Jian-Zhong LIN

View of the Temple of Heaven, the imperial site of prayer to Heaven during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

The Temple of Heaven was the imperial site of prayer to Heaven during the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1912) dynasties. The Temple’s most spectacular structure is The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest 祈年殿, 38 meters (125 feet) tall, built entirely of wood without using a single nail.

The Temple of Heaven, or Altar of Heaven, was built between 1406 and 1420 in Beijing during the reign of Zhu Di 朱棣, the Yongle emperor (reigned 1402–1424). Zhu Di is also credited for overseeing the planning and construction of the Forbidden City. The Temple of Heaven served as the prayer site for the emperors of the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1912) dynasties in China. It is regarded as a Daoist temple, although Heaven worship was practiced before the rise of Daoism.

Every year, on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month, the emperor would come to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest (祈年殿 Qi Nian Dian) to pay homage to Heaven and pray for a good harvest. He would honor his ancestors as well, as he was regarded as the Son of Heaven. In early winter the emperor would come again to thank Heaven for the good harvest. If a drought plagued China during the summer, the emperor would come to the temple to pray for rain. Accompanying the emperor on these visits would be his entourage of officials, all wearing special ceremonial robes. Ordinary Chinese were not allowed to view the emperor’s procession from the Forbidden City to the Temple of Heaven or the ceremonies that followed.

The temple grounds cover 2.7 square kilometers (1.5 square miles). On the site are three imperial sacrificial sites: the Imperial Vault of Heaven, the Circular Mound Altar, and the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest. Within the Imperial Vault of Heaven is the Echo Wall, a marvel of acoustical engineering that can carry sounds across long distances. The Circular Mound Altar is the altar proper. It is comprised of three rounded white-marble platforms. The bottom platform represents Hell; the middle, Earth; and the top, Heaven.

The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest lies at the center of the grounds and is the most spectacular building on the site. It is a tripled-gabled circular building 38 meters (125 feet) tall, built entirely of wood with no nails. It is considered a masterpiece of traditional Chinese architecture. The hall was designed with many symbolic features. Of the twenty-eight pillars that support the domed structure, the four large ones represent the four seasons, the twelve inner pillars represent the months in the lunar calendar, and the twelve outer pillars represent the twelve two-hour periods of a day.

The Temple of Heaven became a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site in 1998. Today the temple grounds are a popular exercise park for locals and visitors alike.

Further Reading

Yu Chen (Ed.) (1999). Great sites of Beijing. Beijing: Beijing Arts and Crafts Publishing House.

Source: Lin, Jian-Zhong. (2009). Temple of Heaven. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2223–2224. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Temple of Heaven (Tiāntán 天坛)|Tiāntán 天坛 (Temple of Heaven)

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