Temple of Heaven – Imperial China’s Link to the Celestial

If ever there was a single spot on earth that could sum up the entire traditional Chinese religion, where do you think that spot will be? If ever there was a single spot on earth that, according to traditional Chinese religion, would provide a direct link to the heavens, where do you think that spot will be? Any guesses, anyone?

As the title of this article suggests, that spot would be none other than the Temple of Heaven (天坛Tiāntán) in Beijing.

Covering a total of approximately 660 acres of land including its surrounding parks, the Temple of Heaven is by far the largest religious complex in China dedicated to the worship of Heaven according to traditional Chinese religion. This religious complex dates back to the early years of the Ming Dynasty (明朝, Míngcháo) (1368 – 1644), and has been the traditional site for ritual sacrifices offered by the emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties to Heaven since its establishment in 1420. Despite being widely known outside of China as the ‘Temple of Heaven,’ this terminology is in fact a mistranslation, as its name in Chinese literally means ‘Altar of Heaven.’

While religious life in imperial China has traditionally been associated with either Buddhism or the philosophical teachings of illustrious sages such as Confucius (孔子, Kŏngzi), Laozi (老子, Laŏzi) and Mencius (孟子, Mèngzi), Chinese belief and worship of Heaven (, Tiān) far predates the establishment of all these more recent forms of religious beliefs. Traditional Chinese religion, which consists of a complex matrix of beliefs involving Heaven and the existence of a single supreme ruler of Heaven known as Shangdi (上帝, Shàngdì), can be traced all the way back to China’s first dynasty, the Xia Dynasty (夏朝, Xiàcháo) (c.2070 – c.1600 BC).

Bird's eye view of the Temple of Heaven

In efforts to honour this traditional belief in Heaven and Shangdi, and to offer prayers and sacrifices to pay homage to Heaven, it was decreed under the reign of Emperor Yongle (永乐帝, Yŏnglè Dì) (1360 – 1424) of the Ming Dynasty that a temple be built in the imperial capital of Beijing. Construction works began in 1406, and in 1420, the earliest part of the religious complex, the Altar of Heaven and Earth (天地坛, Tiāndìtán), was completed along with its surrounding gardens. The Altar of Heaven and Earth consisted of a raised altar with a circular hall built at its centre, known as the Great Prayer Hall (大祈殿, Dàqídiàn), and it was here where sacrifices were made to Heaven and Earth for a good harvest.

During the reign of Ming Emperor Jiajing (嘉靖帝, Jiājìng Dì(1507 – 1567), a decision was made to further enhance the ritualistic prayers and sacrifices offered to Heaven, which then resulted in a tremendous expansion of the religious complex in 1530. The Altar of Heaven and Earth was renamed the Altar of Heaven, or Temple of Heaven, as sacrifices to Earth were ceased at this time. The Great Prayer Hall, which until then was the only building in the religious complex, was reconstructed to look like what it is today. South of the Great Prayer Hall, a new circular building known as the Imperial Vault of Heaven (皇穹宇, Huángqióngyŭ) was added to store the tablets of Shangdi and the imperial ancestors when they were not being used in rituals. At the same time, several auxiliary buildings were added to the east and west of these two buildings, while the Circular Mound Altar (圜丘坛, Yuánqiūtán) was added further south from the Great Prayer Hall and the Imperial Vault of Heaven as a place to offer special prayers to Heaven.

The complexes and compounds of the Temple of Heaven underwent another significant renovation in 1749 under the reign of Emperor Qianlong (乾隆帝, Qiánlóng Dì) (1711 – 1799) of the Qing Dynasty. Under his reign, the Circular Mound Altar was enlarged and modified, with its original blue-glazed tiles being replaced with white marble. The interior of the Great Prayer Hall also underwent modifications to its tiling, and was then renamed the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (祈年殿, Qíniándiàn). In addition, the Imperial Vault of Heaven was remodeled to become what it looks like now. Due to deficits in the state treasury in the subsequent decades, this became the last major expansion of the Temple of Heaven complexes before the end of dynastic rule in China. Although the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests was burned down after being struck by lightning in 1889, works were done only to rebuild it exactly as it had been before, and it was completed in 1896.

During the Boxer Rebellion (义和团运动, Yìhétuán Yùndòng) of 1900, the Temple of Heaven was occupied by the Eight-Nation Alliance (八国联军, Bāguó Liánjūn), which turned the temple complexes into a temporary command centre in Beijing. Although the occupation lasted for only a year, much damage was done to the temple complexes and its surrounding gardens, and no major repairs could be done due to political strife and economic devastation as the Qing Dynasty came to its final years. As the Qing Dynasty collapsed in 1911, the temple became fully unmanaged, and the succeeding Republic of China under Dr. Sun Yat-sen (孙中山, Sūn Zhōngshān) (1866 – 1925) banned all forms of ceremonial sacrifices to heaven. By then, the Temple of Heaven had seen as many as 654 acts of worship by 22 emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties since its establishment.

