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Temple of Heaven


Building out of an awe of the universe, worship ritual architecture is of great significance in an emperor's plan for the capital. The Temple of Heaven or the Altar of Heaven (Pinyin: tiāntán; 天坛), the outcome of that intention, stands out as the grandest and best preserved of China's worship ritual architecture constructed from 1406 to 1420 during the reign of the Yongle Emperor, and completed together with the Forbidden City in the same year. It then was extended during the reign of the Jiajing Emperor in the 16th century. The Jiajing Emperor also built three other prominent temples in Beijing, the Temple of Sun (日坛) in the east, the Temple of Earth (地坛) in the north , and the Temple of Moon (月坛) in the west. It was visited by the Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties for annual ceremonies of prayer to Heaven for good harvest.


The design of the Temple was to stress the vastness and sublimity of the heaven and thus represent its supremacy in both its overall layout and every single building. Concentric double walls separate the Temple of Heaven into the inner and outer temples, resembling the Chinese character hui(回). The corners of the double walls in the south are rectangular, while those in the north are round, representing a philosophical idea of "round heaven and square earth", which comes from the ancient Chinese understanding of the universe and the relationship between heaven and earth.


Three principle structures lie along the primary north-south axis of the site:


  • The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (祈年殿) is an impressive three-tiered wooden structure that sits on a tri-level marble plinth with 36 meters in diameter and 38 meters tall, The original building was burned down by a fire caused by lightening in 1889. The current building was re-built several years after the incident. The hollow interior is magnificently decorated and contains a large ceremonial throne facing south.
  • The Imperial Vault of Heaven (皇穹宇) is a single-gabled circular building, built on a single level of marble stone base. It is surrounded by a smooth circular wall, the Echo Wall, named for its acoustical properties, permits a whisper spoken at one end to be heard from the other. The Triple Echo Stones in the courtyard return various numbers of echos depending on the stone one stands on.
  • The Circular Mound Altar (圜丘坛) is an empty three-tiered plinth that rises from a square yard. Constructed in 1530 and rebuilt in 1740, it is built of white marble. The number of stones in the various tiers are all multiples of three--a prevailing numerological theme at TiantanThanks to the design of the altar, the sound of the prayer will be reflected by the guardrail, creating significant resonance, which was supposed to help the prayer communicate with the Heaven.


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Earth was represented by a square and Heaven by a circle; several features of the temple complex symbolize the connection of Heaven and Earth, of circle and square. The whole temple complex is surrounded by two cordons of walls; the outer wall has a taller, semi-circular northern end, representing Heaven, and a shorter, rectangular southern end, representing the Earth. Both the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and the Circular Mound Altar are round, each standing on a square yard, again representing Heaven and Earth.


The number nine represents the Emperor and is evident in the design of the Circular Mound Altar: a single round marmor plate is surrounded by a ring of nine plates, then a ring of 18 plates, and so on for a total of nine surrounding rings, the outermost having 9×9 plates.


The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests has four inner, twelve middle and twelve outer pillars, representing the four seasons, twelve months and twelve traditional Chinese hours respectively. Combined together, the twelve middle and twelve outer pillars represent the traditional solar term.


All the buildings within the Temple have special dark blue roof tiles, representing the Heaven.


The Temple of Heaven was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998 and was described as "a masterpiece of architecture and landscape design which simply and graphically illustrates a cosmogony of great importance for the evolution of one of the world's great civilizations..." as the "symbolic layout and design of the Temple of Heaven had a profound influence on architecture and planning in the Far East over many centuries.




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