The Temple of Heaven

A tranquil oasis of peace and methodical Confucian design in one of China’s busiest urban landscapes, the 267-hectare Temple of Heaven Park is encompassed by a long wall with a gate at each compass point. The temple – the Chinese actually means ‘Altar of Heaven’ so don’t expect burning incense or worshippers – originally served as a vast stage for solemn rites performed by the Son of Heaven, who prayed here for good harvests, and sought divine clearance and atonement.

The arrangement is typical of Chinese parks, with the imperfections, bumps and wild irregularities of nature largely deleted and the harmonising hand of man accentuated in obsessively straight lines and regular arrangements. This effect is magnified by Confucian objectives, where the human intellect is imposed on the natural world, fashioning order and symmetry. The resulting balance and harmony have an almost haunting – but slightly claustrophobic – beauty. Police whir about in electric buggies as visitors lazily stroll among temple buildings, groves of ancient trees and birdsong. Around 4000 ancient, knotted cypresses (some 800 years old, their branches propped up on poles) poke towards the Běijīng skies within the grounds.

Seen from above, the temple halls are round and the bases square, in accordance with the notion ‘Tiānyuán Dìfāng’ (天圆地方) – ‘Heaven is round, Earth is square’. Also observe that the northern rim of the park is semicircular, while its southern end is square. The traditional approach to the temple was from the south, via Zhāohēng Gate (昭亨门; Zhāohēng Mén); the north gate is an architectural afterthought.

The 5m-high Round Altar (圜丘; Yuánqiū) was constructed in 1530 and rebuit in 1740. Consisting of white marble arrayed in three tiers, its geometry revolves around the imperial number nine. Odd numbers possess heavenly significance, with nine the largest single-digit odd number. Symbolising heaven, the top tier is a huge mosaic of nine rings, each composed of multiples of nine stones, so that the ninth ring equals 81 stones. The stairs and balustrades are similarly presented in multiples of nine. Sounds generated from the centre of the upper terrace undergo amplification from the marble balustrades (the acoustics can get noisy when crowds join in).

The octagonal Imperial Vault of Heaven (皇穹宇; Huáng Qióngyǔ) was erected at the same time as the Round Altar, its shape echoing the lines of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. The hall contained tablets of the emperor’s ancestors, employed during winter solstice ceremonies.

Wrapped around the Imperial Vault of Heaven just north of the altar is the Echo Wall (回音壁; Huíyīnbì). A whisper can travel clearly from one end to your friend’s ear at the other – unless a cacophonous tour group joins in (get here early for this one).

The dominant feature of the park is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (祈年殿; Qínián Diàn), an astonishing structure with a triple-eaved purplish-blue umbrella roof mounted on a three-tiered marble terrace. The wooden pillars (made from Oregon fir) support the ceiling without nails or cement – for a building 38m high and 30m in diameter, that’s quite an accomplishment. Embedded in the ceiling is a carved dragon, a symbol of the emperor. Built in 1420, the hall was reduced to carbon after being zapped by a lightning bolt during the reign of Guangxu in 1889; a faithful reproduction based on Ming architectural methods was erected the following year.

With a green-tiled tow-tier roof, the Animal Killing Pavilion (Zǎishēng Tíng) was the venue for the slaughter of sacrificial oxen, sheep, deer and other animals. Today it stands locked and passive but can be admired from the outside. Stretching out from here runs a Long Corridor (Chángláng), where Chinese crowds sit out and deal cards, listen to the radio, play keyboards, practise Běijīng opera, dance moves and kick hacky-sack. Sacrificial music was rehearsed at the Divine Music Administration (Shényuè Shǔ) in the west of the park, while wild cats inhabit the dry moat of the green-tiled Fasting Palace.