When a typical person is asked to picture Beijing, they’ll most likely cast up images of the Great Wall, the mighty Forbidden City or perhaps the neighbouring Tiananmen Square. For most Beijingers, the Temple of Heaven is one of the country’s greatest national treasures, representing a guide into the perfect example of their unique culture and history, as well as the city’s meteoric rise to the modern world.
Beijing’s top highlights share a common interest; the rare opportunity for peace and tranquillity from the chaotic madness of Beijing’s streets. On the grounds of spiritual and extensive cultural significance, the Temple of Heaven stands proudly as a national symbol of Chinese history and architecture.
So in that case, here is a comprehensive guide to the Temple of Heaven!
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Table of Contents
The Brief History of The Temple of Heaven
Evidence of that could be seen at the passing of the torch ceremony before the Olympic games, where it was performed at none other than here. It really is a site of great significance in Beijing’s sub-conscience. Strangely however the site of incredible grandeur was originally dedicated to more sacrificial purposes. During the times of the Ming and Qing dynasty, it was a site of sacrifice, both spiritually and literally. Although the sacrifices were believed to be for a worthy cause, for “the Supreme Ruler of the Universe”, to bless the coming year’s harvest. It is in fact the largest sacrificial temple in all of China.
The entire site is also full of numerical and astrological significance in its architecture. Everything down to the number and placement of every stone slap is placed according to cosmological structures. For anyone wondering the reason behind the prevalence of circular structures (notably one used for sacrifice), the shape is supposed to represent the shape of Heaven…
Details About The Temple of Heaven
Due to its position being quite central in the city (Dongcheng District), it’s easy to reach from practically anywhere. You’ll also have a choice of where to begin your journey; East or South. Think carefully, as traditionally the South entrance was traditionally the starting point of the ceremonial procession.
Regardless of which entrance you wish to take, the closest subway station will be Tiantan Dongmen on line 5. From here the closest entrance will be East (Exit A1 or A2). If you wish to enter through the South, you’ll have to walk for a mile-and-a-half southward.
Much like other attractions in Beijing, the price varies depending on the time of year; peak season is 15-35RMB and off-peak 10-28RMB.
IMPORTANT: Just like everywhere else in your time in Beijing, make sure you have your passport or ID. Entrance into the park and seeing all the main attractions don’t require one, but attractions like the Hall of Animal Sacrifice and the Fasting Palace require one.
Things to See at the Temple of Heaven
The Pavilion of Sacrifice
A slight melancholy start to your journey will be at the place of death. This is one of the two sites of animal sacrifice would occur, where butchers would regularly prepare livestock for the ceremonies as far back as 2200 BC. Sacrifices prepared in this pavilion would be burned for the emperor’s sins.
This is one of the best opportunities to saunter through an antiquated stereotypical image of China. Endless huddles of OAPs grouped along the corridors barristers, all enthusiastically and excitedly yelling at a deck of cards, set of dominos, checkers or mah-jong. It’s almost suspicious to see such a great number of intensely gaming older generations conveniently placed all along the 350-meter-long corridor.
Although these days it’s used for more informal fun, in a past life it had more spiritual significance. The corridor was formally used as a route of transportation the day before sacrificial ceremonies. Along this route offerings of fruit and silk would be transported to their place of sacrifice.
From a guide on the Temple of Heaven to the centrepiece of China’s once mighty empire – The Forbidden City
What to see, how to get there
and how to get in.
Kitchen for Sacrifice
Along the Long Corridor you’ll run into yet another significant building when it came to the sacrifices; the Kitchen for Sacrifice. Yet another quite self-explanatory building and yet another significant one in the park’s sacrificial route. This is one of the other attractions in the park that requires proof of ID in order to enter.
The day before the sacrificial ceremonies, the emperor would perform some preliminary rituals. One of which was attending the Fasting Palace. It was also known (rightly so) as the Hall of Abstinence. It’s told here is where the Emperor would reside before his rituals and abstain from all things pleasurable as a sacrifice to the heavens. This included everything from food and music to sex.
