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Archit & Design
Secrets of the Temple of Heaven

A world-class artistic treasure, Beijing"s Temple of Heaven has many stories behind its architectural charm. Built by Emperor ChengZu in 1420, the Temple of Heaven was used as a place of worship by a succession of emperors in the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911). The plain round altar called Huanqiu Hill, was rebuilt in 1752 during the reign of Qing Emperor Gaozong. The Qiniandian or Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests was rebuilt in 1890 under Emperor Dezong.

The Temple of Heaven is enclosed by two walls and stretches 1,700 m from east to west and 1,600 m from north to south. There are square corners in the southern side and round corners in the northern side, symbolizing the roundness of heaven. East of the front (west) gate, within the inner wall there is a zhaigong (fasting-palace) in the south for the emperor to fast and bathe before worship. Further east is a north-south vertical axis formed by the main buildings. Huanqiu is in the south with a three-layered stone terrace. Within the Beiyuan courtyard of Huanqiu is a round hall - the imperial vault where the spirit tablet of the heavenly god lies. Further north is the Qiniandian Hall accessed by Danbi Bridge.

 

Danbi bridge - Beijing"s first overpass

Danbi Bridge is actually the main road in the Temple of Heaven and connects the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest with the Imperial Vault of Heaven. It"s 360 m long and 29.4 m wide and ascends from one meter high in the south to three meters high at the northern end. The increasing height of the bridge has two meanings: first it represents the course of the emperor "stepping upward toward heaven"; and it also shows that the road from earth to heaven is long. Danbi Bridge was the only way for the emperor to get to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. The central path was reserved for divine gods, the path on the left was reserved for the emperor and court officials used the path on the right You may ask, "it"s obviously a road, so why is it called a bridge?" The bridge is four meters above ground, and a tunnel passes under the path, so it"s correct to call it a bridge. The tunnel is called Jin Sheng Gate, meaning the way for sacrifices. Cows and sheep were herded into the Butchery Pavilion to be sacrificed. Of course these animals weren"t allowed to walk on the sacred Danbi Bridge, so the tunnel was built for them, creating China"s first cloverleaf junction. The tunnel is also called the Gate of Hell, and no one dares go near it.

 

The famous Echo Wall at the Heart of Heavenly Stone
The Heart of Heavenly Stone lies on the center of the Circular Mound Altar. In the past, when emperors delivered ceremonial speeches here a magical thing happened: even if the emperor spoke quietly, his voice sounded so powerful it could be heard clearly by the whole audience. The emperors interpreted this phenomenon as evidence that they were TianZi (the sons of God), and proclaimed this mysterious phenomenon meant everyone must obey them or run the risk of being an enemy of God. Of course, there is a scientific reason behind this phenomenon. Sounds from the Heart of Heavenly Stone are rapidly echoed by the surrounding stone walls, and the loud voice heard by emperors and officials is actually a mixture of the original voice and echoes. But because the distance between the Heavenly Center Stone and the stone walls is short, the original sound can hardly be distinguished from the echo so people heard a louder voice. A new layer of stone was added to protect the original which was eroded by large numbers of tourists, this changed the acoustics of the Circular Mound Altar. These days there"s usually a crowd of people standing between the Heart of Heavenly Stone and the stone walls so visitors can barely hear the echo. But it"s still a wonderful experience to have a chance to stand where emperors once stood and hear your voice go straight up to heaven.

 

The rise and fall of the Divine Music Administration

The Divine Music Administration was responsible for the divine music performances in the heaven-worshipping ceremonies. All the officials, musicians and dancers were Taoists - not regular Taoists who devote all their time to studying the sutra, but Chinese classical and folk music experts. As well as preparing the twice-yearly performances, the Taoists developed two other interests - gardening and pharmacy. Gradually, the Divine Music Administration became one of the busiest temple fairs in Beijing until the beginning of the Qing Dynasty . The Divine Music Administration"s most famous medicine was the herb motherwort (Yi Mu Cao). The soil around the Temple of Heaven is very suitable for growing of this herb. Many medicine shops were built and the practitioners became wealthy. With the improvement of processing skills, the Taoists began to export motherwort and it became one of China"s earliest export commodities. After the fall of the Qing Dynasty, Yuan Shikai dismissed the Taoists and closed their shops, allowing motherwort to be collected only in the autumn. This led to decline of the motherwort trade and the Divine Music Administration.

The Emperors" enormous lanterns of worship
To the west of the Zhao Xiang Gate (the South Heaven Gate of the Temple of Heaven), stand three big stone daises called Wang Deng Tai (roughly "lantern viewing platforms"). Each dais has a pole called a Wang Deng Gan built in 1530 to hang lanterns for early morning ceremonies. The lanterns were used only by the emperor and were made according to specific measurements. In traditional Chinese culture, the number nine means noble and powerful and could only be used by emperors. So the length of the Wang Deng Gan is 9 zhang 9 chi 9 cun (one zhang is 3.3 m, one chi is 33 cm and one cun is 3.3 cm). The lanterns hanging on the Wang Deng Gan are much bigger than ordinary ones. They are about two meters wide and two and a half meters high - almost as big as a small room. The lanterns" skeletons are made of wire with yellow cotton fabric pasted over. Candles were placed on the wooden bases, lit and lanterns fitted on top. The candles used were made of yellow wax given as tribute by Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, and processed by the Imperial Household Department (Nei Wu Fu). The candles were 1.3 m high and up to 33cm wide with a loong imperial dragon representing luck and fortune carved into them. These extremely expensive candles could burn for 12 hours without needing to be trimmed or have oil added.

 
   
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