The Temple of Heaven, or Tiantan in Chinese, is the largest existing complex of ancient sacrificial buildings in China. It is a masterpiece of royal sacrificial buildings complexes and one of the best symbolic illustrations of Chinese cosmology.
Located in southern Beijing, the Temple of Heaven has been one of the most sacred places for more than five centuries, serving as sacrificial buildings for the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) emperors, and is the largest in the city, among several royal altars to Heaven, Earth, the Sun, the Moon and other deities or symbolic forces of Nature.
The Temple of Heaven was built in 1420 during the reign of Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), which originally was an altar to worship Heaven and Earth. It later served as the exclusive imperial altar for Heaven and the Harvest since its worship was divided in 1530, and a new Altar of Earth was built in the northern part of the capital.
Sacrifices to Heaven were arranged every winter. On the 15th day of the first lunar month, on the winter solstice (22nd solar term), and sometime during the first month of summer, the emperor would go to the Temple of Heaven to worship Heaven, to pray for good harvests and rainfall, and to offer sacrifices to the ancestors, gods of the sun, moon and stars, and to gods of the clouds, wind, rain, and thunder and lightning.
The Temple of Heaven symbolizes the relationship between Earth and Heaven, which stands at the heart of Chinese cosmogony, and a special role that were played by emperors within that relationship.
Surrounded by an outer wall of 5 km, it covers an area of 273 ha, thrice the size of the Forbidden City. It is divided into the Inner Temple (Neitan) and the Outer Temple (Waitan) by a double wall.
Main buildings of the Inner Temple are on a north-south axis, including the Circular Mound Altar (Huanqiutan) in the south and the Altar of Prayer for Good Harvests (Qigutan) in the north. The two altars are connected by a brick and stone walkway named, Shendao (Sacred Road), an allusion of the long road to the imperial court. The Outer Temple consists of age-old pinewoods, cypresses and the Department of Sacred Music (Shenyueshu), of which only half remains.
The entire design is symbolic. The southern part of the Inner Temple is square, while the northern part is semi-circular, a pattern representing the ancient belief that Heaven is round and Earth square. The northern wall was built higher than the southern wall, illustrating the notion of Heaven surpassing Earth. Compared to the imposing complexity and intricacy of royal palaces, the altar area is simple, setting off vastness of the sky, and grandeur of Heaven.
In ancient China, odd numbers were regarded as heavenly or related to the sun. Since nine was considered the most powerful number, the altar, a three-tiered terrace, was constructed with rings of stone slabs in multiples of nine, and the steps and balustrades are also in multiples of nine. At the center of the top terrace lies a round stone known as the Center-of-Heaven Stone (Tianxinshi), which has an amplifying impact for speeches delivered from there.
Designed with distinctive compactness and exquisiteness, and decorated magnificently, the Temple of Heaven holds rare beauty even among sacrificial buildings in the country and a valuable part of the architectural heritage of the world.