The Temple of Heaven
My attempt to sort and process my endless supply of China photographs continues, and today’s installment is the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. We spent a few rewarding hours wandering around here on a very grey day at the end of March. A classic example of Ming design, this striking set of structures was originally used as the setting for various rites related to harvests and other things, which were performed by the Emperor (the “Son of Heaven”). It dates back to 1406, though some of the original buildings were destroyed and later rebuilt.
Photo via Asia Travel
The geometry of the whole complex was really interesting, as you can see above. The round temple halls symbolize heaven, while the square bases symbolize the earth. The northern rim of the park is semicircular, while its southern end is square.
The temple buildings exist within a walled 267-hectare park with a gate at each compass
point. My friend told me that elderly people often gather to do tai chi in the mornings, and we saw a few examples of these on our stroll. We also witnessed an interesting bout of karaoke—someone had brought the equivalent of a home stereo system to the park, and a small crowd had gathered to listen to the musical stylings of a few adventurous individuals. Other than that, however, the park had a very serene atmosphere.
The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests became visible to us as we neared the outer wall surrounding the complex. This building (shown in its full magnificence in the first photograph of this post) was definitely the most striking structure, a triple-gabled circular structure built atop a triple-tiered marble terrace. The wooden pillars support the ceiling without nails or cement, which is impressive considering that the hall is 38 meters high and 30 meters in diameter. This definitely stood out among the other architectural treasures I saw in Beijing.
Like many of the other historical sites I visited in China, the Temple of Heaven separates its architectural gems with dramatic gates, breaking the expanse of the complex into a series of smaller courtyards (although not nearly to the same extent as the Forbidden City). Through the doorway above, you can see the Imperial Vault of Heaven, a single-gabled circular building built on a single-level marble stone base (notice a theme here?). This hall used to contain tablets of the emperor’s ancestors, which were used during winter solstice ceremonies. The Imperial Vault of Heaven is surrounded by the circular “Echo Wall,” within which it is said that a whisper can travel clearly from one end to your friend’s ear at the other. I didn’t get to try this out, unfortunately.
The Circular Mound Altar is another highlight of the complex. It consists of three tiers of white marble, and its various elements revolve around the number nine. (Odd numbers are said to possess heavenly significance, with nine being the largest single-digit odd number.) The top tier symbolizes heaven; it is a huge mosaic of nine rings, each composed of multiples of nine stones, so that the ninth ring equals 81 stones. The stairs and balusters are similarly presented in multiples of nine. The center of the altar is a round slate called the “Heart of Heaven” or the “Supreme Yang,” where the Emperor prayed for favorable weather. Similar to the Echo Wall, the Circular Mound Alter is designed such that sounds generated from the center of the upper terrace are amplified by the surrounding marble balusters; this was supposed to help to communicate the Emperor’s prayer to heaven. Many tourists lined up for a chance to have their pictures taken while standing on the Heart of Heaven, including one of my friends.
This final photo is a shot looking toward the exit from the Circular Mound Altar. This was definitely a great way to spend a few hours—interesting, manageable, and a bit different from the other sights in Beijing. Although it might not be at the top of my list of must-see places to visit, it’s definitely a nice place to visit if you have a spare morning or afternoon.
More travel photos coming soon!