Beijing – Temple of Heaven

As you approach the Temple of Heaven’s South Gate, imagine it is 1724. You are part of the 3,500 person (plus elephants) parade escorting Qianlong Emperor to his three-day religious ceremony praying for a good harvest and future. This ancient site – the largest in Beijing – was revered by every Chinese emperor from 1420 until 1911. You will thoroughly enjoy this walking tour of the highlights.

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1 Introduction to Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China

During Yongle Emperor’s reign from 1402 – 1424, he moved the capital city to Beiping (now Beijing) and commissioned the Temple of Heaven (while also building the Forbidden City). For 500 years, every Ming and Qing dynasty emperor came to Tiāntán (its Chinese name) three times a year to conduct an elaborate religious ceremony. This historic complex was expanded during the 16th century, renovated in the 18th century, last used in 1911, became a park two years later and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. If you enter from the South Gate (Zhaoheng) – the same one used by the emperor – your first view of the grandeur of this Taoist temple is from the terrace of the Circular Mound Altar (marble railing in foreground). The main structures are aligned in a south-north axis and shaped as either squares (earth) or circles (heaven). The highlights seen here (left to right) are: several of the white Lingxing Gates in front of Echo Wall, the cone-shaped Imperial Vault of Heaven, Chengzhen Gate and the most famous structure, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. The blue-glazed roofs represent heaven.

South Gate, Yongdingmen East St. & Jintai Rd., Dongcheng Qu, Beijing Shi, China
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2 Circular Mound Altar at Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China

This is one of three tiers of marble guardrails defining the Circular Mound Altar. The balusters are intricately carved. Below them are dragon-shaped water spouts. At the winter solstice, a grand procession from the Forbidden City would escort the emperor to nearby Abstinence Hall. After three days of fasting, he would emerge at 4:00 a.m. and walk up the eighteen stairs of the Circular Mound Altar to the “celestial” center called the Heart of Heaven or Supreme Yang. Standing on the Tianxin Stone, he would conduct an ancestral, nine-phase ritual including a request for absolution, animal sacrifice and prayer for a successful new year. Circular Mound Altar (also called Terrace of Worshiping Heaven) was originally built in 1530. Then Yuanqiu was embellished with marble in 1749 on the orders of Qianlong Emperor, the sixth in the Qing Dynasty and China’s longest serving ruler.

South Gate, Yongdingmen East St. & Jintai Rd., Dongcheng Qu, Beijing Shi, China
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3 Echo Wall at Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China

A few steps north of the Circular Mound Altar is the Echo Wall. This oval-shaped encasement around the Imperial Vault of Heaven is named because of its amazing acoustical design. Two people standing at either side of its 633 foot circumference can conduct a normal conversation thanks to the wall’s sound transmission abilities. The wall also has Three Echo Stones. Say something on the first one to hear one echo. The second and third stones produce the corresponding number of echoes.

South Gate, Yongdingmen East St. & Jintai Rd., Dongcheng Qu, Beijing Shi, China
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4 Imperial Vault of Heaven at Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China

Inside of the Echo Wall is the Imperial Vault of Heaven. It has had several names since its construction in 1530: Taishen, Great Divine Hall and Hall for Appeasing Gods. The round, wooden structure has a blue tile roof accented with a golden sphere at its 64 feet peek. The 51 foot diameter sits atop a beautifully etched marble platform. This Celestial Treasure House was used to store God’s tablets used by the emperor during ceremonies. The Imperial Vault of Heaven was rebuilt during the mid-18th century.

South Gate, Yongdingmen East St. & Jintai Rd., Dongcheng Qu, Beijing Shi, China
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5 Northern Terminus of Vermilion Steps Bridge at Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China

Between the Chengzhen Gate next to the Imperial Vault of Heaven and this outer gate leading to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is the Vermilion Steps Bridge. Also called Danbiqiao, this 1,181 foot promenade slopes up towards the north, signifying the long path from earth toward heaven. Its 96 foot width is divided into three sections. The slightly raised center was considered sacred. The east course was reserved for the emperor. The other was used by court officers, princes and attendants.

South Gate, Yongdingmen East St. & Jintai Rd., Dongcheng Qu, Beijing Shi, China
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6 Gate of Prayer for Good Harvests at Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China

Two portals mark the southern entrance to Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. The second and most elaborate one is the Gate of Prayer for Good Harvests. As you walk up the marble staircase towards the three doors, stop to appreciate the dragon motif below the rafter. Above the decorative eave is a blue glazed tile roof representing heaven.

South Gate, Yongdingmen East St. & Jintai Rd., Dongcheng Qu, Beijing Shi, China
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7 Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests from Qinian Gate at Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China

At the top of the stairs of the Gate of Prayer for Good Harvests (also called Qinian Gate) you catch your first glimpse of the highlight of your walking tour: Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. It is moments like this one that makes traveling exhilarating. Now step through the doorway and marvel at what you see.

