This post was last updated on May 2nd, 2020 at 08:29 pm
The Temple of Heaven is seen as one of the most beautiful temples in China. It is also one of the largest. Together with the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Moon and the Temple of the Earth, it is part of the four most important temples of Beijing. However, of the four, this temple is the best-known.
The Temple of Heaven was built in 1420 during the Ming Dynasty. The Forbidden City was also built during this time. The area around the Temple of Heaven is larger than the Forbidden City but the temple itself is smaller than the Summer Palace. During the Ming and Qing Dynasty, the temple was used by emperors to make sacrifices to the gods. They prayed mostly for a good harvest.
This always happened on the day of the winter solstice and it was always the emperors who did this. This is because the Chinese emperors called themselves Tianzi, translated as “The Son of Heaven.” Because of this, they had superiority when it comes to worshipping heaven. The emperors made sacrifices to various gods such as the gods of the earth, water, and war. The emperor had to fast for three days before he could start the ceremony.
It already looks beautiful from a distance
Best Things to See at the Temple of Heaven
The Temple of Heaven itself is reason enough to visit but within this temple, there are a number of buildings/temples that are also worth a mention. It is certainly advisable to visit these buildings and get to know the real story behind the Temple of Heaven. We will describe the most important ones here.
1. Temple of Heaven Park
Mandarin Chinese: 天坛 公园 / Tiāntán Gōngyuán
The entire design of the Temple of Heaven and the surrounding gardens are devoted to the connection between heaven and earth. In Taoism, round shapes represent heaven and square shapes represent the earth. Therefore, the outer wall of the northern part of the park forms a semicircle, while the southern part is square. The Temple of Heaven and the altar are round themselves but built on stone, square platforms.
Furthermore, there are two major roads in the Temple of Heaven, from the East to the West gate and from the South to the North Gate, which divide the park into quarters. In the eastern part, both the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and the Circular Mound Altar have kitchens and pavilions to prepare the offerings, and in the western part lies the Palace of Abstinence, where the Emperor could prepare.
Just to the north are the Hundred Flower Garden, the Chinese Rose Garden, and the Pavilion of Longevity. Furthermore, at the eastern entrance is a rock that symbolizes Taishan, the most famous sacred mountain in China. Finally, the entire park is filled with more than 100,000 cypress trees. Even Chinese sources are not entirely sure, but it is estimated that the oldest of these trees is around 800 years old.
Although not really intended as an attraction, many Western tourists who visit the Temple of Heaven often find the Chinese people themselves the most amazing attraction. Between the eastern entrance gate and the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, there are often hundreds of Chinese, some of them even in traditional costume, dancing, singing, sword fighting, or playing hacky sack.
In itself, this is nothing unusual and you can find scenes like this in parks all over China, but for someone who has never seen it, it is very entertaining.
2. Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests
Mandarin Chinese: 祈年殿 / Qíniándiàn
The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is the largest and best-known structure in the Temple of Heaven. Every winter, the emperor spent the longest night of the year here asking the gods if they could provide a good harvest. If it was a year with a very dry summer, the emperor would also stop by to ask for more rain.
Since both the emperor himself and the people believed that the emperor had a mandate from the gods to rule over the people, it was also believed that a bad harvest meant that the gods were not favorable to the emperor. All the more reason for the emperor to take the prayer very seriously.
At 33 meters high and 24 meters in diameter, the temple, placed on a marble platform consisting of three large steps, has long been Beijing’s tallest building. The special thing about this hall is that only wood was used in the construction and that no metal or cement was used. Symbolism plays an important role in the Temple of Heaven which is also reflected in the structure of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests.
The four central pillars, on which the top of the three roofs rests, represent the four seasons. The next twelve pillars of the second roof represent the twelve months of the year and the outer twelve pillars of the third and lowest roof represent the twelve units of time in which the ancient Chinese divided the days.
