Set in its own large and tranquil park about 2km south of Tian’anmen along Qianmen Dajie, Tiantan, otherwise known as the Temple of Heaven (天坛, tiāntán), is widely regarded as the high point of Ming design. For five centuries it was at the very heart of imperial ceremony and symbolism, and for many modern visitors its architectural unity and beauty remain more appealing – and on a much more accessible scale – than the Forbidden City.
The temple was begun during the reign of Emperor Yongle and completed in 1420. It was conceived as the prime meeting point of Earth and Heaven, and symbols of the two are integral to its plan. Heaven was considered round, and Earth square, thus the round temples and altars stand on square bases, while the whole park has the shape of a semicircle sitting beside a square. The intermediary between Earth and Heaven was, of course, the Son of Heaven, the emperor, and the temple was the site of the most important ceremony of the imperial-court calendar, when the emperor prayed for the year’s harvests at the winter solstice. Purified by three days of fasting, he made his way to the park on the day before the solstice, accompanied by his court in all its magnificence. On arrival, he would meditate in the Imperial Vault, ritually conversing with the gods on the details of government, before spending the night in the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. The following day, amid exact and numerological ritual, the emperor performed animal sacrifices before the Throne of Heaven at the Round Altar.
It was forbidden for the commoners of old Beijing to catch a glimpse of the great annual procession to the temple and they were obliged to bolt their windows and remain, in silence, indoors. The Tiantan complex remained sacrosanct until it was thrown open to the people on the first Chinese National Day of the Republic in October 1912. Two years after this, the infamous General Yuan Shikai performed the solstice ceremonies himself, as part of his attempt to be proclaimed emperor. He died before the year was out.
The temple buildings
Although you’re more likely to enter the actual park from the north or the west, to properly appreciate the religious ensemble it’s best to skirt round to the south entrance, the Zhaohen Gate, from where you can follow the ceremonial route up through the complex. The main pathway from Zhaozhen leads straight to the Round Altar, consisting of three marble tiers representing Man, Earth and (at the summit) Heaven. The tiers themselves are composed of blocks in various multiples of nine, which the Chinese saw as cosmologically the most powerful odd number, representing both Heaven and Emperor. The top terrace now stands bare, but the spot at its centre, where the Throne of Heaven was placed, was considered to be the middle of the Middle Kingdom – the very centre of the earth. Various acoustic properties are claimed for the surrounding tiers, and from this point it is said that all sounds are channelled straight upwards. To the east of the fountain, which was reconstructed after fire damage in 1740, are the ruins of a group of buildings used for the preparation of sacrifices.
Directly ahead, the Imperial Vault of Heaven is an octagonal structure made entirely of wood, with a dramatic roof of dark blue, glazed tiles. It is preceded by the so-called Echo Wall, said to be a perfect whispering gallery, although the unceasing cacophony of tourists trying it out makes it impossible to tell.
The principal temple building – the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, at the north end of the park – amply justifies all this build-up. It is, quite simply, a wonder. Made entirely of wood, without the aid of a single nail, the circular structure rises from another three-tiered marble terrace to be topped by three blue-tiled roofs of harmonious proportions. Four compass-point pillars support the vault (in representation of the seasons), enclosed in turn by twelve outer pillars (for the months of the year). The dazzling colours of the interior, surrounding the central dragon motif, make the pavilion seem ultramodern; it was, in fact, entirely rebuilt, faithful to the Ming design, after the original was destroyed by lightning in 1889. The official explanation for this appalling omen was that it was divine punishment meted out on a sacrilegious caterpillar, which was on the point of reaching the golden ball on the hall’s apex when the lightning struck.