Set in a large, tranquil park about 2km south of Tian’anmen, the Temple of Heaven is widely regarded as the pinnacle 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 is easiest to access via the park’s east gate, which is the only one close to a subway station. Walking, cycling or coming by bus, you’re more likely to enter Tiantan Park from the north or west. Exiting the park via its west gate, you can head a little north to the Museum of Natural History.
Altar of Heaven
This main pathway leads straight to the circular Altar of Heaven, consisting of three marble tiers representing (from the top down) heaven, earth and man. The tiers are comprised of blocks in various multiples of nine, cosmologically the most powerful number, symbolizing both heaven and emperor. The centre of the altar’s bare, roofless top tier, where the Throne of Heaven was placed during ceremonies, was considered to be the middle of the Middle Kingdom – the very centre of the earth. Various acoustic properties are claimed for the altar; from this point, it is said, all sounds are channelled straight upwards to heaven. To the east of the nearby fountain, which was reconstructed after fire damage in 1740, are the ruins of a group of buildings used for the preparation of sacrifices.
Imperial Vault of Heaven
Directly north of the Altar of Heaven, 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.
Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests
At the north end of the park, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, the principal temple building of the entire complex, amply justifies all this build-up. Made entirely of wood, without the aid of a single nail, the circular structure rises from another tiered marble terrace and has three blue-tiled roofs. Four compass-point pillars, representing the seasons, support the vault, enclosed in turn by twelve outer pillars (one for each month of the year and hour of the day). The dazzling colours of the interior, surrounding the central dragon motif on the coffered ceiling, give the hall an ultramodern look; it was in fact 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 crawling to the golden ball on the hall’s apex when the lightning struck. Thirty-two court dignitaries were executed for allowing this to happen.