxinshi) on Top of Yuanqiu Altar of the Temple of Heaven

Tianxinshi or Celestial Heart Stone or Heart of Heaven on Yuanqiu Altar, Photo from Official Site of Tiantan Park. 

Qinian Dian or Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest

 

Qinian Dian, or Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, the major building of the Qigu Altar, was the place where emperors prayed for good harvests in January of Traditional Chinese Calendar

 

Its circular blue roofs represent heaven, and three tiers symbolize heaven, earth, and the secular world;

Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest or Qinian Dian on Qigu Altar of the Temple of Heaven

Qinian Dian or Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest on Qigu Altar of the Temple of Heaven, Photo from yktour.

  • The 4 main pillars in the inner circle represent four seasons;

 

  • The 12 pillars in the middle circle are 12 months of each year, and in the outer circle are 12 shichen (every 2 hours are one shichen in ancient China) of each day;

 

  • The 24 pillars of middle and outer circles represent 24 Solar Terms;

 

Section View of Qinian Dian, or Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, of the Temple of Heaven

Section View of Qinian Dian, or Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, of the Temple of Heaven, Picture from Li Qianlang.

Qixingshi or Seven Star Stones

 

Qixingshi, or Seven Star Stones on the east of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, are placed in the shape of the Big Dipper by Jiajing Emperor in 1530. 

They represent seven peaks of Mount Tai, the sacred mountain where the most accomplished emperors held the holiest heaven worship Fengshan Ceremony.

Centuries later, Qianlong Emperor added another smaller stone there, as the representative of his Manchu ancestor's holy mountain, the Changbai Mountains.

Qixing Shi, or Seven Star Stones, of the Temple of Heaven

Qixingshi, or Seven Star Stones, of the Temple of Heaven, Photo by Li Hengying.

Other buildings and attractions of Temple of Heaven.

 

Imperial Vault of Heaven or Huangqiongyu

 

The Imperial Vault of Heaven, or Huangqiongyu in the north of the Yuanqiu Altar, firstly constructed in 1530 and renovated in 1752, was to enshrine memorial tablets of deities that were worshipped in the ceremony. 

 
Huangqiongyu or Imperial Vault of Heaven of the Temple of Heaven

Huangqiongyu or Imperial Vault of Heaven of the Temple of Heaven, Photo from Official Site of Tiantan Park.

Echo Wall or Huiyinbi

 

Echo Wall, or Huiyinbi, is the enclosing wall of the Imperial Vault of Heaven. 

 

Inside the Echo Wall are Three Echo Stones (Sanyinshi) and Dialogue Stone (Duihuashi), together they produced a series of fascinating acoustic phenomena, which considered mysterious in ancient times. 

 

Today, science has solved those puzzles about how the stone walls reflect sound waves; however, hearing someone's whispers from far away and trying different echoes are still interesting to experience. 

Part of Echo Wall of the Temple of Heaven

Part of Echo Wall of the Temple of Heaven, Photo by Tiankong.

Hall of Abstinence or Zhaigong

 

The Hall of Abstinence, or Zhaigong, on the west of the two altars, was constructed in 1420, for emperors to abstain from meat, alcohol, music, sex, three days before the worship ceremony. 

Gate of Hall of Abstinence or Zhaigong of the Temple of Heaven, Photo by yang vision.

Long Corridor

 

According to ancient rites, the Divine Kitchen that prepares sacrificial food should keep a certain distance from the sacred altar.

 

Hence, the Long Corridor of Temple of Heaven that connects the Qigu Altar and Divine Kitchen, as a passageway to transport food to the worship ceremony while making sure everything won't be contaminated by rain, wind, or snow. 

Part of the Long Corridor of the Temple of Heaven

Part of the Long Corridor of the Temple of Heaven

Divine Music Administration or Shenyueshu

 

Divine Music Administration, or Shenyueshu, was the place to practice Taoist music and dances that are performed in worship ceremonies.  

 

It was constructed in 1420 and located on the west side of the Temple of Heaven, the Divine Music Administration was originally managed by professional Taoists during the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) and later changed to officials during the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912). 

Musical Instruments in the Divine Music Administration or Shenyueshu of the Temple of Heaven

Musical Instruments in the Divine Music Administration or Shenyueshu of the Temple of Heaven