Unfortunately, the current Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is not the original from the sixteenth century. In 1889, the gods were not very favorable to the then emperor Guangxu and destroyed the hall by firing lightning from heaven. It was at a time when foreign powers were more or less in charge of China. The emperor himself had nothing to say and he let his aunt rule the country. Not surprisingly, a few decades after this heavenly harbinger, the Chinese empire (including the Temple of Heaven) collapsed.
3. Circular Mound Altar
Mandarin Chinese: 圜丘台 / Huántiūtái
Although it doesn’t really have a graceful name, the Circular Mound Altar is the actual altar where heaven was worshiped and from which the entire Temple of Heaven complex takes its name. After spending the longest night of the year in the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the emperor came here to burn some more cows and sheep.
He also discussed how the past year had been, what sins he had committed, and asked whether the gods wanted to forgive him and the Chinese people. Except for some soldiers, the imperial orchestra, and relatives of the emperor, no one was allowed to watch this ceremony.
All buildings around the Temple of Heaven had to keep the doors and windows closed towards the temple that day. In the last years of the empire, Beijing had a train connection to the sea and even the train was stopped when, for example, the emperor was just burning a cow.
The Circular Mound Altar is a low hill with three platforms made entirely of marble. The lowest platform is 70 meters in diameter, the middle 50 meters, and the highest 30 meters. On top of the highest platform is a round stone, surrounded by nine rings, each a multiple of nine stones. This again has a symbolic meaning, because according to the ancient wise Chinese, 9 was the most powerful figure and, therefore, also the figure of the emperor.
TIP – From the hill, you can get a good view of the Temple of Heaven and the surrounding city. Especially if there is little air pollution after, for example, a rain shower.
4. Vermilion Steps Bridge
Mandarin Chinese: 丹陛 桥 / Dānbìqiáo
The Vermilion Steps Bridge is not really an attraction in itself, but rather part of the whole Temple of Heaven complex. It is also not really a bridge, but an elevated road. Finally, there are also no steps to be seen, but it is an ascending slope. This causeway, 360 meters long and 30 meters wide, connects the Imperial Vault of Heaven with the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests.
It is an ascending road with a somewhat convex, marble path in the middle over which the emperor could walk to heaven, as it were. As you can see in the image above, it can get quite busy here!
5. Imperial Vault of Heaven
Mandarin Chinese: 皇穹宇 / Huángqióngyǔ
At the southern end of the Vermilion Steps Bridge stands the Imperial Vault of Heaven. This building resembles the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, but it’s one of the smaller buildings in the Temple of Heaven complex with only one roof instead of three. It was the repository for sacred relics, such as the stone tablets to worship the sun and moon that can still be seen today.
The Imperial Vault of Heaven is most famous for the Echo Wall that encloses the vault and several outbuildings. It is a round wall of four meters high, one meter thick, and almost 200 meters long. The wall consists of smooth, glazed bricks, and someone standing on one side of the wall can easily have a conversation with someone on the other side. Now it must be said that due to the large crowds it is often not possible to test this unless you want to have a whole conversation with some screaming Chinese tourists.
6. Palace of Abstinence
Mandarin Chinese: 斋 宫 / Zhāigōng
The Palace of Abstinence is one of the lesser-known sights within the Temple of Heaven but definitely worth a look. Surrounded by a moat and high walls to protect the Emperor, this was his residence a few days before the rituals in the temple and on the altar took place.
Inside you will find a bell tower, which sounded when the emperor started the ceremonies, and two small pavilions to keep his spare time interesting. The three days that the Emperor had to fast here meant, in practice, that he should not consume alcohol, eat meat, deal with state affairs, or have sex with the Empress or his concubines.
Furthermore, there is a bathroom, a bedroom, and a library in the palace where the Emperor could prepare for the ceremonies in peace.
The Temple of Heaven is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Attractions within the park that require a separate ticket (see below) close at 5 p.m. (November 1 – February 28), 5:30 p.m. (March 1 – June 30), or 6 p.m. (July 1 – 31) October).
