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Temple of Heaven 

Set in the southern section of Beijing, the Temple of Heaven is the centre of imperial ritual ceremony for Ming and Qing Dynasties. First built in the 18th year of Emperor Yongle of Ming Dynasty, and renovated during the rein of Emperor Qianlong, the Temple of Heaven is a masterpiece of ancient architecture.

The complex covers an area of 2.73 million square metres, stretching in the east-west axis 1,700 metres and in the south-north axis 1,600. Only a small portion of the premises is taken by halls and altars, leaving most of the space for vegetation. The dark green foliage decorates the compound, painting it in noble tinges.

Worship of Heaven and Earth by emperors, sons of Heaven, has a long history in China. Historic records date this sacrificial ceremony, a combination of natural religion and aristocratic political philosophy, to Xia Dynasty 2,000 years ago. Heaven-Earth worship occupied a conspicuous place in the political life of ancient China. Architectures for rituals usually dominated in the capital cities, representing the most advanced architecture and arts. The Temple of Heaven serves as a best example of the ancient ritual institution.

Taishan Mountain

The Taishan Mountain was the only altar for Heaven-Earth worship during the early ages of classical China. The ceremony, almost the most important for the state, was conducted with grave piety. Even emperors, the only candidates for its priesthood, did not all have the chance to do the worship, a sacred deed which required the noblest majesty of the great king, whose rein was approved by the Heaven through auspicious revelations. Aristocrats of lower ranks were only allowed to worship at local mountains within their feudalities. In spite of all importance attached to the ceremony, the heavy cost incurred by almost every emperor who did this was something a prudent leader could not afford to ignore. Emperor Taizong of Tang Dynasty is one of the rulers who would rather curtail rituals. He believed an emperor was a noble leader if he made his people prosper and he would lose the allegiance of his subjects if he led his country into poverty and war. Worship was a rather irrelevant issue.

Temple of Heaven and Earth & Seven-Star Stone Group

Few emperors since Emperor Zhenzong of Song dynasty continued to perform this costly ceremony at Taishan Mountain. When Emperor Chengzu of Ming Dynasty had the Temple of Heaven and Earth built in 1420 in Beijing, the capital of his empire, worship of heaven and earth began to be conducted here. But the Taishan Mountain remained the virtual holy land of the ceremony. The “Seven-Star Stone Group”, set on the east of Qiniandian, Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, symbolizes the seven peaks of Taishan Mountain.

Emperor Qianlong of Qing Dynasty

Most of Chinese institutions were carried on when the Manchu nomadic tribesmen took China and established Qing Dynasty. The new empire reached its prime time during the rein of Emperor Qianlong, who then desired to rebuild the Temple of Heaven. The outer and inner clay walls of the complex were reinforced with bricks and made thicker. The new walls are over five kilometers long.

Circular Mound Altar of Heaven

The Temple of Heaven has two altars, namely, the Circular Mound Alter of Heaven and the Altar of Prayer for Harvest. The walls make two rectangles, one within the other.

The outer wall can be penetrated only from the west, through the Circular Mound Altar Gate and Altar of Prayer Gate. Four gates are opened in the inner wall in four directions. Within the compound there are altars and meditation hall. The unique features of the Temple of Heaven, apart from the Circular Mound Altar and the Altar of Prayer, are the Meditation Hall and Imperial Music Studio.

The Meditation Hall is on the south within the west gate. This is where the emperor meditated before he proceeded to worship the Heaven and pray for harvest. A simpler version of the palace in the Forbidden City, the Mediation Hall is surrounded with inner and outer walls, with watch boxes at the four corners and a bell tower at the northeast. The bell rang every time the emperor came and left.

Bell Tower

According to the Records of Rites, one of the orthodox Confucian classics, the temple of heaven must be built at the southern suburb of the capital, the locality of yang and ground bing. It takes some knowledge of Chinese geographical and cosmological references such as yin and yang, Celestial Stems and Terrestrial Branches in order to understand the terms used in the location.

The ancients referred to outskirts five kilometers beyond the boundary of the capital as suburban area. The Temple of Heaven is within this specified suburb, less than 3.5 kilometres from the city centre.

And according to Zhouyi, or the Book of Changes, the ancient manual for divination, south is the location of yang, the masculine, positive principle of universe, as opposed to yin, the feminine, passive force. Therefore the Temple of Heaven should be located in the south.

Both the eastern and the southern suburb of Beijing were considered the location of yang, but the southern suburb was ruled out as the improper location, being charged of yin in the relative locality with the southeast. And the southeast corresponds with bing, the third character in the ten celestial stems, where all elements of yang concentrates. No better place for the temple of Heaven can be found than here.

In the 24th year of Jiajing, the emperor built the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest on the site of a deserted palace for the rituals of harvest prayer every year in the first lunar month and prayer for rain in the summer. The two ceremonies, combined with the worship of Heaven conducted on the Circular Mound Altar, made the three major ritual ceremonies of the Temple of Heaven. And the complex became what it is like today after Emperor Jiajing’s construction.