South Gate, Yongdingmen East St. & Jintai Rd., Dongcheng Qu, Beijing Shi, China
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8 Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests at Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China

The quintessential and iconic wooden structure at the Temple of Heaven is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. This stunning beamless Qinian Hall has three tiers pronounced with eaves. It is crowned with a conical, blue tile roof accented with a gilded orb reaching 125 feet. The 105 foot diameter is elevated on a 20 foot high, white marble base called the Altar for Grain Prayers. Qinian Hall is also surrounded by multi-level railings. Since it was built in 1420, two venerated ceremonies were performed here each year by the emperor. The ritual at the first lunar month was a prayer for a good harvest. In the summer was a religious request for adequate rain. Behind this is another exquisite structure: Imperial Hall of Heaven.

South Gate, Yongdingmen East St. & Jintai Rd., Dongcheng Qu, Beijing Shi, China
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9 West Annex Hall at Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China

Adjacent to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is the West Annex Hall, built by command of Yongle Emperor in 1420. The sacred structure was used for storing and praying to the divine tablets of attendant gods. Now called the Worshipping Heaven Ceremony Exhibition Hall, it exhibits artifacts used during temple ceremonies. Across the plaza is the East Annex Hall, subsequently converted into the Worshipping Music and Dancing Hall. This space displays instruments used during religious ceremonies and portrays the sounds and dances that once accompanied the Ming and Qing emperors.

South Gate, Yongdingmen East St. & Jintai Rd., Dongcheng Qu, Beijing Shi, China
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10 Dragon-shape Water Spout at Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China

The dragon is a very common visual at the Temple of Heaven. They encircle the main altars while doubling as water spouts. In Chinese mythology, the dragon (lóng or lung) was the omnipotent ruler over water and rainfall. More importantly, the dragon represented ultimate strength – yang or masculine superiority – so it symbolized the emperor’s imperial power as the Son of Heaven. This is why you will also see dragon images at major structures plus on flags and thrones used during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

South Gate, Yongdingmen East St. & Jintai Rd., Dongcheng Qu, Beijing Shi, China
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11 West Gate to Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests at Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China

The main gate leading to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is in the south. Two additional gates flank the square-shaped plaza. This west one leads to the Double-loop Longevity Pavilion. The east portal connects to the Long Corridor. Notice the scalloped arches below the titled roof. The design is similar to the gates at the Palace of Abstinence.

South Gate, Yongdingmen East St. & Jintai Rd., Dongcheng Qu, Beijing Shi, China
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12 Long Corridor at Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China

Stretching for 1,150 feet from the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (in the background) towards the East Gate is the Long Corridor. There are 72 rooms along this wooden colonnade with a common back wall and roof. During Imperial times, gifts and sacrifices used by the emperor during sacred rituals were ceremoniously carried through this passage on the eve of the event. Today, it is a haven for senior citizens who gather to socialize.

South Gate, Yongdingmen East St. & Jintai Rd., Dongcheng Qu, Beijing Shi, China
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13 Man Playing Cards at Long Corridor at Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China

A favorite pastime of local seniors is to gather at the Long Corridor at the Temple of Heaven to play cards. The most popular versions are dou dizhu (fighting the landlords), sheng ji (similar to bridge) and tichu (elements of bridge and poker). The guide called this version simply “six people card game.” This man had a lousy poker face when he saw his good hand. Not a problem. The main objective of this competition seemed to be having fun with old friends.

South Gate, Yongdingmen East St. & Jintai Rd., Dongcheng Qu, Beijing Shi, China
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14 North Animal-Sacrifice Pavilion at Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China

There are two animal-sacrifice pavilions at Temple of Heaven. This north one was built in 1420 and is separated from the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests by the Long Corridor. Dating back to 2200 BC, it was common to butcher animals such ox and sheep during temple ceremonies called Border Sacrifice. At the Temple of Heaven, the emperor slaughtered and burned a carefully selected bull to Shangdi, the Supreme Deity. The ritual was meant as atonement for the emperor’s sins. The religious practice ended in 1911.

South Gate, Yongdingmen East St. & Jintai Rd., Dongcheng Qu, Beijing Shi, China
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15 Seniors Exercising at Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China

The main structures within the Temple of Heaven are fairly concentrated. They are encircled by a tree-lined, 675 acre public park, the largest in Beijing. The first people to arrive every morning when the park opens at 6:00 a.m. are not busloads of tourists. Instead, it is the elderly. These physically fit people do incredible stretches on parallel bars, kick shuttlecocks (jianzi) among their friends, do complicated line dances and engage in group exercises. This man seemed to like his odds among nine women.

South Gate, Yongdingmen East St. & Jintai Rd., Dongcheng Qu, Beijing Shi, China
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