Spellbinding in their conception and execution, the geometrically divine altars and halls built within Temple of Heaven Park are utterly transcendent. The complex is a masterpiece of Ming architectural design and valiantly demonstrates the significance of cosmology in China’s dynastic history. More of a set of juxtaposed altars than a temple, they are divided into two sections: north and south. The northern group is laid out on a semi-circle – a circle represents heaven in traditional Chinese thought – and revolves around the peerless Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. The southern group sits in a large square, and as such is a representation of the ancient Chinese impression of earth.
Since the 3rd century BCE, Chinese emperors were considered the Sons of Heaven, and for centuries they came to these hallowed altars to perform esoteric rituals, prayers and sacrificial offerings; a multi-day ceremony to atone for the sins of the nation and bring about good harvests. The symbolism of the magnificent complex is incredible to contemplate: a one-of-a-kind combination of shapes, colors, and even sounds built specifically to influence the cosmos.
Another great reason to hit up Tiantan (as if you needed one) is the huge 276 hectare (682 acre) park that surrounds the altars. A daily local hangout, it is one of the best places in the city to find Beijingers dancing, singing, playing cards or just getting down.
Before You Go
Expect a good half-day at the Temple of Heaven. It’s one of Beijing’s more captivating sights, so it’s very unlikely that you’ll be leaving early. There are snacks and drinks sold inside, but they are generally overpriced junk food. Bringing your own snacks can be worthwhile, but packing a lunch is not necessary. Unless you are on a tight budget, the neighborhood offers eateries as well. Good shoes are important, and packing water will prevent you from paying big markups inside.
Info & Cautions
There are two ticket types when entering the Temple of Heaven park: one gives you basic access to the park but not the buildings (¥15), but you can upgrade this ticket from the inside if you need. The other is a through-ticket that gives access to everything (¥35). If it is your first time visiting, don’t fool around with the basic access ticket. We guarantee you will be dropping the extra ¥20 once you enter the parks and see the altars and halls looming in the background, so save yourself some time and buy the full ticket from the get-go. The all-access tickets have stubs that are torn off for each the northern and southern altars, so get your fill before moving on, as there is no reentry after the stub is torn.
It is not surprising that the Temple of Heaven was built at the same time as the Forbidden City, from 1406 to 1420, considering their ceremonial and cosmological relation (the Forbidden City is the central point of the altar system). The Ming Emperor Yongle oversaw the construction of the two mighty projects, built during the same 14 year period. The relatively close proximity of the two complexes was intentional, as each winter solstice the emperor would march to the Temple in a grand regal procession to commence several days of ritual and veneration to the ancestral dead and the cosmos. When the first lunar calendar month reached its middle, the emperor would again make a visit, expanding on his earlier reverence. It was the Emperor Jiajing who, in 1530, bestowed Tiantan with its current name and built the corresponding altars of the Earth, Sun, and Moon to the north, east, and west. The last dynasty-era renovations of the temple were made by the Qing Emperor Qianlong in the 18th century.
Like many unfortunate masterpieces of its time, the Temple of Heaven was occupied and ransacked by the Anglo-French alliance during the Second Opium War (1858-60), and again by the Eight Nation Alliance during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion. The large desecration of the temple’s buildings increased even further when countless artifacts and relics were pirated from the complex, many of which remain abroad in museums and collections.
The last ceremonial procession entered Tiantan in 1914 when Yuan Shikai (袁世凯), then President of the Republic of China, performed a Ming prayer ceremony at the temple as part of an epically failed effort to have himself declared Emperor of China. In 1918 the Temple was turned into a park and for the first time opened to the public. About 80 years later it was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The ancient Chinese belief that the Earth is square and heaven is round is dually reflected in the masterful design of the Temple of Heaven. First, the major altars and halls are circular in design and mounted inside great square yards. Second, and perhaps more ceremoniously significant, the design of the altar complex integrates two distinct cordons of walls: a southern section that is square, capped by a semi-circular northern level. The imperial approach to the temple proceeded via the southern Zhaoheng Gate (Zhāohēng Mén; 昭亨门); as the emperor proceeded from the squared south to the circular north, it geomantically symbolized his ascent into heaven.
The presentation of the major sights below will put you on course to follow the emperor, but you may enter the altar complex through any one of four gates, each located at one of the cardinal directions. Outside of these gates is the Temple of Heaven park area. There is a very nice forest of ancient trees covering a large area of the park, but their unnatural and systematic placement is a little bit odd. Keep an eye out for cypress trees dating back hundreds of years.