Circular Mound Altar of Heaven

What the Temple of Heaven refers to, actually, is the Circular Mound Altar alone and doesn’t include the Hall of Prayer for Harvest, which served, as its name suggests, the rituals for good year. But people gradually used the Temple of Heaven, the name for the Circular Mound Altar, as the general term for the whole complex. The designs bear features of typical Chinese architecture. The northern part within the walls is semicircular and the southern part square, representing the ancient cosmology in which the heaven was considered round and the earth, flat.

The notion of round heaven can be seen everywhere at the Temple of Heaven. The ground plans of major buildings are all circular in shape, the altar, the roof of the hall, etc. One is reminded of the circle of life and the boundless vitality.

You strongly feel the sovereignty of Heaven, and the divine nature of monarchy, which, as the Temple of Heaven architecture gives you such impression, derived its justification from on high. An asserted derivative relation between the divine power and the secular power ensured the allegiance of the subjects to the rulers.

The architecture also bears the influence of ancient philosophy and the aristocratic hierarchy.

The Hall of Prayer for Harvest, the greatest building in both magnitude and height, is the heart of the complex. Dedicated to Heaven, the hall is surmounted by a

Triple-tiered roof, made of blue-glazed tiles, representing the Heaven. The roof is even one tier higher than the Taihedian, the central palace in the Forbidden City.

When the Hall of Prayer was first built, the tiles of its roof were in different colors. The top tier was blue, representing the Heaven; the middle tier was yellow, representing the emperor, son of Heaven; the lowest tier was green, representing the people and all other things under the sovereignty of Heaven and the emperor.

The design of the Hall of Prayer imitates the style of ancient royal palace, supported by four main dragon pillars, representing the four seasons. The 12 interior posts represent the 12 months and the outer ring, composed of 12 pillars, represent the 12 two-hour periods of a day. The 24 pillars together represent the 24 solar terms of a year which served as the guideline for agriculture. The ancient Chinese attached great importance to agriculture.

Making full use of the spacious interior of the Hall of Prayer, architects decorated the pillars with dragon-alga patterns.

Pillars decorated with dragon-alga patterns

The Hall of Prayer for Harvest is so great a masterpiece of Chinese architecture that an Italian visitor marveled at its “perfect structure and brilliant colors that are fascinating.”

Vermilion Steps Bridge

The Vermilion Steps Bridge with 360 metres long, 30 metres wide and 4 metres high, connects the two altars and the intermediate buildings, the Imperial Hall of Heaven and the Imperial Vault of Heaven.

Walking along the straight, broad Bridge, which leads through the thick groves of pine trees to the sacred Circular Mound Altar, you feel as if you were involved in the ancient worship ceremony.

“Prostrated be you to the Earth Worship the Heaven in the grove.”

The Circular Mound Altar was built in accordance with the instructions of Zhouli, the Rites of Zhou. The triple-tiered terrace is made of rocks from Fangshan County of Beijing. The three rings of railings are carved out of white marbles. In the centre of the altar is a circular “celestial heart stone’.

Celestial Heart Stone

Numerologists will be interested in certain patterns revealed in the temple’s architecture. The flagstones on the upper terrace are arranged in concentric circles in multiples of nine. Nine was considered the number of yang force, which concentrated where the altar is set. There are nine stairs. The first circle has nine stones, the second 18, and so on to a total of 81 in the ninth circle.

Seen from the Zhaoheng Gate in the south, people on the altar stand so high that they seem to be walking in heaven.

Circular Echo Wall, Three Echo Stones, Celestial Heart Stone

The Circular Echo Wall and the Three Echo Stones in the Imperial Vault of Heaven, and the Celestial Heart Stone on the altar, are best known for the fascinating acoustic oddities they display. Still more fascinating, however, may be the Walkie-Talkie stones.

Two persons standing far apart on the Walkie-Talkie Stones can hear each other easily with the circular Echo Wall transmitting their sounds. The Imperial Vault of Heaven was originally known as Taishen, the Great Divine Hall. But it soon got its present name for perhaps more splendid royal ostentations. We tried and spoke to each other far apart and experienced the acoustic oddities of the Walkie-Talkie Stones.

China enjoyed the reputation of “nation of rites”. Ceremonies conducted at the Temple of Heaven were strictly regulated by ancient institutions and they serve as the best example of these institutions.

Being the paramount of the five major rituals prescribed in the Rites of Zhou, worship of Heaven played a central role in the nation’s political life.

Qing government had the Ministry of Rites, in charge of all ceremonies and ritual activities. And the ministry had an office under it, taking care of all ceremonies conducted at the Temple of Heaven.

