For most of the four million-plus travellers who visit Beijing every year, the number one sight on the must-see list is the Forbidden City. But there’s another showpiece site in the city that’s just as interesting, and certainly more beautiful: the Temple of Heaven.
Built in 1420, the Temple of Heaven was the ceremonial centre where each year, the Chinese emperor gave sacrifices to the gods on the winter solstice in order to assure good harvests for the coming year. It was a solemn occasion, involving a grand procession from the Forbidden City to the temple site and days of fasting. So the temple itself was fittingly grand, and it’s still a beautiful and fascinating place to see.
The entire temple complex sprawls across 273 hectares of green parkland on the south side of town (though it’s only 10 minutes or so from downtown). And it includes three major ceremonial centres, a small palace and a number of side buildings used in preparing for the yearly sacrifice.
As I wrote in my city guide to Beijing, the Temple of Heaven is a good choice for your first stop in the city, since it gives you a taste of what you’ll see in the Forbidden City. And if you’re still a bit jet-lagged or suffering from the city’s oppressive smog, you can relax amid the lovely green parkland, filled with 4,000 cypress trees, some so old they’re propped up with poles.
There are four gates to the Temple of Heaven complex, and you can enter through any one. You can also get an ingenious electronic guide to help you understand the complex; however, the commentary is so limited that you can get along just as well with a good guidebook.
The Long Corridor
If you enter through the east gate, off Tiantan Donglu, the first impression is that this really is a park, with local people doing tai chi, playing bounce-ball with big paddles or enjoying a game of checkers in the covered walkway called the Long Corridor that leads into the temple complex.
The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests
The Long Corridor leads straight to the major attraction in the complex, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. This is one of Beijing’s landmark buildings, both for its beauty and for its design. With its three-tiered stone pedestal, round roof and elaborate interior, the building is a master class in numerology and Chinese symbolism.
The major elements of the temple are in multiples of three, including the pedestal and the roof with its three eaves.
Inside, the roof is held up by 28 columns, including four huge, ornate pillars that represent the four seasons, plus two sets of 12, representing the divisions of the Chinese calendar. You can’t enter, but you can look inside and admire the ornate decorations — if you can push to the front of the crowd.
In today’s China, the Temple of Heaven is no longer a religious site, but the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests still has an attraction for the local people. Young couples in fancy clothes crowd the entrance stairways and the nearby courtyards, having their wedding pictures taken.
The Red Stairway Bridge
The way south from the Hall of Prayer leads down a long stone walkway, called (for no apparent reason) the Red Stairway Bridge, leading to the other major ceremonial sites. On one side is a small building where the emperor changed clothes — and if you want to spend a few yuan, you can put on the fancy imperial costumes and be your own emperor, at least for a few minutes.
Turning the other way takes you down a lovely garden pathway, lined with trees and flower gardens, on the way to the West Heaven gate. This path also leads to the Fasting Palace, where the emperor stayed and fasted before the sacrifice. It’s an impressive little complex, surrounded by a double moat, but you have to pay a separate fee to get in (give me a break!).
The Imperial Vault of Heaven
Back on the Red Stairway Bridge, the way leads to the Imperial Vault of Heaven. This octagonal building, with its round roof like the one on the Hall of Prayer, was originally where the tablets for the winter ceremony were kept. The major attraction is the Echo Wall: it’s said if you stand nearby and whisper, you’ll be heard at the other end of the wall because of its unique acoustic design. Of course, you have to find a quiet moment amid the crowds — good luck. (Photo by Brian Jamieson)
The Nine Dragon Juniper
Beside the Imperial Vault of Heaven is one of China’s unique attractions, the Nine Dragon Juniper. This 500-year-old tree sports the gnarled bark typical of these living antiques; in this case, the grooves on its bark wind around the tree to make it look like it’s entwined by dragons.
The Circular Mound Altar
The end of the tour is this circular stone patio, built in three ascending rings like the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and surrounded by a stone railing. This was where the emperor offered the sacred sacrifice — usually a sheep or goat — to ensure good weather.
In the centre of the mound is a raised marble tablet called the Heavenly Centre Stone. This was where the court official read prayers during the ceremony, and because of the mound’s shape, his voice seemed to boom out as if he were communicating with God.
The Circular Mound is very different from the rest of the complex, with a somewhat barren feeling, as if you were walking through an ancient Mayan ruin. However, that doesn’t put off the Chinese tourists, who use the Heavenly Centre Stone to have their picture taken in heroic poses. (Photo by Brian Jamieson)
There are other things to see at the Temple of Heaven, including side galleries with old paintings and artifacts that help you visualize what the original ceremony was like. And it must have been a spectacular sight, as the huge procession made its way down Qianmen Dajie in the middle of the city, led by elephants and horse chariots, followed by an armed honour guard with colourful banners and numerous officials and servants.
There are also smaller temples and side buildings used in the ceremony, and the pleasant gardens to walk through if you have time to enjoy them. And it’s worth taking some time to admire the details of the complex, filled with amazing decorations and mythical beasts (like the one pictured above) perched on the eaves to keep the site free from demons.
If you feel like some shopping when you’re done, the Hong Qiao Pearl Market is right across Tiantan Donglu: you can shop for pearls or look through the maze of aisles offering cheap electronics, knock-off watches and a thousand other things. Not exactly heaven — but for shopaholics, maybe it is.