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Temple of Heaven

The Temple of Heaven is situated to the east of Tianqiao Street and the southeast of Ti'anmen in Beijing.

The Temple of Heaven, formerly called the Temple of Heaven and Earth, was first built in the 18th year (1420) of the Yongle reign under Ming (1368-1644) Emperor Chengzu, where the emperors of Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911) offered sacrifices to the Gods of Heaven and Earth. In the 9th year (1530) of the Jiajing reign in the Ming Dynasty, a temple was especially built to offer sacrifices to the God of Earth in the northern suburban of Beijing, which was named the Temple of Earth, and therefore the Temple of Heaven and Earth, changed into the present name, was used only to worship the Heaven and pray for grain.

The Temple of Heaven is located in the southeast of Beijing downtown. In the past dynasties of ancient China, the ceremonies of offering sacrifices to ancestors or gods were usually held in the suburbs of the capital, which was called jiaosi (suburban sacrifice) in the historical records. The jiaosi (suburban sacrifice) was the most magnificent ceremony in ancient China, and especially since the Han (206BC-220AD) and Tang (618-907) dynasties, it became more and more solemn. In the official historical records, it was recorded that the most important thing of a state is to offer sacrifice, while the precious place for ancestors is the suburbs. After the reign of Emperor Yongle in the Ming Dynasty, the emperors had to make personal appearance at the Temple of Heaven three times a year. On the day of Shangxin in the first lunar month, he would hold the ceremony named Baguli in the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, praying for abundant harvest of all cereal crops; on the auspicious day in April, he would hold another ceremony named Dianli in the Circular Mound Altar, praying for rain; on Winter Solstice, he would hold the last ceremony named Gaosidi this year in the Circular Mound Altar, reporting to the Heaven that there was a good harvest this year. On the ceremonies, the sacrifices would mainly be offered to the God of Heaven, then the successive generations of ancestors, and the gods of sun, moon and stars, cloud, rain, wind and thunder. The ancient feudal emperors always claimed to Tianzi (the Son of the Heaven), who governed the world under the will of the Heaven. Therefore, the suburban sacrifice served as a good way for the emperors to demonstrate the supreme status and dignity.

The Temple of Heaven is very exquisitely designed. The Circular Mound Altar and the Altar of Prayer for Grain were built together in the same garden. According to thinking and concepts of ancient people, there should be round heaven and square earth. Therefore the southern part of the bounding walls in the temple is square, symbolizing the configuration of the earth, while the northern part is round, symbolizing that of the heaven. As a result, the walls are generally called the Walls of Heaven and Earth. The main buildings in the temple are concentrated on the central axis between north and south, including the Circular Mound Altar and the Altar of Prayer for Grain. Each building was separated by walls but connected by a 30-meter-wide, 360-meter-long causeway, which is known as the Vermilion Steps Bridge. To the south is the Circular Mound Altar, where ceremony of worshiping the Heaven was held, with buildings such as the Circular Mound, and so on; to the north is the Altar of Prayer for Grain, where ceremony of praying for grain was held, with buildings such as the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, the Gate of Prayer for Good Harvest and so on.

The Circular Mound Altar, also called Altar of Worshiping Heaven, was first built in the 9th year  (1530) of the Jiajing reign in the Ming Dynasty, which is a three-storeyed round platform built of white marbles while the surfaces of altar, balustrades and poles are all carved out of a kind of stone. In ancient China, the odd number is named the number of Yang representing the Heaven and the even number is the number of Yin representing the earth. Therefore there should not be any number of Yin that is against the Heaven appeared on the Circular Mound Altar where is a place to worship the Heaven. For instance, the diameters of three floors respectively are 9 zhang, 15 zhang and 21 zhang, with a total of 45 zhang that is the result of 9 multiplying 5. The two numbers 9 and 5 are usually considered as an auspicious sign that means Nine and Five, Dragon Flying in the Sky, Profit Meet Adults. The construction design is very exquisite. There are nine flagstones lying on the base, which contains the meaning of ascending the ninth heaven. Even the number of stone balustrades around the altar is also the number of yang. In the middle of the altar, there is a round flagstone, called Taiji Stone. If shouted on it or it was knocked, the echoes will appear all around, liking what is usually called hundred responds to a single call. In the past dynasties, the emperors explained that the God was giving out imperial decree to the world in order to deceive the people. It sounds ridiculous today because in fact so called imperial decree is echoes occurred when the sound waves are blocked.

The right north of the Circular Mound Altar is where the memorial tablet of the God is placed, called the Imperial Vault of Heaven. The main hall is in the style of single-eaved round pavilion symbolizing the configuration of heaven, with fine gold roof covered with blue glazed tiles. Inside the hall there are eight golden poles and eight eaves poles supporting the huge ceilings. The sunk panels are exquisitely designed, which is the masterpiece of the ancient constructions in China. There are five houses respectively on the east and west side. Outside the hall is a round tall wall, 3.72 meters high, with a diameter of 61.5 meters and a perimeter of 193 meters, which is the famous Echo Wall, one of the marvelous spectacles in the Temple of Heaven.

The main building in the temple is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, where emperors would hold ceremony of worshiping the Heaven and pray for favorable weather and abundant harvests. The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest appears round, 38 meters high, with a diameter of 32 meters. It is a round hall followed the style of a three-eaved pavilion, with fine gold roof covered with blue glazed tiles. The sunk panels of nine dragons are very exquisitely designed, gorgeous and splendid. The construction of the hall is quite unique without the long purling and crossbeams. The roof is totally supported by the poles and square rafters. There are four poles in the middle, 19.2 meters high each, representing four seasons of a year, and 12 poles on each row outside, representing 12 months and hours. The hall is built on a three-floored white marble platform, 6 meters high. If one stands under it, he or she will be suddenly shocked at the majestic momentum of the hall as if it reached into the clouds.

The Sacrificial Palace is inside the western gate, where emperors fast and bathe three days before the ceremony of offering sacrifices to the God. There are double imperial channels outside the Sacrificial Palace, surrounded by 163 sections of cloister on all sides. On the Moon Altar of the main hall are the Pavilion of Fast Bronze Person and Pavilion of Time Tablet. The bronze man holds the tablet of fast, which is said to be molded on Wei Zheng, a famous prime minister in the Tang Dynasty. In the Bell Tower of the northeast corner is hung a bell named Taihe that was built during the reign under Emperor Yongle. During the ceremony, the bell would began to ring when emperors left from the Sacrificial Palace, and the bell stopped ringing as soon as emperors went upon the Circular Mound Altar. When the ceremony ended, the bell would ring again to create an atmosphere for the ceremony.

The Temple of Heaven covers an area of 270,000 square meters, large in scale, looking splendid and magnificent, which is the largest extant group of ancient sacrifice buildings in China. It is famous for the compact layout, unique structure and gorgeous decoration over the world. It not only holds an important position in the history of architecture in China, but also is a piece of precious cultural relics of architectural art in the world.

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