Temple of Heaven — Ancient Imperial Sacrificial Building Complex of Ming and Qing Dynasties
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 for emperors of the Ming (1368 — 1644) and Qing (1636 — 1912) Dynasties to hold sacrificial ceremonies to heaven, a masterpiece with exceptional cultural and architectural values.
Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site 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, 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.
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, built 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, built 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, Photo from Official Site of Tiantan Park.
Of all these five sacrificial temples, the Temple of Heaven was the most sacred.
Throughout history, Chinese Emperors have been respected as "Son of Heaven", who were obliged to rule the country by the Mandate of Heaven.
The "Heaven" is Haotian Shangdi.
From Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC) to the last feudal empire Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912), worshiping heaven had been the most important and grandest imperial sacrificial ceremony, which was held exclusively by emperors.
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.
At Noon of Winter Solstice, Sunlight Would Shine on the Memorial Tablet of Haotian Shangdi, the Paramount Deity in ancient Chinese culture that is Enshrined in the Main Hall of the 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 in the north to exclusively worship the earth.
Qi'nian Dian or Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest Under the Moon, Photo from Official Site of Tiantan Park.
Centuries later in 1751, Qianlong Emperor changed the main hall's name and renovated and expanded the temple complex several times.
In 1900, Eight-Nation Alliance occupied the Temple of Heaven, caused damage to buildings and ancient plants, and took away many valuable ritual relics preserved there.
After the Qing Dynasty ended in 1912, this imperial sacrificial altar 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 architecture and landscape, sacred ancient rites, and modern leisure activities.
Symbolism and Cosmology In Layout and Designs
An important idea of ancient Chinese cosmology is the Round Heaven and Square Earth.
Temple of Heaven has two main altars: Yuanqiu in the south to worship heaven, and Qigu in the north to pray for good harvests.
Hence, the inner wall of Yuanqiu is a circle representing heaven, and the inner wall of Qigu is a square representing the earth.
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.
Danbiqiao or Vermilion Steps Bridge, 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.
Tianxinshi or Celestial Heart Stone or Heart of Heaven
In the center of the top layer is the 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.
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 the Traditional Chinese Calendar.
Its circular blue roofs represent heaven, and three tiers symbolize heaven, earth, and the secular world;
Qinian Dian or Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest on Qigu Altar, 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, 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.
Centuries later, Qianlong Emperor added another smaller stone there, as the representative of his Manchu ancestor's holy mountain, the Changbai Mountains.
Qixingshi or Seven Star Stones, 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, 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 were 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 or Huiyinbi, 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, and sex, three days before the worship ceremony.
Gate of Hall of Abstinence or Zhaigong, Photo by yang vision.
According to ancient rites, the Divine Kitchen that prepares sacrificial food should keep a certain distance from the sacred altar.
Hence, the Long Corridor that connects the Qigu Altar and Divine Kitchen, is 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
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.
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