The worship of Heaven was conducted every year on winter solstice. But the preparation for the ceremony began several days in advance when various offices in charge of rites were busy in arranging ritual instruments and furnishings, setting sheds for sacrifice, cleaning altars, and slaughtering offers. Meanwhile the emperor would enter the Hall of Abstinence to meditate for three days, during which period his majesty abstained from meat, alcohol and entertainment, set aside execution, left his concubines back in the Forbidden City, and took baths. The procedures were subject to change, however. For fear of assassination, Emperor Yongzheng meditated for the first two days in the Forbidden City and didn’t venture out till the third day of meditation.

Royal Guard of Honour

The emperor emerged from the Forbidden City on the day before winter solstice and, amid his guard of honour, paraded towards the Temple of Heaven. Royal guard of honor traced its origin to the pre-Qin period. It was institutionalized during Tang and Song Dynasties and arrived at its full blossom in Ming and Qing period. A royal guard of honor varies in splendor. The procession which is used for worship of Heaven is the most honorable of all and ranks highest in the ceremonial hierarchy.

In the 13th year of Emperor Qianlong, when his majesty worshiped Heaven at the temple, the royal guard of honor was composed of 3,500 paraders, stretching kilometers long. The parade was proceeded by nine elephants, followed by four captains holding badges. The procession moved with great ceremony, its banners and flags flying in the sky and almost veiling the sunlight.

The emperor dismounted at the Zhaoheng Gate of the temple and, accompanied by ritual officials, inspected the preparation work before he retreated into the Hall of Abstinence. And this is the end of the prologue to the great ceremony of Heaven worship.

The ceremony began at four o’clock in the morning. Accompanied by ten ministers, the emperor ascended onto the altar when the great bell was struck, warning all officials present to stand by at attention.

The ceremony goes through nine steps, each one of them sophisticated.

Burning Sacrifice

The worship began with burning sacrifice, when the official of ceremony chanted and the sacred oven blazed. Then a complete calf, slaughtered for offering, was sacrificed upon the oven.

Sacred Burial

Twelve iron ovens, eight in front of the sacred oven and four at the gates of the altar, served for burning pine tree boughs. The boughs cracked in fire, emitting perfumes that would drove devils away and bear humans’ prayer up to the Heaven. Beside the iron ovens is a sacred tomb. The tail of the calf was to be buried in it together with its blood and fur in memory of the ancestors who gulped raw meat and blood before the invention of fire.

On the Circular Mound Altar the emperor communicated to Heaven what have come to pass in the last year and what he had achieved, confessed his misdeeds and begged for pardon, and beseeched Heaven to be pleased with his sacrifice and to give blessing and grace to this world in the year to come.

The altar was then lighted by three light posts 36 metres high. The dark sky was also lighted as if by premature morning glow. In time of old the emperor gave signals with the lights so that the dukes and princes, far away in their feudalities, knew that his majesty was worshiping Heaven and in piety. Signal lights enlisted all commoners in the capital who saw them into this great ceremony.

The ceremony ended in ancient music and perfumes from burning pine tree boughs.

Such sophisticated ceremony of Heaven worship reached its prime during the rein of Emperor Qianlong. In the 60 years when he was in throne, Emperor Qianlong paid personal visit to the Temple of Heaven 59 times. He used to walk from the Forbidden City to the temple in reverence to Heaven. The emperor curtailed the ceremonies of worship after he was 60 years old, but he didn’t curtail his piety and bade his ministers heed the worship of Heaven and of the Ancestors.

But such a divine service came to an end in 1911 with the dethronement of Emperor Puyi, the last emperor of China. The temple was rendered under the charge of the ministry of domestic affair, still forbidden to ordinary people. But the walls of the temple could not withhold their curiosity. More and more people ventured in to explore the divine altar of Heaven, in spite of official prohibition. Unlawful penetration prompted the government to open the temple to public in 1913. Admission in the first ten days was free. Curious visitors poured into the temple from all directions. Five months later, the Ministry of Domestic Affair made a proposal to open imperial palaces including the Temple of Heaven to public. This popular bill was vetoed by one man, President Quan Shih-kai, who had the abandoned Temple of Heaven in his mind.

On December 23, 1914, Yuan Shih-kai, in Ming costumes and followed by his ministers, visited the Temple of Heaven to worship and “pray for the people”. He bowed and kowtowed unfatigably in the devotion that rivaled that of emperors. But why did an elected president conduct worship at the Temple of Heaven, the imperial altar? People got the answer the next year, when the Congress, controlled by Yuan crowned him as emperor. Yuan Shih-kai assumed the throne January 1,1916, declaring the new Republic Empire of China. The whole nation cried out in protest. And Yuan had to leave the throne 83 day later. He became the last person to perform worship of Heaven at the temple.

Both emperors of ancient China and Yuan Shih-kai of the Republic conducted the ceremony in order to give their authority a divine justification. The social order was determined by the rites prescribed by ancient philosophers, which set distinction between Heaven and humans, ruler and the ruled, father and son, husband and wife. This is what has made the social organism work in the 2,000 years of history.

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