The Temple of Heaven
One of the key tourist sites in Beijing, this is more than a set of historical buildings. It has cultural, spiritual and political significance in a vast park-like setting not far from the centre of Beijing.
The temple of Heaven was built in 1420 , during the early Ming dynasty, after the Forbidden City construction was finished. Although renovated during the Qing dynasty, with some additions, the basic layout and structures remain the same. It is set in grounds of 280 hectares, four times the size of the Forbidden City, much of which is in a park setting, covered in trees. The three key buildings are on a straight, long, North-South axis.
The significance is twofold: it functioned as a site for the Emperor to worship Heaven, and to perform rituals praying for good harvests. In traditional Chinese thinking, heaven is a large vault suspended above the ground, and is symbolised by circular and cylindrical structures. Land is seen as square. The three main structures in the Temple of Heaven – the Altar of Heaven, the Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest – are all conical in shape. The walls surrounding them are square.
Numbers are also significant. In 1991, when visiting here with my family, my wife – always the teacher – used the structures to exercise our 7 year old daughter’s nine times tables! Heaven and the Emperor are represented by the biggest single number- the number nine. Nine and multiples of nine are most commonly used in the structures. For example, the Altar of Heaven, also called ‘Circular Mound’ is made of stone slabs. A slab at the top, in the centre, is round, surrounded by nine stone slabs, with eighteen in the second circle, 27 in the third, down to 81 in the ninth outer circle. The railings on each of three platforms are also in multiples of nine, with 36, 72 and 108 at the bottom; each platform is connected by nine steps.
Spend an hour, or extend your visit to enjoy the people at play and rest in the extensive park surrounds.