WHS: Temple of Heaven, Beijing

Beijing is just packed with World Heritage Sites, and today we’re going to the southern part of the city to visit the

Temple of Heaven: an Imperial Sacrificial Altar in Beijing

Temple of Heaven, Beijing

The Temple of Heaven is an axial arrangement of Circular Mound Altar to the south open to the sky with the conically roofed Imperial Vault of Heaven immediately to its north. This is linked by a raised sacred way to the circular, three-tiered, conically roofed Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests further to the north. Here at these places the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties as interlocutors between humankind and the celestial realm offered sacrifice to heaven and prayed for bumper harvests. To the west is the Hall of Abstinence where the emperor fasted after making sacrifice. The whole is surrounded by a double-walled, pine-treed enclosure. Between the inner and outer walls to the west are the Divine Music Administration hall and the building that was the Stables for Sacrificial Animals. Within the complex there are a total of 92 ancient buildings with 600 rooms. It is the most complete existing imperial sacrificial building complex in China and the world’s largest existing building complex for offering sacrifice to heaven.

Located south of the Forbidden City on the east side of Yongnei Dajie, the original Altar of Heaven and Earth was completed together with the Forbidden City in 1420, the eighteenth year of the reign of the Ming Emperor Yongle. In the ninth year of the reign of Emperor Jiajing (1530) the decision was taken to offer separate sacrifices to heaven and earth, and so the Circular Mound Altar was built to the south of the main hall for sacrifices particularly to heaven. The Altar of Heaven and Earth was thereby renamed the Temple of Heaven in the thirteenth year of the reign of Emperor Jiajing (1534). The current arrangement of the Temple of Heaven complex covering 273ha was formed by 1749 after reconstruction by the Qing emperors Qianlong and Guangxu.

The siting, planning, and architectural design of the Temple of Heaven as well as the sacrificial ceremony and associated music were based on ancient tenets relating numbers and spatial organisation to beliefs about heaven and its relationship to people on earth, mediated by the emperor as the ‘Son of Heaven’. Other dynasties built altars for the worship of heaven but the Temple of Heaven in Beijing is a masterpiece of ancient Chinese culture and is the most representative work of numerous sacrificial buildings in China…

That’s the Altar of Prayer for Good Harvests above; it’s the centerpiece of the Temple of Heaven Park, which you might be surprised to learn is actually larger than the Forbidden City:

Covering an area of 2,700,000 square meters (3,529,412 square yards), Temple of Heaven is larger than the Forbidden City. As the ‘Sons of Heaven’, Chinese emperors were precluded from building a dwelling for themselves that was greater than the earthly residence dedicated to Heaven hence the difference in overall size of the two complexes…

Well, that makes sense, we certainly wouldn’t want Heaven angry with us would we now?

Temple of Heaven, Beijing

This is the Danbi Bridge connecting the northern and southern parts, aka the Sacred Way to ascend into Heaven. Make sure you walk down the central way, that’s the Imperial Route exclusively used by the Emperor leading to…

Temple of Heaven, Beijing

… this gate, through which you can just see…

Temple of Heaven

… the Imperial Vault of Heaven:

The Imperial Vault of Heaven sits to the south of the Altar of Prayer for Good Harvests connected by the Danbi Bridge, and sits to the north of the Circular Mound Altar. Facing south, it has a circular wall with three colored glazed gates. Founded in 1530, the 9th year of the reign of Emperor Jiajing of the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644), it is the place for housing the Gods’ tablets to be used at the Ceremony of Worshipping Heaven…

Our top tip for visiting the Temple of Heaven is, go early and don’t try to cram it into the end of a day: the alleged opening hours are of the park itself and they stop letting people into the various buildings a good bit before that —

— we figured we could get through the Forbidden City in the morning and still have plenty of time to see the Temple of Heaven in the afternoon and stroll through the park and the evening, they being close and all.


p dir=”ltr”>Well, that almost worked, but we were too late to get to many of the interesting interiors here. So devote a day to each, that’s our recommendation!

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  1. […] a bit of a strange one since its 13 properties are the separately inscribed Forbidden Palace and Temple of Heaven sites, plus 11 more mildly to somewhat interesting places immediately around […]

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