THE TEMPLE OF HEAVEN IS THE LARGEST COMPLEX OF IMPERIAL SACRIFICIAL BUILDINGS:
In the days of ancient China, where the emperor is regarded as the Son of Heaven bearing heavenly authority, the Temple of Heaven is a most sacred place, out of bounds to ordinary folks. This huge complex of imperial sacrificial buildings is where the Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties come to make sacrifices and pray for good harvests on behalf of the people.
On our visit to Beijing we see a very different face of the Temple of Heaven. Since the complex was turned into a parkland in 1918, the Temple of Heaven has become a recreational area where locals come to relax and pass the time away in its peaceful atmosphere.
Visiting the Temple of Heaven
We arrive at the Temple of Heaven via the East Gate and a short walk brings us to the Long Corridor where groups of women play cards and the men play are absorbed in their game of Chinese checkers.
This 30-metre Long Corridor hasn’t always been an open breezy space. During the Ming-Qing era, it is an enclosed passageway housing 72 adjoining rooms which share a common back wall, roof and eave, hence its name the Seventy-Two Connected Rooms. The Long Corridor connect the Animal-Killing Pavilion, the Divine Kitchen and the Divine Warehouse.
This is where ceremonial rituals used to take place. On the eve of any sacrificial ceremony, the corridor is lit up by lanterns and all the offerings of food, grains, silk, etc. are brought to the altars along the Long Corridor. Today there is not a trace of the Long Corridor’s past sacrificial function.
A Complex of Altars and Halls Rich in Symbolism
The Temple of Heaven was originally built in 1420 by the Ming Emperor Yongle and it has been subsequently expanded upon during the Qing dynasty. Entry to the Temple is through the Temple of Heaven Entrance Gate.
Its grounds cover 2.73 sq kms of parkland and there are three main groups of buildings: The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Circular Mound Altar. The shapes of the various sacrificial buildings and their layout are rich in symbolism as they are set according to strict philosophical requirements, which we see examples of even during our short visit.
For the time that we have, we visit the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests which is the most important of all the buildings. This is where the Emperor prays in early spring for good weather and harvest for his people. The circular shape of the building is a symbol of heaven, as is the dark blue roof tiles.
The four inner pillars of this Hall represent the four seasons. The twelve middle and twelve outer pillars represent the twelve months and twelve traditional Chinese hours respectively and together they represent the traditional solar term. Inside the hall, on the ceiling, is a single golden dragon representing the emperor. We arrive at the Hall just a little after the 4 pm cutoff time, so unfortunately we do not have a good shot of the ceiling.
The circular Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is built of wood and is fascinating because not a single nail is used. The original building was struck by lightning and burned down in 1889 and this reconstructed hall has been standing since the late 1800s.
Extensive and Well Used Park
The extensive surrounding park is well used by the locals and depending on what time you visit, you may see people practising taichi, choral shows and ethnic dances.
In one corner of the garden we discover a group of musicians and singers having a great time singing opera music and Chinese classics and the people standing around all join in.
The Temple of Heaven, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, is also a popular spot for wedding and film photography and we are lucky to catch a photographic session with this beautiful model dressed in imperial splendour.
Map of Beijing