Circular Mound Altar ( Yuán Qiū 圜丘)
Odd numbers were considered heavenly in early Chinese thought, and being that nine is the largest single digit odd number, it is the name of the game at the artfully masoned Circular Mound Altar. Originally built in 1530 and again in 1740, the altar is cut from white marble, stands 5 m (16.5 ft) high and rests on a three-tiered terrace of nine rings each. It is said that each tier corresponds to a layer in a three echeloned universe: the upper symbolizing heaven, the middle as earth, and the bottom nine-ringed tier representing humanity. Count the stairs and balustrades and you will notice their nonuple (multiples of nine) presentations as well. Speaking from the center of the top terrace will reflect the speaker’s voice among the balustrades and increase the volume at which it is heard. Apparently, even the powerful voice of the imperial Sons of Heaven needed an extra push to reach the cosmos.
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).
Imperial Vault of Heaven ( Huáng Qióngyǔ 皇穹宇)
The Imperial Vault of Heaven served as a clothes-changing chamber where the emperor would don his ceremonial robes. It also housed the arcane spirit tablets of his ancestors and it was said their spirits resided in the tablets during the ceremony. The vault is the same age as the neighboring Circular Mound Altar and sits on the same meridian line as the elder Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Behind the Vault of Heaven rests the Grandfather Tree or Nine-Dragon Tree, a 500-year-old juniper with grizzled knots and intertwining branches, said to represent nine dragons. From here the emperor made his way up the gradual incline of the Vermillion Steps Bridge ( Dānbì Qiáo 丹陛桥 ) – a 360 m (1,181 ft) long raised walkway – to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests.
Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (Qínián Diàn 祈年殿)
The Temple of Heaven’s flagship structure, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is so brilliantly enthralling it could singlehandedly make your trip to Tiantan worthwhile. Sitting majestically atop a three-tiered marble terrace and boasting a tremendous triple-gabled roof, the 38 m- (128 ft)-high hall is made entirely of wood and, stunningly, without a single nail or drop of cement. It is supported by 28 wood pillars. The central four pillars are known as the Dragon Fountain Pillars. They sit on compass points and symbolize the four seasons, while the next row of 12 pillars represents the months of the year, and the outer ring of 12 represents a day in twelve segments. The roof, with its three umbrella-style eaves, is carpeted with 50,000 blue tiles – blue represents heaven in the Chinese color schema – and is crowned with a golden bulb. Glance inside to see the painstakingly intricate patterning on the coffered ceiling, which surrounds a royal dragon motif.
The golden tip that adorns the towering structure has caught more than just the attention of the awestricken. In 1889 it was struck by lightning, and the ensuing blaze reduced the original 15th century building to cinders. It was at this time that the grand wooden pillars were carted in to rebuild the structure, taking great pains to remain faithful to every detail of the original Ming design. For allowing such an abominable event to happen, the heads of 32 “guilty” court officials rolled off the guillotine.
As you peruse the complex, don’t forget to grab a peek at the other interesting structures dotted about. The Long Corridor ( Cháng Láng 长廊) is in the park grounds (not the cordoned temple area) and will greet guests who approach from the east entrance (or those that leave through there). It is unmistakably marked by Chinese pursuing an array of leisurely activities; such as playing cards and Chinese chess, singing Peking Opera, jamming traditional instruments, and dancing.
Near the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the green glazed tiles of the Animal Killing Pavilion (Zǎishēng Tíng 宰牲亭) are hard to miss. Good on its name, it was the happening spot where sacrificial oxen, sheep or other animals were brought to meet their maker. Peek in the Divine Music Administration ( Shényuè Shǔ 神乐署), to the west of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests to see where sacrificial music was rehearsed. Nearby, the Palace of Abstinence (Zhāi Gōng 斋宫 ) was the emperor’s fasting quarters, and to the north you will find the flower embedded Double Rings Longevity Pavilion (Shuānghuán Tíng 双环亭).
Don’t miss the locals using the exercise equipment, quiet pathways, and danceable plazas in this park. The exercise equipment looks like something from an overgrown preschool, and the dancing you will find here ranges from bumping pop to bordering-on-perverse tangos. It’s all a wonderful sight. There are also over 4,000 ancient cypress trees in the park, some of which are 800-years-old.