There are different types of tickets for sale at the entrance to the Temple of Heaven, but the simplest is the combination ticket (联 票 / liánpiào) that shows everything. This costs 35 Chinese Yuan (US$4.95) in the high season (April 1 – October 31) and 30 Chinese Yuan (US$4.25) in the low season (November 1 to March 31) and is sold up to an hour and a half before closing time.
Access to the single park itself is also possible (门票/ ménpiào) for 15 Chinese Yuan (US$2.10) in the high season and 10 Chinese Yuan (US$1.40) in the low season, but you are not allowed to enter the main attractions. If you still want to, you can buy separate tickets at the entrances to those attractions.
The price is 10 Chinese Yuan (US$1.40) for the Palace of Abstinence and 20 Chinese Yuan (US$2.80) for the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the Circular Mound Altar, and the Imperial Vault of Heaven together. These tickets are sold up to half an hour before closing time.
How to Get to the Temple of Heaven
The Temple of Heaven can be reached quickly and easily by metro or taxi. Most taxi drivers will take you to the northern entrance gate (天坛 公园 北 门 / Tiāntán Gōngyuán Běimén), and by metro, you can take line 5 to Tiantandongmen, choose exit A, and you are immediately in front of the eastern entrance gate (天坛 公园 东门 / Tiāntán Gōngyuán Dōngmén). In both cases, it takes a few minutes’ walk through the park to get to the sights.
History of the Temple of Heaven
After the Ming (1368-1644) seized power in China, they moved the capital from Nanjing, which means Southern Capital, to Beijing, or Northern Capital. This was because most of the Ming’s power was in northern China. However, before Beijing could be taken as the capital, the then Ming Emperor Yongle felt it necessary to have Beijing filled with imposing structures so that it would become a worthy capital for the Chinese emperors.
One of their most famous structures is the Forbidden City, from which China would be ruled for centuries. The Temple of Heaven, initially jointly with the Temple of Earth, was also built during this period.
The reason the emperor needed temples was that he was considered the Son of Heaven. The Chinese emperor was the representative of all the divine on earth and by praying in these temples the emperor could make contact with the gods. The Temple of Heaven was mainly used to negotiate for a good harvest and plenty of rain, which was a condition for the crops to grow well.
During these negotiations, the emperor and his entourage spent three days camping in the Temple of Heaven, where the emperor then performed all kinds of ceremonies, did not eat meat, and burned cows. Moreover, to keep things a little serious, the ordinary Chinese people were not allowed to see what else the emperor performed in the temple or on the altar.
After the Temple of Heaven was built at the beginning of the Ming Dynasty, it was expanded and repainted several times afterward. The first time at the beginning of the sixteenth century under Emperor Jiajing when the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and the Circular Mound Altar were built. The Temple of Earth that previously stood on the same site was moved to the north of Beijing. Also, the buildings in the northern part of the park were connected to those in the southern part by the Vermilion Steps Bridge.
The second time the complex was expanded was in the eighteenth century under Emperor Qianlong. Among other things, the gardens were expanded considerably; new, higher, and more richly decorated walls were built and the park also got its current, symbolic shapes. In addition, the Palace of Abstinence was constructed during this time.
Like so many historical buildings in Beijing, it was once destroyed by European powers, namely during the Second Opium War in 1860. Forty years later, during the Boxer Rebellion in which attempts were made to expel foreign troops from the country, the Western powers found the Temple of Heaven a suitable location for their military headquarters.
When the empire fell a little later, Yuan Shikai, a rebellious Chinese general who was married to ten women, thought he could become the new emperor and went into the temple to talk to the gods, but it was in vain. In 1918, the Chinese had enough, and the Temple of Heaven was renamed a public park, which incidentally led to a large flow of curious Chinese tourists who had never been allowed to see what the emperor was doing here.
During the twentieth century, the Temple of Heaven and the surrounding attractions have been extensively refurbished, and today it is one of the main tourist attractions of Beijing.