The Temple of Heaven, literally the Altar of Heaven, is situated in the south of Beijing, in the Xuan Wu district. At the Temple of Heaven Emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368-1911) worshiped Heaven and prayed for good harvests. The northern part of the outer surrounding wall is semi-circular; the southern part is square; this forms a pattern symbolic of the ancient belief that Heaven was round and the earth square. The double surrounding wall separates the temple into the inner and outer temples with the main structures in the inner one, covering 273 hectares. At the same time that the Yongle emperor built the Forbidden City, he also oversaw construction of this enormous park and altar to Heaven directly to the south. Each winter solstice, the Ming and Qing emperors would lead a procession here to perform rites and make sacrifices designed to promote the next year's crops and curry favor with Heaven for the general health of the empire. It was last used for this purpose by the president of the Republic, Yuan Shikai, on the winter solstice of December 23, 1914, updated with photographers, electric lights (the height of modernity at the time), and a bulletproof car for the entrance of the increasingly unpopular president. This effectively announced his intent to promote himself as the new emperor, but few of the onlookers shared his enthusiasm. Formerly known as the Temple of Heaven and Earth, the park is square (symbolizing Earth) in the south and rounded (symbolizing Heaven) in the north.
The general layout of the Temple of Heaven incorporates the ancient Chinese configuration of a 'round heaven and a square earth.' This symbolic form ties in to a north-south geographic alignment, with the concept of “north-round-south square”. Two layers of walls surround the temple precincts. The outer wall's circumference is 6,553 meters with a space inside of 270,000 square meters, which is about four times the size of Beijing's Palace Museum. The site once occupied a large percentage of what was the outskirt of ancient Beijing.
These two are located in the northern part of the Tiantan complex. They comprise a large and imposing set of buildings and are the most representative architecture of the Temple of Heaven. The lower part of the Qinian Hall is a three tiered white marble round platform, surrounded by a stone railing. The upper part is a round-shaped hall that is built without cross beams. Its ceiling is arched and pointed and its roof is covered with blue glazed tiles. The circumference of the lower tier of the platform is 90.8 meters and its total height is 5.56 meters. The Hall is located in its very center, and has a diameter of 32.72 meters and a height of 38 meters. The top part of the Hall holds a round-shaped baoding or topknot that is gilded. Twenty-eight cypress (nanmu) pillars are arrayed around the Hall. Inside the hall, stand four dragon-well pillars with diameter of 1.2 meters, and height of 19.2 meters. The ambiance of this hall is enhanced by the way the ceiling rises towards the sky. On the northern side inside the hall is a dragon-carved throne on a supporting dais, and a stele to the ancestors and gods of the emperors. On a special day of the first month of every year, the emperor would lead his princes and officials here to pray for good harvests, and, if they were encountering drought, they would come here to pray for rain.
The Yuanqiu Altar and Imperial Vault of Heaven
This altar is not as grand as the Qinian Hall but is still a very important part of the Tiantan, for this is where the emperor made sacrifices to heaven. The altar was built in the 9thyear of Jiaqing, or 1530. It was originally covered in blue-glazed tiles. In the 14th year of Qianlong (1749) it was expanded and was faced with marble, taking on its current aspect. The altar is round and divided into three levels, each with nine stairs leading up it on each of the four cardinal directions. In the center of the top level is a round central stone, with nine circles of stones arrayed around it. Each level has numerous indicators of nine or of multiples of nine. The craftsmen took pains to emphasize this number, since it was seen as an indicator of 'yang' or the male principle, and this in turn was seen as a confirmation of the intent of heaven.
Behind the circular altar lie a group of buildings including a round structure called the Emperor's mystic realm or Vault of Heaven. These buildings were begun in the 9th year of Jiaqing (1631). They were repaired in the 8th year of Qianlong (1743). They include a circular hall with pointed roofline, inside which the ceiling extends upward in layers. A carved stone base holds a stele that celebrates the emperor. The thing that most attracts people's attention at this place is the 'echo' wall that surrounds it as well as the so-called triple-sound stones.
Altar & Temple
As early as the prehistoric age, there had been worship of natural gods and ancestors, which thus developed into a primitive religion. China is an early-maturing society but this primitive worship was retained when it entered into a civilized society, and was carefully transformed by the Confucian school and thereby intensified. The imperial authority was set off by religious authority and clan power, which thus became an important spiritual pillar safeguarding the feudal hierarchy.
The sacrificial methods of these two types of worship are often different. Generally speaking, ceremonies for worshipping the natural god, such as Heaven, Earth and the God of land and grain, were held mostly on a high terrace in the open, called an "altar", such as Tian Tan (Temple of Heaven), Di Tan (Temple of Earth), Ri Tan (Temple of Sun) and Yue Tan (Temple of Moon). The four altars lie in the south, north, east and west of Beijing respectively. Tian Tan is in a plane round shape, and Di Tan square shape -- In ancient China, this means Heaven is round and Earth is square.
The worship of ancestors was done mostly in "temples", such as Tai Miao (Imperial Ancestral Temple), Kong Miao (Confucian Temple) and Guandi Miao. It was often called an ancestral hall, such as Sima Qian Ancestral Hall, Wuhou Ancestral Hall, as well as wise men's ancestral halls and clan halls. Temples fall into three categories: Tai Miao, or the Imperial Ancestral Temple, is the highest class of Temple, with existing representative Beijing Tai Miao Palace of the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911).
But some natural gods were more personified, and worshipping was often performed indoors, the site was also called a temple, such as Dai Miao, temple for worshipping the Mount Tai; and Zhongyue Miao, for worshipping Songshan Mountain. When put together they became "altar and temple", a type of architecture unique to China. They were different from both religious temples and from palaces directly used for human existence. Altars in residences or gardens could be regarded as a Para-religious building, while a temple, in most cases, has the meaning of a memorial hall.
In ancient China, the emperor was regarded as the "Son of Heaven", who administered matters on the earth on behalf of the heavenly authority. To show respect to the heaven, ceremonies for sacrifices to heaven were extremely important to the emperor. The temple was built for the worship of heaven and prayers for good harvests.
Each winter solstice the emperor and all his retinue would move through the city to encamp at the southern gate of the complex, there to await word from the priests that the sacrifice ceremony had been perfectly completed. It was widely held that the smallest of mistakes would constitute a bad omen for the whole nation in the coming year.
The Altar of Heaven is one of the four grandest temples located in Beijing. The other prominent temples include The Temple of Sun, The Temple of Earth and The Temple of Moon.