The Earth Altar

Chinese name
地坛 (Dìtán)
Admission
¥2
Hours
6:00-21:00
Address
2 Andingmen Waijie. Dongcheng District (东城区安定门外大街2号)
Transport
Subway – Line 2 or Line 4, Yonghegong Lama Temple Station, Exit A

Just north of the incense-laden Lama Temple is the Earth Altar, or Ditan. Lesser in stature than the mighty Temple of Heaven, it is still of great importance and merit in the Chinese cosmological psyche. The terraced altar platform is the main building attraction. It covers a grand 18,000 sq m (193,750 sq ft) and its great open space and red and yellow tiled walls and gates are more reminiscent of the Forbidden City than its counterpart at Tiantan. Less renovated surrounding structures dot the exterior and put off a rustic mystique that attests to their powerful ancient statuses. As was the case with the Temple of Heaven, ritual was common here until the end of the Qing Dynasty at the turn of the 20th century, and today, the large park and altar platform get regular attention from the locals, who participate in a grand, week-long festival here every year during the Chinese New Year.

History

Signifying their relation, the altar at Ditan, also called Fāngzé Tán (方泽坛), was built in conjunction with the Circular Mound Altar of the Temple of Heaven in 1530. Ditan’s square shape is just another reminder that the ancient Chinese believed the Earth was square. It was at Fangzetan that celestial slaughters of animals were carried out in fashions and on dates coordinating with those at Tiantan. Prior to the sacrifices, emperors had to make sacrifices of their own, and fasting took place inside a triple-palace complex known as the Fasting Palace. Said to mimic another earth altar at the top of Zhongshan Mountain in the old capital of Nanjing, Fangzetan underwent large-scale renovations under the Qing Emperor Qianlong (1735-1796), which included a great enlargement of the park. The park was opened to the public in 1986, and since then there has been a large festival held every January.

Layout

At 42.5 hectares (103 acres), Ditan is not as grand as Tiantan, but is still quite formidable as the second largest of the temple parks. The park is lovely and full of beautiful trees and gardens, and it’s certainly worth a visit if you’re in the area.
Fangze Altar (Fāngzé Tán 方泽坛)
The large altar in the park, Fangzetan symbolizes the Earth and is square shaped. A massive feat of masonry, it covers a huge swathe of the park area, and traversing it is a feat all in its own. At one point it was surrounded by water and was used to offer animal sacrifices to the Earth God.
Echo Wall ( Huíyīn Bì 回音壁)
A stone’s throw north of the Circular Mound Altar is the Imperial Vault of Heaven, surrounded by the curious Echo Wall. A solid 65 m (213 ft) in diameter, the Echo Wall has an interesting acoustic quality: it can transport a mere murmur from one side to the other, retaining the volume of the original utterance. Grab a friend and be wowed as you converse at normal volume from 65 m apart. Unconcerned chattering tour groups or self-centered loudmouths on cellphones can make the Echo Wall frustrating at times, but it has been known to work during busy times, so give it a go. In front of the Vault of Heaven you can find the Triple-Echo Stones ( Sānyīn Shí 三音石). Supposedly, if you clap or shout from one of the three stones, it will be echoed a number of times corresponding to the stone you are standing on (that’s once from the first, twice from the second, etc).
House of Worship for the Earth God ( Huángqí Shì 皇祇室)
One of the park’s major buildings, the House of Worship for the Earth God was obviously used as a spot of worship for the Earth God and others of the Chinese pantheon. Since 1986 it has served as an exhibition room featuring an interesting collection of cultural relics.
Sacrificial Pavilion ( Zǎishēng Tíng 宰牲亭)
Animals were slaughtered the day before the altar ceremony and the killing was done in the Sacrifice Pavilion. Appeasement of the gods meant proper preparation of the sacrifice, which meant animals were carved up and prepared here in whatever fashion would please the gods.
Fasting Palace ( Zhāi Gōng 斋宫)
Actually consisting of three palatial buildings, the Fasting Palace was originally built in 1530, and then rebuilt 200 years later. Emperors were in charge of bringing good omens to their people, and any plights that befell the land were placed squarely on their head; this could lead to dethroning. To prevent losing his all-important power, the emperor would make his own sacrifice with a fast that could last for days.
Divine Warehouse (Shén Kù 神库)
The Divine Warehouse housed the spirit tablets, which, similar to those at the Temple of Heaven, were said to hold the spirits of the emperor’s ancestors during the ceremonies. Sedan cars for carrying the holy tablets were also stored here.
Earth Altar Temple Fair ( Miào Huì 庙会)
If you visit during the Chinese New Year you can join a fantastic week-long fair that is held here each year. Red lanterns adorn the altar, trees and pathways of the park, and you shouldn’t miss this one if you’re in town. Local snacks and art are on display, as well as shows and performances, such as traditional shadow play (silhouettes on a lit screen), Sichuan Opera, and the nationally famed Chinese comic dialogue of xiangsheng (cross-talk, or Chinese stand-up comedy). The festival usually begins one or two days before the Chinese New Year officially commences (usually late January). Keep in mind that the New Year adheres to the lunar calendar, so it varies slightly every year. Check with your hostel or hotel for more information, and visit the website below (only in Chinese) for more info: www.dtpark.com/dtmh.asp.
 

Surrounding Attractions

 

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