China museums
Temple of Heaven
The Confucius Temple, Family Seat, and Woods
Jin Ancestral Hall Museum









Temple of Heaven  

The Temple of Heaven is located in the southeastern part of modern?day Beijing, on the east side of Yongdingmennei Street. It once lay outside the ancient city precinct and was the site of imperial offerings to heaven during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Over the course of thousands of years of imperial offerings in China, it is the only one of such sites remaining today. A group of buildings, gardens, and surrounding groves, it is highly symbolic and is a museum of a very special nature. The State Council has declared it to be a key cultural protected unit and in 1998 it was listed by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage Site.

Temple of Heaven
A heaven sacrificing and harvest praying ritual performance held in the Qinian Hall in the Temple of Heaven.

Construction of the Temple of Heaven was begun in 1420, during the Ming dynasty under the Emperor Yongle. After Yongle had settled on Beijing as the site of the capital, the buildings and surrounding areas were later rebuilt and enlarged during the reigns of Jiaqing and Qianlong of the Qing dynasty.

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 outskirts of ancient Beijing.

The Qigu Altar and the Qinian Hall

The Yuanqiu Altar in the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.
The Yuanqiu Altar in the Temple of Heaven in 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.

On the various sides of the Qinian Hall are subsidiary buildings that were used for various imperial purposes. Altogether they form a harmonious group.

The Imperial Vault of Heaven in the Temple of Heaven.
The Imperial Vault of Heaven in the Temple of Heaven.

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 stelae 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.

In addition to the temples and altars comprising the main architecture of the Tiantan, a number of subsidiary buildings exist that were used for operational purposes. These included rooms for cooking, preparing the sacrifices, and storing things. A building called the Zhaigong is where the emperor would sleep before making the sacrifices and praying to the gods of harvest. Another site of interest is believed to be one of the earliest groups of buildings at the Tiantan. It was built in the 18th year of Ming-dynasty Yongle (1420), and was specifically made for music to accompany the sacrifices. It served as a practice room for the music masters, and was also used for storing the instruments. From this, we can understand how important music was as an integral part of the imperial rites.

Address: Beijing, Chongwen District, tiantan Road
Telephone: 86-10-67022242

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