Temple of Heaven and Its Sacrificial Altar Where Blood Was Spilt for Bountiful Harvests
The Temple of Heaven in Beijing dates back almost 600 years, to a time when Chinese emperors sacrificed animals to the gods on the temple’s altars to atone and beseech them to bestow bountiful harvests on the people.
People consider the Temple of Heaven the finest example of traditional Chinese architecture. It incorporates advanced architectural and engineering feats.
The large, well-preserved complex consists of 92 buildings with 600 rooms that sit on 273 hectares (675 acres) near the Forbidden City, an imperial administration complex and residence.
Symbolic Layout of the Temple of Heaven
Architecture and planning across East Asia show a profound influence from the symbolic layout and design of the Temple of Heaven.
The buildings layouts are in line with the traditional Chinese belief that the Earth is square and heaven is round. The temple’s bases are square, and the walls are round.
The design and layout of the Temple of Heaven also symbolize the feudal dynasties that ruled China for more than 2,000 years.
Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (Creative Commons photo/Saad Akhtar)
Temple of Heaven Facts
The layout and architecture of the Temple of Heaven incorporate philosophy, cosmogony, art, science and of course sacrificial rituals of the time it was used by people propitiating the gods. The magnificent temple is a showcase for cultural and political concepts of the time as well as historic characteristics.
- Journey to Hell, Featuring Torture and Never-ending Bureaucracy: Understanding the Underworld in Chinese Mythology
- Reading Oracle Bones and Writing the Future in the Shang Dynasty
Double Ring Longevity Pavilion in Temple of Heaven Park (Vmenkov / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Buildings in the complex include:
- The Circular Mound Altar, which is open to the sky
- The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, a circular building in three tiers with a conical roof
- The Hall of Abstinence, where emperors went to fast after they sacrificed
- The Divine Music Administration hall that is between the double walls with pines trees that surround the complex
- And the Stables for Sacrificial Animals. The people kept oxen, deer, sheep, and other animals here until slaughter and burning on the altars.
The Temple of Heaven is the largest surviving complex in the world for making sacrificial offerings to gods. It is the most complete historical, imperial building in China dedicated to sacrifices.
- Octagonal Walled, Pyramidal Chinese Tomb Whispers Ancient Moral Messages
- Sacrificed humans found in ancient Chinese tombs from the Qijia Culture
Scheme of the temple of Heaven in China. 1 = Hall of prayer for Good Harvests. 2 = Seven-Star Stone Group. 3 = Imperial Music Store. 4 = Fasting Palace. 5 = Echo Wall. 6 = Imperial Vault of Heaven. 7 = Divine storehouse. 8 = Circular Mound Altar. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Construction of Temple of Heaven
Ming Dynasty Emperor Yongle commissioned construction of the Altar of Heaven and Earth. Construction began in 1406 and ended on the first buildings in 1420, the same year construction ended on the Forbidden City.
Emperor Jiajing made the decision in 1530 to build the Circular Mound Altar so he could make separate sacrifices to Earth and heaven. He renamed the Altar of Heaven and Earth as The Temple of Heaven.
The way the complex stands now was completed in 1749 after Qing emperors Qianlong and Guangxu had it reconstructed.
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 organization 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.
Temple of Heaven Preservation
Just as the buildings are well-preserved, the Chinese people who manage the temple have retained the garden landscaping and paths as they were in centuries past. The managers preserve the Temple of Heaven as a traditional cultural landscape of China.
Interior of the Hall of Prayer. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Chinese maintain, manage and preserve the complex in strict adherence to descriptions in historical literature and to evidence that archaeologists have turned up. The managers design displays and exhibits to reflect medieval China authentically.
Lonely Planet online calls the Temple of Heaven unique and a “tranquil oasis of peace and methodical Confucian design in one of China’s busiest urban landscapes ... Strictly speaking, it's an altar rather than a temple – so don’t expect burning incense or worshipers.”
By Mark Miller
Top image: Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, Temple of Heaven, Beijing Source: CC0
UNESCO Web page, Temple of Heaven: an Imperial Sacrificial Altar in Beijing, available here: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/881
Encyclopedia Britannia online article, Temple of Heaven building complex, Beijing, China, available here: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Temple-of-Heaven
Lonely Planet online article, Temple of Heaven Park, available here: https://www.lonelyplanet.com/china/beijing/attractions/temple-of-heaven-park/a/poi-sig/1106060/355905