This post is part of I <3 BJ, a Departful series by Alex Rathy highlighting some of the great spots in and around Beijing, and their unique history.

In the cider-producing countryside of western England people went a-wassailing, drinking and singing to awaken the apple trees and drive out evil spirits to ensure good production. The Maori believed that the visibility of Matariki (the Pleiades star cluster) determined the year’s coming harvest; the brighter the stars, the warmer the season to come and thus a more plentiful crop. Starting in ancient Cambodia and Thailand and continuing to this day, The Royal Plowing Ceremony – in which two sacred oxen pull a wooden plow through a ceremonial field and later receive offerings of food, water and whiskey – is performed at the beginning of each rice-growing season to guarantee a bountiful harvest. Fire walking, animal slaughter, human sacrifices (which tragically have yet to be confined to the history books and Mel Gibson movies)…the list goes on and on.

The world’s oldest profession has certainly seen no shortage of rites and superstitions undertaken and observed in the name of appeasing the heavens and securing the greatest possible yield from the land. But perhaps none have ever been as meticulously designed and fastidiously executed as those performed by the Ming and Qing emperors at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.

In imperial times the emperor was revered as the Son of Heaven, representing divine authority on earth; as such, it was considered vital for him to properly show deference to the source of his power. It was for this purpose that the Ming Emperor Yongle had the Altar of Heaven and Earth constructed from 1406-1420. Here, the emperor could offer sacrifice, worship his ancestors and pray to heaven for a good harvest. It wasn’t without a significant measure of self-interest that these duties were undertaken, however.

Imperial China was characterized by a rigid Confucian social order. Just as sons were supposed to show respect to their fathers, wives to their husbands, younger siblings to their elder brothers and subjects to their ruler, the emperor had to pay respect to his ancestors. By incorporating ancestor worship into the holiest ceremony on the imperial calendar, the emperor bolstered a philosophy that perpetuated his own power. Furthermore, as his rule was gleaned by a perceived mandate from heaven, a poor harvest could be construed as falling out of heaven’s favour, thus threatening the stability of his reign. The design of the temple and ceremonies performed within sought not only to fortify existing societal mores, but more importantly highlight the relationship between earth and heaven, and the emperor’s special place between the two.

Temple of Heaven by Alex Rathy

In 1530, during the reign of Emperor Jiajing, the decision was made to offer separate sacrifices to heaven and earth. Shortly thereafter, the Circular Mound Altar was added to the temple complex and it was renamed The Temple of Heaven. Covering 2.73 square kilometers in the southeastern corner of central Beijing, the Temple of Heaven consists of three main groups of constructions, all built according to strict philosophical requirements.

First, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest is a triple-gabled circular building (circles representing heaven) built on three levels of marble stone. This is where the emperor prayed for bumper crops. Made entirely of wood and without a single nail, the Hall has four inner, twelve middle and twelve outer pillars, representing the four seasons, twelve months and twelve traditional Chinese hours (called shichens), respectively. Combined, the twelve outer and twelve middle pillars represent the traditional solar term.

Next, the Imperial Vault of Heaven is a single-gabled circular building built on one level of marble stone. Made to imitate the Hall of Prayer, it is directly south of the Hall and connected to it by a 360-meter long walkway (representing the 360 days of the ancient Chinese lunar year) that ascends gently upwards. The Imperial Vault is surrounded by a smooth circular wall known as the “Echo Wall,” which can transmit sounds over long distances.

Temple of Heaven Alex Rathy

Finally, the Circular Mound Altar is an empty platform due south of the Imperial Vault. Based upon three levels of marble stones decorated by beautifully carved dragons, many elements of the Altar – like its steps, plates and balusters – are either the sacred number nine or a multiple of it. Here, the emperor beseeched the heavens for good weather, his prayers resonating strongly off the guardrail for better communication with heaven.

The cosmological symbolism of the temple complex doesn’t stop there. For starters, all buildings have dark blue roof tiles representing heaven. East to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, the Seven-Star Stone Group represents the seven peaks of Mount Tai, a site of heaven worship in ancient China. Indeed, the layout of the entire park is a rectangle with right-angles on one end representing earth and rounded edges on the other representing heaven. Inside, many of the circular elements of the temple complex are laid upon squares, to show the connection between the two realms.

No ordinary Chinese citizen ever laid eyes on the rituals performed at the Temple of Heaven. Twice a year, the emperor and his cadre would move from the Forbidden City and encamp within the complex, wearing special robes and refraining from eating meat. The climax of the ceremony came at the winter solstice, when the emperor would personally pray for good harvests for the upcoming year. It was imperative that the ceremony be carried out without a hitch; it was widely believed that even the slightest mistake constituted a bad omen for the entire kingdom in the coming year.

Ceremonial prayers and sacrifices to heaven were banned by the government of the Republic of China in 1911, when the temple was first opened to the public. By then, 654 acts of worship had been performed by 22 Ming and Qing Emperors over 490 years. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, today the Temple of Heaven is an immensely popular park where locals come to relax and exercise. In the early morning, you might see tai chi practitioners, walkers, dancers and games of mahjong. And while everyone’s busy, you might sneak over to the Circular Mound Altar and see if you can’t make your own voice reach the heavens.

How to get to the Temple of Heaven

Located in the southeastern portion of central Beijing, the temple is easily accessible by public transportation. Depending on where you’re climbing aboard, Beijing city buses 3, 6, 17, 20, 35, 39, 54, 106, 116, 120, 122 and 803 all reach the temple. By subway, take Line 5 and get off at Tiantan Dongmen Station, going out Exit A to access the east gate of the park. The Temple of Heaven is open from 8 AM – 6 PM, with tickets costing between 10-30 RMB (approx. $2-5 USD) during low season and 15-35 RMB ($3-6 USD) during high season.

Photos by Alex Rathy; Slider image by Philip Larson


Alex Rathy

Alex Rathy

Alex is a writer, ESL teacher, baseball enthusiast and Hunter S. Thompson fanatic currently based in Sydney, Australia. He has previously lived in Canada, the U.S., South Korea and China and has traveled extensively throughout Asia. He enjoys hiking, spicy food, dance parties in the jungle, questionable hairdos, Vonnegut novels and has been known to appreciate a good hammock on occasion.

Departful is a travel magazine that provides accessible, relevant, and thoughtful travel tips and ideas to inspire people to explore the world around them. We feature travel articles, travel tips, and photography based on our own experiences from over 100 countries covering all things adventure, culture, food and drink, technology, and gear. Made with ❤ in Toronto.


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