To the southeast of the Southern Gate (Zhengyangmen) of Beijing City lies an extensive ancient garden, When overlooked from the sky, it is circular in the north and square in the south with with a stone-paved main road running from the north to the south.In the south there is the Circular Mound Platform (Jitiantai), which is as white as jade. In the north there is a round main hall with blue tiles and golden roofs. To the west there are exquisite square palaces. Shaded by thousands of pines and cypresses, the white carved balustrades, the blue glaze, and the golden roofs, as well as the round, square and rectangular buildings all together compose a magnificent picture. In it, people feel that being tiny and insignificant, they are contained, moved, inspired and unfrozen. They also feel the desire for sublimation of soul. This garden of unique charm is the Temple of Heaven (Tiantan), which is the largest heaven worship architectural complex in the world.
The Temple of Heaven covers an area of 273 hectares. Although the main buildings only occupy one percent of the whole layout, all of them have their own characteristics and rich implication. The Temple of Heaven was built in the 18th year during the Reign of Emperor Yongle of Ming Dynasty (1420). It was the sacred altar for emperors of Ming and Qing Dynasties to offer sacrifices to Heaven and pray for a bumper harvest. Ancient beliefs like “circular heaven, square earth”, “supernal heaven, low earth”, and “blue heaven, yellow earth” are all exquisitely and ingeniously reflected here.
In the 18th year during the Reign of Emperor Yongle of Ming Dynasty (1420), the Temple of Heaven and Earth was built in accordance with the old practices in Nanjing. The boundary of the temple was square in the south and circular in the north. The main buildings were the Great Hall for Sacrificial Rituals (Dasidian) and the Fasting Palace (Zhaigong). In the 9th year during the Reign of Emperor Jiajing of Ming Dynasty (1530), people offered sacrifices to Heaven and Earth separately, so the Circular Mound Altar (Yuanqiu) was built to the south of the Great Hall for Sacrificial Rituals and used only for Heaven worship. The Hall of Memorial Tablets (Shenbandian) was built to the north of the Circular Mound Altar and later it was renamed as the Imperial Vault of Heaven (Huangqiongyu). Thus the layout took shape that the Altar in the south and the Altar in the north were both located at the axis. In the 21st year during the Reign of Emperor Jiajing (1542), the Great Hall for Sacrificial Rituals was demolished, and in the 24th year during the Reign of Emperor Jiajing (1545), Great Hall for Offering Sacrifices (Daxiangdian) was built at this site. Great Hall for Offering Sacrifices was round and characterized by a cone-shaped structure with triple eaves. The base of the hall was a triple tiered marble terrace. Other major buildings besides the Circular Mound Altar were also round in shape and symmetrical from north to south in its layout. The Imperial Vault of Heaven was the transitional building in the middle, which was a round building with double eaves surrounded by enclosing walls. The buildings in the north were higher than the ones in the south and the two Altars were connected by Red Stairway Bridge (Danbi Bridge), which was 360 meters long, and by which the two parts were integrated as a whole.
In the 32nd year during the Reign of Emperor Jiajing (1553), the south outer city of Beijing City was extended, so the former southern suburbs, where the Temple of Heaven was located, was included into the inner Beijing City. The southern end of the axis of Beijing City was Yongding Gate and the Temple of Heaven was located at inner Yongding Gate, which was to the east of the southern axis of Beijing City. To the west of the southern axis was the Altar of the God of Agriculture (Xiannongtan). To make a better sight, to improve the appearance of the two Altars, and to make the whole layout of Beijing City more harmonious, external walls were built outside of the Temple of Heaven. Thus the layout took shape that the Temple of Heaven and the Altar of the God of Agriculture stood facing each other with the Heavenly Thoroughfare (Tianjie) in between, which presented a splendid sight. After the building of the external walls, the West Gate was built as the only gate of the Temple of Heaven, which made the area of the temple expand into 273 hectares. However, it also made the axis connecting the north and south altars being east of center rather than in the center, which was not in accordance with the traditional practice that the main buildings should be located at the axis. This situation was consistent with Beijing City’s layout that the western district was a little larger than the eastern district. Therefore, that the axis was eastern of center didn’t harm the Temple of Heaven’s layout and on the contrary in made people entering the temple through the West Gate see an even wider field and feel even greater reverence.
During the Reign of Emperor Qianlong, the Temple of Heaven was extended, reconstructed, and repaired in a large scale. In the 14th year (1749) the Circular Mound Altar was extended, the Imperial Vault of Heaven was reconstructed, Great Hall for Offering Sacrifices was renamed as the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (Qiniandian), and its triple colored tiles were changed to be unified grey tiles. These changes made the Temple of Heaven even more holy and pure, more sublime, more vivid and strong in color, and of more symbolic meanings. In the 19th year (1754), another gate was built to the south of the West Gate, which was called “Gate of Circular Mound Altar” (Yuanqiumen), and the former West Gate was called “Gate of Prayer for Grain” (Qigumen). Thus the layout took the form that the north and the south altars were located separately with well-designed sizes, shapes and styles. The layout and style of the Temple of Heaven finally took shape then and have been maintained till today.
In those years, the emperors set out from the Forbidden City, went southward through the Southern Gate Street (Zhengyangmen Dajie), crossed the Heavenly Bridge (Tianqiao), walked along the bustling streets. Walking eastward, the emperors will enter the tranquil and profound restricted area, and started the rites of heaven worship. Time went on and brought away the emperors glory and honor.
Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest
The hall of Prayer for Good Harvest is one of Beijing’s symbolic constructions, and is also the most famous temple in the world. Its excellence does not only lie in its exquisite design, but also attributes to the fact that its constructional structure represents ancient Chinese philosophy and astronomic knowledge.
The Hall rests on a three layered white marble round altar. The altar is about 5.2 meters in height. The diameter of the top layer is 68 meters, the middle layer 80 meters, the bottom layer 91 meters. Each layer is surrounded by marble balustrade. The balustrade surrounding the top layer is adorned with a spiral dragon with its head emerging from the water surface; the balustrade surrounding the middle layer has columns decorated with the painting of a phoenix’s head emerging from the water surface; the column of the bottom layer is adorned with patterns of clouds coming out of the water surface. Along the south-north direction there are three huge white marble steps with stone carvings. The top tier is engraved with patterns of dragon, the middle tier with patterns of phoenix, and the bottom tier with patterns of mountain, sea and clouds. The stone carvings are exquisite, artistic treasures.
The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest is 32 meters high, with three layers of eaves, all laid with dark blue glazed tiles, symbolizing the color of heaven. The Hall is supported by 28 wooden columns. The 4 central columns, called the “Dragon-Well Pillar”, represent the four seasons. Surrounding these 4 columns, there are two rings, one inside the other, of 12 columns each: the inner ring symbolizes the 12 months, and the out ring symbolizes the 12 divisions of day and night; the pillars of the inner and the outer rings together stand for the 24 solar terns or the 24 divisions of the solar year in the traditional Chinese calendar. All the 28 columns symbolize the 28 constellations. Added to the 8 pillars on the roof, the 36 columns in total symbolize the 36 Big Dippers corresponding to the 72 Earth Devils of the Long Corridor. The fantastic design idea mirrors quite well the importance of agriculture to the ancient people.