World Cultural Heritage Site: The Temple of Heaven (1998)
Comment from the World Heritage Committee
Built in the first half of the 15th century, the Temple of Heaven is located amidst the royal garden, surrounded by old pine trees. Today, it is the most complete existing temple structure in China. It is characterized by the relationship of man and heaven whether in its overall architecture. The view on this relationship is central to Chinese cosmology.
Located to the southeast of Tiananmen, or Gate of Heavenly Peace, the Temple of Heaven was built in the 18th year of the Yongle Period of the Ming Dynasty (1420 AD) and given the name the Temple of Heaven and Earth. It used to be where emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties offered sacrifices to the gods of heaven and earth. In the 9th year of the Jiajing Period of the Ming Dynasty (1530 AD), another temple was built in the northern suburb of Beijing, which was used to offer sacrifices to the gods of earth. The function of the original Temple of Heaven and Earth witnessed a major change, that is, the emperors only offered sacrifices to the gods of heaven there since the establishment of the new temple in the suburb. As a result, the temple’s name was changed to the Temple of Heaven.
The structure of the Temple of Heaven is well-designed. The Circular Mound Alter and the Alter of Prayer for Good Harvests are located in the same courtyard. On the southern part of the courtyard, the Circular Mound Alter used to be where emperors prayed to the heaven and communicated with the heavenly gods. The Alter of Prayer for Good Harvests in the north, just like its name implies, used to be the place where emperors prayed for bumper harvests. The ancient Chinese philosophy was that the earth was a hemispheric structure while the earth formed into a square. As a result, the wall in the southern side of the temple comes in the shape of a square that represents the earth, while that in the northern side in the shape a circle which is a symbol of the heaven. These walls are commonly referred to as the walls of heaven and earth. Major buildings of the temple concentrate on the axis that stretches from the north to the south, including the Circular Mound Alter and the Alter of Prayer for Good Harvests. The mound and the alter are separated by walls but connected with a stone bridge that is 360 meters in length and 30 meters in width.
The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is the backbone of the temple. It used to be the place where emperors performed annual sacrificial ceremonies, which was to pray to the heavenly gods for good weather and harvests. The hall is in the shape of a circle with a diameter of 32 meters, rising 38 meters above the ground. It is a triple-gabled structure built on three levels of marble stone base, with the top glazed with golden color and the roof covered with blue tiles. Inside, there is a magnificent caisson ceiling carved with nine dragons that will never fail to attract any visitors. The whole structure of hall is unique without the use of beams and purlins, and the roof top is propped up by pillars. The four pillars in the middle are as tall as 19.2 meters, representing the four seasons. Surrounding the four pillars are two lines of pillars, among which 12 represent the 12 months in a year and 12 the 12 two-hour periods, into which the day was traditionally divided. The hall is erected on a three-layer white marble base that is as tall as 6 meters. When viewed as a whole, the hall makes you feel as if you’re floating on clouds.
The Palace of Abstinence, is located behind the West Heavenly Gate and used to be where emperors followed fasting routines before offering sacrifices to heaven. Outside the palace there are two ditches in the shape of concentric circles, surrounded by a corridor that houses 163 rooms. On the platform of the main hall stand a pavilion with a coppery statue inside and a pavilion with the tablet of the 12 two-hour periods. The coppery statue holds a fasting tablet in his hands, the archetype of which is said to be Wei Zheng, a celebrated government official of the Tang Dynasty. On the northeastern corner of the bell tower hangs a big chime made during the reign of Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty. When offering sacrifices to the heaven, emperors leave the Palace of Abstinence, and the chime is tolled until emperors arrived at the Circular Mound Alter. When the sacrificial ceremony would end, the chime would be tolled again, with the sound echoing around the temple. The sound would spice up the atmosphere of the whole ceremony.
With an area of 2,700,000 square meters, the Temple of Heaven is the largest existing ancient sacrificial architectural structure in China, holding a fascination to visitors with its unique charm and magnificence. The temple enjoys a worldwide reputation for its exquisite layout, unique structures and majestic architectures. It has not only influenced the history of Chinese architecture, but also is a legacy of architectural styles around the world.
Reasons for Being Listed as World Heritage Site
1. The Temple of Heaven is part of the cultural lifestyle of ancient Chinese civilization.
The location, structure and design of the temple draw upon the theories of yinyang and the five elements of gold, wood, water, fire and earth put forward in The Book of Changes. It embodies the ancient peoples’ perception of the heaven and the relationship between man and nature as well as their respect for the heaven. Emperors of various dynasties would build alters to perform sacrifices, however, the Temple of Heaven is the only existing of its kind well preserved today. It is considered a masterpiece of Chinese ancestors.
2. The Temple of Heaven, in its every bit, shows the rich and unique implications of ancient Chinese philosophies and the techniques of artistic expressions.
The scale of the Circular Mound Alter and the decorations inside show that the number “nine” is popular in architectural design, which is supposed to represent heaven and the relationship between man and heaven. The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is in the shape of a circle and the color is blue which represents heaven as well. While the pillars and rooms inside the hall indicate the 4 seasons, the 24 solar terms, the 12 months in a year, the 12 two-month periods, into which the day was traditionally divided, and the stars in the sky. In ancient China, when designing a hall, the above-mentioned elements would be taken into account. Such a layout represents both the heaven and the earth. However, the Temple of Heaven is the only existing architectural complex of its kind with a structure that is well-preserved today.
3. The Temple of Heaven is hailed as the most common architectural complex found there since it features a combination of ancient Chinese philosophy, history, mathematics, mechanics, aesthetics and ecology.
The architectural design of the Temple of Heaven draws on the merits of architectural techniques from the Ming and Qing Dynasties. The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is a large-scale circular wooden structure featuring exquisite architectural techniques and uniquely-designed halls. Such an ancient architectural complex is rarely found elsewhere in China. The large number of trees inside the architectural ensemble combine to create an eco-environment that represents the harmony between man and nature. It offers a glimpse of ancient architectural style as well as the local ecological environment. As a result, it can be said that it is rich in scientific values. Today, it serves as a shinny example of the imperial sacrificial architectures.
The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests in the north of the axis is magnificent in appearance and exquisite in structure. The space formed by the ceilings resemble a pyramid, and the circular base on which the hall is built and the eaves form a triple-gabled structure, with higher layers of the base and eaves smaller than the lower ones. When viewed as a whole, the complex takes on an upward posture, making you feel elegant and solemn. The colors of the complex are characterized by a sharp contrast, yet quite balanced. Thanks to all these, one will feel as if he were riding clouds in the heaven when stepping into the temple. The whole architectural complex, in every bit, is a masterpiece of ancient architecture and an exquisite piece of art. It is an embodiment of ancient Chinese philosophies and rich in historic, scientific, aesthetic and cultural value.
For the reasons mentioned above, it deserves the reputation as a world cultural heritage site. It has been listed as a world cultural heritage site so that it can be protected for generations to come.