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Notes on the Geography of China: Beijing: Temple of Heaven

There's no such thing as the Temple of Heaven. The building that Westerners for a century or more have called the Temple of Heaven is actually the Hall of Prayer for a Prosperous Year.  To compound the irony, the hall, though spectacular, was far less important to the imperial Chinese than the nearby Altar of Heaven, which Westerners tend to ignore. 

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We can begin a visit at the Altar of Heaven (Tiantan), built in 1420 and also known as Round Mound (Yanqiu) and South Altar (Nantan). It's easy to hurry past it, even though it was the site of imperial China's most important annual ceremony, which took place on the winter solstice.

To get in the mood for what happened here, listen to the Jesuit Gabriel de Magalhaes--yes, a distant relative of Ferdinand Magellan. Magalhaes resided in Beijing during the reign of the second Qing emperor, the Kangxi Emperor (1662-1722), and he left this description of the imperial procession on its way to the solstice ceremony:

"Heading the procession are twenty-four men carrying huge painted drums which they sound solemnly at intervals, and twenty-four trumpeters carrying instruments three feet long and ornamented with golden circles and tuned to the note of the drums; twenty-four men carrying long, red-lacquered poles topped with bundles of gilded leaves; a hundred halberdiers with lances shaped like crescents; a hundred bearers of gilded maces; four hundred bearers of richly carved and decorated lanterns; four hundred bearers of torches made of scented wood which burned with a brilliant perfumed flame; two hundred lancers, their weapons trimmed with brilliant strips of silk or the tails of leopards, wolves and other wild animals; twenty-four bearers with banners with the fifty-six constellations, into which the Chinese formerly divided all the stars of the heavens, painted upon them; two hundred bearers of fans mounted on huge poles gilded and painted with the sun and the moon, dragons and animals; twenty-four bearers of ceremonial umbrellas with deep flounces richly embroidered; a group of men carrying the 'eight utensils' which the Emperor ordinarily uses--a golden basin, a pitcher, a silken napkin, etc.; ten horses white as snow with saddles and bridles set with pearls and precious stones; another hundred lancers and Court chamberlains forming an escort around the chair of the Emperor."

And that was just the procession in front of the emperor: behind him were 5,000 princes, eunuchs, and officials. (Quoted from Frank Dorn's The Forbidden City: The Biography of a Palace, 1970, p. 60. Dorn, who lived in Beijing in the 1930s, writes of at least one group of Westerners staging an evening picnic and dance on the altar.)

Note the triple gateway; matching ones are on the cardinal sides of the circular altar.

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From the altar and looking northeasterly, you can see the circle-in-a-square layout, suggesting the circle of heaven above the square of the earth.

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Like the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City, the altar is on a triple Sumeru Terrace. Built in 1420, it was rebuilt in 1754 and heavily restored in 1935. Notice that there are three flights of nine steps each. There's plenty more numerology ahead.

In the background is a pole, one of several from which lights illuminated the altar and the imperial tent set at its margin.

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The stones on the altar's top terrace are set in neat rings, but there is much more going on than tidy masonry.

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See the pattern? The altar has a central block. It's ringed by nine stones. How many in the next ring? Answer: 18. The one after that? Answer: 27. The outer ring (the 9th, counting the central stone) has 72.

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Similarly, the upper balustrade has 72 pillars, the middle one has 108, and the bottom one has 180. The numerologically powerful number 9 is multiplied, in other words, by 8, 12, and 20 for a grand total of 360 pillars, or 9 times 40.

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You can play the same numbers game with the altar's gargoyles.

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Sic transit gloria mundi: most visitors are here for a picture and couldn't care less about the importance once attributed to this place.

Having arrived with his immense entourage, the emperor fasted in the nearby, moated Hall of Abstinence. Two hours before sunrise, dressed in a purple silk robe and wearing a black cap and blue boots, he went to a yellow tent erected at the foot of the altar. Sacred tablets and a blue gem representing heaven were brought from the nearby Temple of the God of the Universe. The emperor mounted the altar and faced the tablets while a sacrificial ox was roasted. The emperor prostrated himself and offered gifts to heaven. Three times this was repeated, with the emperor climbing the altar again and again. The tablets and gem were put back in the temple, and the emperor returned to the Forbidden City.

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Off to the side is the glazed-tile oven atop which the sacrificial oxen were roasted on a grill.

The glazing is a reminder that the altar was originally paved in blue-glazed tiles, replaced during the 1749 rebuilding with marble.

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Here's the view north from the altar to the circular Vault of Heaven and, in the distance, the Temple of Heaven.

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The Imperial Way is plainly marked and draws visitors now to where no man once dared stand. (Like the Forbidden City, this precinct, too, was permanently off-limits to almost everybody.)

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The Temple of the God of the Universe, or the Imperial Vault of Heaven (Huangqiongyu), built in 1530 but rebuilt in 1538 and again in 1752. Here, the tablets of the heavenly diety (Haotian Shangdi) and of the emperor's ancestors were stored for use during the solstice sacrifice.

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Inside, a bracketed caisson dome with he xi polychrome painting.

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Outside, a spirit staircase.

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And still further along the Imperial Way, the Hall of Prayer for a Prosperous Year (Qiniandian)--the very same that appears on every bottle of Tsingtao beer. This is the so-called Temple of Heaven, although it has nothing to do with heaven but with prayers offered at the first spring moon. When first built in 1420, near the end of the Yongle Emperor's reign, it was square. The circular form came with a rebuilding in 1545. At that time, the roof tiers were tiled, from top to bottom, with blue for heaven, yellow for earth, and green for nature. In 1751 the hall was rebuilt again, entirely with blue tiles under the golden pommel.

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Here it is from the south. (Better go early-early if you want a photo without people.)

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A triple spirit or slab staircase.

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The hall itself.

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Detail of roof brackets (dougong, literally "block" and "arm").

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Hallowed by tradition as the building may seem, it was most recently rebuilt in 1890, after the previous structure burned a year earlier. Jarringly, the timbers are from Oregon and were a gift from Robert Dollar, a Scot who had become a lumberman in the United States and who then had become a shipping magnate, with interests in China. Globalization, it seems, has tentacles reaching down to what tourists might judge the most pristine layers of Chinese civilization.


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