Artist's impression of the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 that ravaged much of Beijing

Nevertheless, Dr. Sun’s newly-established government was mired in political instability, and through discussions with the deposed Qing imperial court and the military, Yuan Shikai (袁世凯, Yuán Shìkǎi) (1859 – 1916) ascended the presidency of the Republic of China to succeed Dr. Sun. Not long into his term as president, Yuan made known his intentions of reviving the monarchy, with himself as the new emperor. In spite of the former ban on all forms of ceremonial sacrifices in the Temple of Heaven, Yuan performed a ritual prayer there in the winter of 1914 in order to consolidate his claim to the throne and prepare himself for emperorship. Although he did eventually ascend the throne and declared himself Emperor Hongxian (洪宪皇帝, Hóngxiàn Huángdì), he was forced to abdicate the throne on 22 March 1916 after 83 days of reigning amidst factionalisms, uprisings and civil wars. His ritual prayer was the last ceremonial rite ever held in the Temple of Heaven, and the temple grounds as well as the complexes were opened to the public in 1918.

Yuan Shikai (袁世凯) (1859 - 1916)

Yuan Shikai's attempt at reviving heaven worship in the Temple of Heaven in order to legitimize his reign as a new emperor

In addition to its surrounding park and gardens, the Temple of Heaven as seen today comprises three main components, namely the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Circular Mound Altar. Each of these components was constructed based on strict Chinese cosmological, astrological and philosophical requirements, with every part of them bearing symbolic meanings. The temple grounds itself is somewhat square in shape when viewed from above, with its two southern corners being right-angled and its northern corners rounded. This is said to reflect the ancient Chinese belief that Heaven is round and the Earth square, and this belief is also seen in the construction of both the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and the Circular Mound Altar, whereby both were built as circular structures on square yards.

Perhaps the most well-known component of the Temple of Heaven that appears most commonly on postcards and promotional features is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. The current structure, as mentioned earlier, was rebuilt and completed in 1896 after the original structure was burned by a lightning strike. This circular building with a three-tiered roof measures 36 metres in diameter and 38 metres in height, and was built with interlocking wood without the use of nails. It stands majestically atop three layers of marble stones that form its base. Its interior displays a magnificent use of sky-blue glazed tiles with a multitude of intricate patterns, and it is supported by a total of 28 pillars. Four of these pillars, which represent the four seasons in a year, lie in an innermost circle, while the middle and outermost circles contain 12 pillars each, representing the 12 months and 12 hours in traditional Chinese timekeeping respectively. It was in the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests where the emperor would customarily perform sacred rituals twice a year; once on the 15th day of the first lunar month in order to pray for an abundant harvest for the year, and once on Winter Solstice (冬至, Dōngzhì) to express gratitude to Heaven for the rich blessings of the year.

A stamp illustrating the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (祈年殿, Qíniándiàn), one of the three main complexes of the Temple of Heaven

View of the interior of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests

As one exits the square courtyard surrounding the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and walks southwards, one would end up walking on a raised stone walkway known as the Bridge of Vermilion Steps (丹陛桥, Dānbìqiáo). Lined by centuries-old cypress trees, this 360-metre bridge leads to another courtyard at its southern end, within which is located the Imperial Vault of Heaven. The Imperial Vault of Heaven is a circular building with a single-tiered roof, somewhat resembling the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests but being smaller in size. It was added to the Temple of Heaven complex in 1530 with a double-tiered roof, and modifications done in 1749 transformed it into its current structure with a single-tiered roof. The Imperial Vault of Heaven stands majestically atop a single level of marble stone base. It is here where the tablets of the Supreme Ruler of the Universe (Shangdi) and the ancestors of the imperial family were stored. Whenever ritual prayers were conducted to Heaven, the tablets would be carried to the Circular Mound Altar located just south of it.

Bridge of Vermillion Steps (丹陛桥, Dānbìqiáo)

The Imperial Vault of Heaven stands within a circular courtyard enclosed by a smooth circular wall. This circular wall is not known as the Echo Wall (回音壁, Huíyīnbì) just for nothing. A strange phenomenon is attached to this wall, whereby if two people were to stand on opposite sides of the courtyard against the wall and speak softly, their sounds can be heard clearly by each other. Another interesting phenomenon associated with the courtyard is the Triple-sound Stone (三音石, Sānyīnshí), which are three rectangular paving stones in front of the Imperial Vault of Heaven. If one were to stand on the first stone nearest to the hall and clap once, its sound will be echoed once. Doing the same on the second stone will result in a double echo, while doing so on the third stone will result in a triple echo. Because these acoustic phenomena relate to basic principles of sound reflection and refraction in physics, the presence of large crowds within the courtyard would mar them.

