The Temple of Heaven is a worthwhile visiting place in Beijing. It is much bigger than the Forbidden City and smaller than the Summer Palace . The inner walled area that houses the main structures covers 275 Hectares (2.75 million square meters). Indeed, it is the largest group of constructions for worship in the world.
The Temple was built in 1420 A.D. during the Ming Dynasty to offer sacrifice to Heaven and pray for good harvests.. As Chinese emperors called themselves ‘The Son of Heaven’ ,they dared not to build their own dwelling, ‘Forbidden City’ bigger than a dwelling for Heaven.
The Temple of Heaven was originally established as the Temple of Heaven and Earth, but was given its current name during the reign of Ming Emperor JiaJing (1522-1567), who built separate complexes for the earth, sun and moon.
Architecture and Layout
The architecture and layout of the Temple of Heaven is based on elaborate symbolism and numerology.
In accordance with principles dating back to pre-Confucian times, the buildings in the Temple of Heaven are round, like Heaven (one can imagine the sky as like a rounded dome), while the foundations and axes of the complex are square (or 2 dimensional – that is, flat), like the earth (appears to be).
Thus, the buildings and their settings reflect ancient Chinese religious beliefs that imagine heaven as round and earth as square. The main buildings in the Temple of Heaven are constructed on a central north-south axis. The altar and temple are round and sit within square shaped areas.
The symbolism at the Temple of Heaven was necessary because it served as the place where the emperor, as the ‘Son of Heaven’, directly beseeched Heaven to provide a bountiful harvest throughout the land. This was of great importance because during the imperial period agriculture was the foundation of China’s wealth.
A bi-annual procession consisting of thousands of eunuchs and ministers, plus the emperor (the Son of Heaven), would make its way from the Forbidden City to the Temple of Heaven. Ordinary citizens were not allowed to watch, or even see, the procession.
Among the gods worshiped at the Temple of Heaven originally were the god of earth, the god of water, the god of agriculture (who has his own hall – the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests), the god of the military, the god of religion and the god of civilians.
Offering sacrifices was a serious task – the entire empire relied on the emperor for good fortune and abundant harvests so he had quite a responsibility. News of the ceremony was then disseminated throughout China.
The Temple of Heaven, with its ancient cosmological basis, in turn helped to reinforce the legitimacy of the emperor’s role as head of a feudal system with a mandate from Heaven. In showing respect to Heaven through prayer and sacrifices, the emperor effectively emphasized the source of his authority.
The Temple of Heaven Today
The Temple of Heaven has been converted into a park that is popular both with tourists and residents alike.The park was first opened to the public in 1912 and commoners who had previously been banned from even watching the emperor’s procession pass through the city to Tiantan, were now permitted to visit the Temple of Heaven themselves.
The Temple of Heaven is a delightful and exquisite place to spend some time. Arrive in the early morning to watch the TaiChi experts, although the park is lively all day and into the evening with kite flyers, musicians, singers, dancers and games players (from badmington to chinese chess).