The Temple of Heaven was constructed during the reign of Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty, and completed in 1420, about the same time as the Forbidden City. Nearly 600 years later, the Temple of Heaven still stands intact in the south of Beijing.
The Temple of Heaven, with numerous halls and buildings, covers an area nearly four times as large as the Forbidden City. It not only presents a beautiful spectacle, but also represents the Chinese pursuit of harmony between Heaven and mortals.
The emperor used to offer oblations to Heaven here twice a year, in the spring and winter. The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests was the site of the spring rituals, where the emperor and the ministers would gather for the ceremony signified by the name of the hall. On the Winter Solstice, they would make offerings at the Circular Mound Altar, to show their gratitude for the great compassion of Heaven toward the human world. In times of drought or flood, the emperor would come here with civil and military officials to pray for assistance from Heaven.
Only the emperor could pray at the Temple of Heaven. Ordinary people were not allowed access. Yet the idea of showing awe and respect to Heaven was not reserved for the emperor alone, but was shared by the people as well.
The worship of Heaven among the Chinese dates back to over 3,000 years ago. Our ancestors believed that Heaven, also known as the “Heavenly Deity” or “Heavenly Emperor”, was the mysterious force that directed all things on Earth, such as natural harvests and personal fate. Heaven stood for righteousness. Natural disasters on Earth were regarded as warnings to people for wrongdoings of one kind or another. In the face of a disaster, people would say that’s a punishment from the Heaven. In the second year of the reign of Emperor Guangxu, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests was burned down in a big fire. The emperor lost his composure at the news and all the ministers turned ashen gray, believing the disaster to be a bad omen from the Heaven. To the ancient Chinese people, however, Heaven was more inclined toward love and tolerance, punishing people only occasionally. Thus, our forebears were always grateful to Heaven.
The architecture of the buildings in the Temple of Heaven ingeniously embodies the concept of holding nature in awe. While blue is the thematic color, the three main structures of the Temple of Heaven all stand on triple-terraced white foundations. The colors used invoke a strong sense of purity and sublimity – qualities the Chinese attribute to Heaven.
The Temple of Heaven is supposed to be close to Heaven. The centripetal structures of the two main building of the Temple of Heaven, the Circular Mound Altar and the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, give you a sense of reaching up to Heaven while ascending the steps.
The Circular Mound Altar, as its name suggests, is a round structure with three tiers. When you ascend the steps to the altar, no matter from which of the four directions, you find yourself entering a centripetal world. On the top tier, you find a round stone at the center surrounded by circle after circle of blue flagstones fanning out. The round stone represents the heart of Heaven and is aptly called “Heavenly Heart Stone.” The tablet representing Heaven was placed on this stone when the emperor offered oblations on the Winter Solstice. The process of approaching the Heavenly Heart Stone represents the process of approaching Heaven. The Circular Mound Altar has no physical roof, but is covered only by the boundless sky.
Chinese people believed that people could communicate with Heaven, and the Temple of Heaven was built to enable this. The echo of sound at the Circular Mound Altar and the Imperial Vault Heaven are evidence of what our ancestors believed to be communicating with Heaven.
If you stand on the Heavenly Heart Stone, you can hear your voice rise from underneath your feet and echo back from the wall around the Altar. The resounding echo, according to the designers, represents Heaven’s reply to whatever the speaker asks for.
When you stand inside the outer wall of the Imperial Vault of Heaven and speak into the wall, a friend at a point farther away along the wall can hear your voice, which resembles making a phone call to someone. Hence the nickname “Echo Wall” for the outer rim of the Vault.