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The Temple of Heaven

The Hall of Good Harvests, Temple of Heaven, Beijing
The Temple of Heaven – emblematic of Beijing

The Temple of Heaven’s triple gabled, blue roofed Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is a wonder of Ming architecture, and symbolic of Beijing. The whole structure is made of wood and stays up without the help of a single nail.

Aside from being Beijing’s finest example of Ming architecture, the Temple of Heaven’s interest lies in its historical and religious importance.

Historical Importance of the Temple of Heaven

In Imperial China, the Emperor was the conduit between heaven and earth, ruled by the mandate of Heaven, and had the job of ensuring cosmic harmony. Bad harvests and natural disasters could be interpreted as a sign that Heaven was displeased, that the Emperor was not doing his job properly, which would give people the justification they needed to start a rebellion.

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The rituals related to harvests and maintaining cosmic harmony, therefore, were the most important of the Emperor’s duties, and it was here that he came each year to perform them.

Every year the Emperor would purify himself by fasting for three days, and then he and his entire retinue would file slowly through the streets of the city to the Temple. Ordinary folk were forbidden from watching the procession and were forced to remain indoors in silence, with windows and doors bolted.

The Emperor would first meditate in the Imperial Vault, spend the night in the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, and perform sacrifices at the Round Altar.

Temple of Heaven Layout

Entering the Temple of Heaven from the North Gate, you arrive first at the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, (otherwise known as the Hall of Annual Prayer). The temple was rebuilt in 1889 after being struck by lightning.

The official explanation for it being struck was that a caterpillar had been allowed to crawl up the roof (thus angering heaven into burning the whole thing down). Thirty two court functionaries were executed for having allowed such a thing to happen.

Next is the Imperial Vault of Heaven, an octagonal wooden structure with a roof of dark blue glazed tiles, beyond which is the Echo Wall. If you stand at one end, a whisper can be heard by someone at the other. If you want to experience this yourself, come before the tour groups get here.

Finally you come to the round altar, three tiers of marble representing Man, Earth and Heaven. The central point of the altar was considered to be the Middle of the Middle Kingdom – the very centre of the earth.

Temple of Heaven Practical Information

The Temple of Heaven Park is open from 6am – 9pm daily, the sights from 8am – 6pm.

The park is located about 2km south of Tiananmen, so a taxi from anywhere around the city centre should take less than twenty minutes, and cost less than 40Y.

Bus no. 17 runs from Qianmen to the West Gate of the Temple of Heaven. No. 106 runs from Dongzhimen, and no. 54 comes from Beijing Railway Station.


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