Protecting (or captivating) the Emperor from his own wicked desires, the Palace is surrounded by a now-dry moat. The moat is broken through via the main gate and a couple of side entrances.
To grace your presence within the Palace, admittance requires a simple flash of the passport. Within you’ll get a look at the Emperor’s old quarters, as well as a statue of significance. The figure is said to be designed after a man brave (or stupid) enough to point out the faults of the Emperor. It forever represents this man of significant balls as he holds a plaque with a reminder of the Emperor’s task, named the “Rules of the Fast“.
The Imperial Vault of Heaven
Similar to the Hall of Prayer, but on a smaller scale, it differs by having an echo wall surrounding it. The Vault was used as storage for the tablets of the Supreme Ruler of the Universe, which would regularly be transported to the Alter of Heaven. Prayers would be made to the spirits of the sun, moon, stars, clouds, rain, wind and even thunder.
The wall itself has a legend. By standing at one end of the wall and whispering, someone on the other side would hear you. Good luck achieving that with crowds of Chinese tourists.
The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest
At the centre stands undoubtedly the centrepiece of the park, the Hall of Prayer and Good Harvest. Understandingly so, only a few other ancient structures throughout China can compete with this miraculous structure. Standing 38 meters tall surrounded by three beautifully designed tiers of marble. It’s an incredible example of architecture dedicated to spiritual purposes. Even the paint job was carefully designed, as the tones of blue, yellow and green symbolically represent Earth.
Sadly, much like the majority of China’s other treasures, they had to be restored after their destruction through centuries of attacks. However, the previous authentic Ming dynasty structure would have been used by Emperors to display their gratitude and pray for a fruitful harvest in the coming year. This ritual would be regularly done on the 15th day of the lunar month.
Being as it is the centrepiece, this is where you’re most likely to be mobbed by hordes of tourists constantly bumping into you with their sun-protecting umbrellas. However, a quick walk around the perimeter will free you from the drowning mob of tourists.
For more of Beijing’s top sites like the Temple of Heaven, check out my guide on The 20 Best Highlights To See In Beijing.
This spectacular bridge expands 360 meters from the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest all the way to the Circular Altar elevating you only slightly above the greenery below. This is actually considered the oldest ancient bridge in the whole city. The bridge not unlike everything else in the park has its own spiritual representation. The correct way to cross the bridge would be from South to North, up a slight incline. Perhaps this slight up-hill effect was unintentional, however, the direction upwards was seen as the pilgrimage towards the heavens.
A keen eye might notice the 30-meter-wide stone slabs in the bridge’s centre which look remarkably distinct. Namely, there is a beautifully smooth line of slabs in the centre of the bridge from one end to the other. This is surrounded on either side by two lines of less perfect slabs. The central pathway was known as the Divine Road, used solely by the emperor. The brick slabs in the neighbouring lanes would be used by those close to him.
Circular Mound Altar and Lingxing Gates
Here you’ll find yet another magnificent example of architecture that has survived through the years, where many people who attended this spiritually significant site weren’t so lucky. The entire site is full of numerical symbolism displayed by their incredible architecture.
The first dominating structure to be seen is the Lingxing Gates, where the outer and inner walls are pierced with four separate groups of gates, each having three gates. The 24 gates in total are known as the Cloud Gates Forming a Jade Forest.
Behind the gates, you’ll find the spectacular altar. The altar much like others at the park was previously used for sacrifice and specifically engineered to increase the distance that noise (presumably screams) would travel.
Also, at the centre point of the altar is where the emperor once would have stood and called to the heavens so his prayers would be heard. These days the figure of the emperor is changed by the rhythmic change-over of various tourists timidly yelling to hear an echo.
The numerical symbolism continues with 9 different walkways each with 9 steps in total. This is to represent the 9 layers of Heaven, or the positive force Yang.
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