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Visiting the Temple of Heaven

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Visiting the Temple of Heaven

The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests

© 2007 Sara Naumann, licensed to About.com, Inc.

Overview:

Inside a huge park complex, the Temple of Heaven, or Tian Tian Gongyuan in Chinese, is an enjoyable way to spend a leisurely morning or afternoon. The site of imperial offerings and rites to the heavenly gods during Ming and Qing dynastic times, it now offers visitors a view of imperial gardens and interesting architecture. UNESCO listed the Temple of Heaven as a World Cultural Heritage Site in 1998.

Truly unique in layout and architecture, a visit to the Temple of Heaven will stay with you as it will be like nothing you’ve ever seen before. The main buildings are round, painted red on the bottom with intricately painted beams supporting large round blue-tiled roofs.

Location:

The Temple of Heaven is located in southeastern Beijing. Now surrounded by the sprawl of the modern-day capital, the temple lay outside the city proper in imperial times.

History:

Ming emperor Yongle began construction of the temple in 1420, the eighteenth year of his reign. Yongle moved China’s capital from Nanjing to Beijing and modeled the temple on a similar site in Nanjing. The site was rebuilt and expanded in Qing times under emperor Jiaqing in 1530.

The site was used by emperors annually to worship the God of Heaven and pray for good harvests. The first visit took place on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month and the second on the winter solstice. A third visit might be required if the summer saw a drought, the emperor would go and perform rituals to bring on rains.

Since Chinese emperors considered themselves direct descendents from heaven, it was important for them to placate their ancestral home by performing worship rituals.

The Chinese government opened the park to the public in 1918.

Features:

  • Cypress Grove: A grove of over 3,000 cypresses, the oldest of which is 600 years, surrounds the temple complex. Visitors can stroll through the trees, play chase and hide-and-seek with the kids and generally appreciate local Chinese at play and a break from the busy city outside the gates.

    As you move toward the main complex from the cypress grove, you’ll find that the main temples in the park are circular shaped, representing heaven, surrounded by a square wall, representing earth. You’ll find this pattern repeated throughout the complex.

  • The Imperial Vault of Heaven: is a small round building and housed the tablet of the God of Heaven and the emperor’s ancestors tablets. It was built in 1530 as part of Qing emperor Jiaqing’s improvements and rebuilt in 1752.

    Surrounding the buildings is a semi-circular wall called Echo Wall, Huiyinbi. Supposedly if someone whispers something at one end, a person at the other end can clearly hear it. While technically feasible, your guide has never been there on an occasion where there weren’t crowds of tourists doing just that so can’t vouch for the legend’s validity.

    In front of the building is a similar spectacle, the Triple Sound Stone, Sanyinshi. As you step up the stairs toward the building, supposedly your echo will be heard once on the first stair, twice on the second and thrice on the third. For reasons stated above, your guide hasn’t been able to test it, but now you’ll know why there are so many people pausing on each step as they walk toward the hall.

  • Circular Mound Altar: Huanqiutan in Chinese, lies on the south axis of the complex. This was the site of sacrifices on winter solstice. Two walls contain the alter, the first a circle representing heaven, the second a square representing earth.

    The number nine, the supreme odd number in Chinese cosmology, is utilized over and over in the Circular Mound Altar. For example, on the top tier, a round stone called Heaven’s Heart Stone, Tianxingshi, is surrounded by nine concentric circles. It is lucky to stand on the center stone and you’ll have to push your way or wait in a long line of Chinese tourists for a brief chance to stand upon it and have your photo taken.

  • The Red Stairway Bridge: or Dianbiqiao, is a long platform connecting the Circular Mound Altar and the Hall of the Prayer of Good Harvests. It is 30m wide and 360m long and acts as a fairway for tourists walking between the two buildings. It’s breadth and height are impressive and it’s almost possible to imagine Ming and Qing emperors parading along the passage surrounded by an entourage.

  • The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests: or Qiniandian lies to the north of the Red Stairway Bridge. It is the last building you come to on a visit to the temple complex and is probably the most interesting architecturally. Mirroring the circular/square pattern, the round red wooden building supports a three-tiered blue-tiled roof atop of which sits a gilded orb. Impressive in design, the large vault is supported solely by twenty-eight wooden pillars: no beams or nails are used in its construction.

    The hall was first built in 1420 as a rectangular building but in 1530 was replaced with the current circular building.

Getting There:

  • Taxi or public transport (ask your hotel)
  • The main tourist entrance is at the south gate (nan men) so that you end your tour with the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests.

Essentials:

Opening hours: daily 8:30am-4:30pm for sights. The park itself is open 6am-8pm.
Recommended time for visit: half-day so you can enjoy the park grounds as well.

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