The Imperial Vault of Heaven (皇穹宇, Huángqióngyŭ), another one of the three main complexes of the Temple of Heaven

Directly south of this circular courtyard is the Circular Mound Altar, a circular platform built on three levels of marble stones. Along with the Imperial Vault of Heaven, the Circular Mound Altar was added to the Temple of Heaven complex in 1530, and was subsequently enlarged in 1749 to look like what it is now. Measuring 33.3 metres in diameter at its top platform and 5.2 metres in height, this was the spot where animal sacrifices, offerings and prayers were customarily offered by the emperors to Heaven on the day of Winter Solstice.
The architecture of the Circular Mound Altar is highly unique and symbolic in terms of Chinese cosmology. To put it simply, the construction of this structure revolved around the number nine, which was considered significant in Chinese cosmology. Based on the concept of yin and yang, yin represents even numbers while yang represents odd numbers. Because nine was the largest of the single digit odd numbers, it was considered to be ‘extremely yang’ or ‘extremely positive’ and thus significant. Nine was said to be symbolic of the Chinese dragon, which also represented the emperor and the nine layers of Heaven in Chinese traditional beliefs.

Circular Mound Altar (圜丘坛, Yuánqiūtán), the last of the three main complexes that form the Temple of Heaven

At the very centre of the top platform lies the Stone of the Heart of Heaven (天心石, Tiānxīnshí), and surrounding it are nine stone slabs. Surrounding these nine stone slabs are 18 stone slabs, and this goes on in multiples of nine until the outermost concentric circle, which consists of 81 stone slabs. The same also applies to the middle and bottom levels, whereby each are built with nine concentric circles with numbers of stone slabs equivalent to multiples of nine. The number of pillars on each level is also equivalent to a multiple of nine. Additionally, there are entrances to each level from each of the four directions, and the steps leading up to each level are built in sets of nine steps.

Stone of the Heart of Heaven (天心石, Tiānxīnshí) set at the centre of the Circular Mound Altar

Just like the circular courtyard of the Imperial Vault of Heaven, the Circular Mound Altar also has its own special acoustic feature, which played a major role in the ritual prayers performed by the emperors. If one were to stand on the Stone of the Heart of Heaven at the centre of the top platform and speak softly, his voice would be amplified due to the reflection of sound waves. As one speaks from the centre, sound waves would be reflected quickly in all directions by the extremely smooth marble floor and walls before hitting the stone balustrades, after which the sound waves would then be reflected in the reverse direction back to the centre. This effect can only be perceived by the person standing on the Stone of the Heart of Heaven itself, and it played a major role in the ritual prayers offered by the emperors, as it was believed that the emperors’ voices would be amplified to reach Heaven.

To the west of the Temple of Heaven complexes, near the western entrance to the compound, lies the Palace of Abstinence (斋宫, Zhāigōng). This was the place whereby the emperor would fast and abstain from worldly pleasures in preparation for the ceremonies of heaven worship. Customarily, the emperor would stay in the Palace of Abstinence for the three days preceding the ceremonies, and during this time he would live alone and eat only a simple vegetarian diet without any alcoholic beverages. Additionally, the emperor would bathe several times to purify himself for the ceremonies. Nevertheless, from 1731 onwards, this custom of requiring the emperor to stay alone for three days in the Palace of Abstinence was changed by Emperor Yongzheng (雍正帝, Yōngzhèng Dì) (1678 – 1735) out of fear for his personal safety. In place of this, he ordered that another palace be built within the Forbidden City grounds, in which he and the future emperors could stay for three days before moving into the actual Palace of Abstinence just a few hours before the ceremonies began.

Palace of Abstinence (斋宫, Zhāigōng)

In the southwestern part of the Temple of Heaven lies another building called the Divine Music Administration (神乐署, Shényuèshŭ). Because the ceremonies of heaven worship required elaborate music and dance as part of its rituals, a special department had to be established to oversee preparations in these aspects. The Divine Music Administration was not only responsible for managing the musical instruments used as part of heaven worship; it was also responsible for the training of musicians and dancers for the purpose of the ceremonies. During the Ming Dynasty, the area around the Divine Music Administration would year after year be a popular site for temple fairs that catered to all the officials and commoners involved in the heaven worship ceremonies. However, these temple fairs were banned during the Qing Dynasty in order to preserve the security and purity of the Temple of Heaven. 

Inside the compound of the Divine Music Administration (乐署, Shényuès)

The ceremonies dedicated to heaven worship in the Temple of Heaven were extremely elaborate and solemn in nature. Each component of the ceremonies had to be performed to absolute perfection, as it was said that even the slightest mistakes would be a bad omen for the nation in the coming year. As such, detailed and careful inspections of all sacrificial livestock, offerings, musical instruments and ceremonial articles were repeatedly done in the few preceding days. The divine tablets were set in place the day before the ceremonies, and on the day itself about two hours before sunrise the rituals were started in full solemnity and reverence. Treated with reverence of the highest degree, no commoner who was not involved in the ceremonies were allowed to set their eyes on the entire ritual.

Modern-day re-enactment of the imperial heaven worship ceremonies in the Temple of Heaven

Although the elaborate rituals of the past have ceased to be practiced in this modern era, the mystical elements behind the architectural designs of the Temple of Heaven still bear testimony to its central role in the traditional Chinese worship of the divine. Until today, no structure in the entire Middle Kingdom can match the Temple of Heaven in spiritual grandeur, splendour and symbolism. It thus stands proudly in the imperial and modern capital of Beijing as one of China’s finest cultural gems and ultimate symbolism of celestial hegemony in traditional Chinese religion.

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