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Documentary > Top Choice

Top Choice 03/08/2015 World Heritage China Part 28- The Temple of Heaven


03-08-2015 22:16 BJT

Assessment of the World Heritage Committee:

The Temple of Heaven was built in the first half of the 15th century. Located in an imperial garden surrounded by old pine trees, it is a beautiful and solemn sacrificial building. No matter the overall layout or the individual building, they all reflect the relationship between heaven and earth, which occupied a central role in the view of temples in ancient China. Meanwhile, these buildings also reflect the unique role played by the emperors and their officials in the relationship.

Chinese Name: Tian Tan

English Name: Temple of Heaven

Code: 200-021

According to cultural and natural heritage selection criteria C (I) (II) (III), the Temple of Heaven was included in the World Heritage List in 1998.

Temple of Heaven

Temple of Heaven

The Temple of Heaven was built in the 18th Yongle Year of the Ming Dynasty (1420), and was the dedicated sacrificial altar used by emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties to makes sacrifices to heaven, pray for rain and a harvest year. The Temple of Heaven is almost a square altar, with two corners in the south side being right angles and the north side being arc-shaped, which reflect ancient Chinese people's understanding of heaven and earth of "Heaven being circular and Earth being square." The Temple of Heaven is surrounded by double walls, with the outer wall standing at 1,650 meters long from the south to north and 1,725 meters from east to west, and the inner wall standing at 1,243 meters long from south to north and 1,046 meters from east to west. The center of the Temple of Heaven is called the "inner altar" while the section between the two walls is called the "outer altar," with the main entrance set in the west side of the outer altar.

The sacrificial buildings are concentrated in the inner altar and divided into two parts, with the southern part being the Circular Mound Altar and northern part being the Altar of Prayer for Grain. The southern and northern altars are linked by the Danbi Bridge, a 360-meter-long bricked path above ground level, acting as the the axis of the Temple of Heaven that is 1,200 meters long. The Circular Mound Altar covers an area of around 45 hectares, and consists of the circular mound, Lingxing Gate, Imperial Vault of Heaven, divine storage and kitchen and Slaughter Pavilion. The ceremony of “sacrificing to heaven” was held there on the winter solstice. The Altar of Prayer for Grain covers an area of 72 hectares and its main building include the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, the Hall of Imperial Zenith, the divine kitchen, the Slaughter Pavilion and the gallery. The "Prayer ceremony for Good Harvest" was held there every spring, praying for a bumper harvest year.

An imperial palace surrounded by a moat located in the west gate of the inner altar is known as "the Hall of Abstinence," and is where the emperors lived while they fasted before offering sacrifices. The palace has the Beamless Hall, the Resting Hall, the Bell Tower and some other buildings and covers an area of 4 hectares. The Divine Music Administration for management of sacrificing music and dance and the Department for Sacrifices for rearing slaughtered sacrifices are subsidiary buildings and are located in the west of outer altar.

The main building of the Temple of Heaven is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest and the emperors had held the ceremony of sacrificing to heaven there every year to pray for good weather and the bumper harvest. The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest is a round hall with a pinnacle and triple eaves and was built based on the respect for God. The hall is nine zhang (about 27 meters) high and has a circumference of 30 zhang (about 90 meters), representing 30 days in a month. There are four pillars in the center of the hall, known as "Dragon-Well Pillars" which are about 19 meters high with the diameter of the larger end being 1.2 meters.

The foundation of the pillars looks like an ancient mirror and the body of the pillars were decorated with various flowers and look beautiful and magnificent, symbolizing the four seasons of a year. There are 12 gold pillars in the middle layer, symbolizing 12 months in a year, and 12 peripheral pillars are in the outer layer, a symbol of 12 hours a day. The total 24 pillars of the middle and outer layers are a symbol of the 24 solar terms in a year. Plus the four pillars in the center, the 28 pillars represent the 28 constellations in the sky. Plus the eight short pillars on the top of the hall, there are a total of 36 pillars, which symbolize the 36 stars in the Big Dipper. There is a short column on the top of the hall, known as the "Thunder God Column," which is a symbol of the emperors unifying the whole country.

Heritage value:

The ancient altar architectural complex has a high historical value, scientific value, unique artistic value and even profound cultural connotations.

The design and construction of the Temple of Heaven had concentrated the quintessence of architectural technology and art in the Ming and Qing dynasties. The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest and the Imperial Vault of Heaven are large, refined and cleverly designed palaces with wooden constructional elements and a circular plane, and are seldom seen in Chinese ancient architectures. With a large area of trees and rich vegetation, the Temple of Heaven has created a harmonious ecological environment. It is an example of studying ancient architecture and ecological environment, and has great scientific value and is an outstanding example of imperial altar buildings.

In addition, the Temple of Heaven has deep cultural connotations, which makes it more characteristic. The theories of yin and yang and the five elements in the Book of Changes were used on the location selection, planning, construction, as well as the sacrificial rites and music and dance, which successfully expressed the ancient Chinese’s understanding of the heaven and the relations between heaven and man, as well as their desire of Heaven. For example, the figure "nine" was repeatedly used on the size and the number of constructional elements of the circular mound to symbolize heaven and emphasize the relations between heaven and man.

With roundness and blue representing heaven, the pillars in the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest in the Temple of Heaven respectively imply four seasons, 24 solar terms and 12 months in a year, 12 shichen in a day (there were 12 shichen in a day in ancient China and a shichen is two hours), as well as the constellations in the sky such as the fixed stars. It is the only existing Ming Tang-style building (Ming Tang was a dedicated ritual building constructed according to astronomical phenomena and geomancy) and is the carrier of ancient Chinese culture.

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