The Temple of Heaven is in the
southern part of Beijing , covering an area of 273 hectares, it
is the largest existing complex of ancient sacrificial buildings
in China . It was built in 1420AD for emperors to worship Heaven.
The principle buildings include the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests,
the Imperial Vault of Heaven, the Echo Wall and the Circular Mound
The Temple of Heaven is very popular among the local people. If
you go to the Temple of Heaven in the early morning, you can see
groups of people singing, dancing, practicing Taiji or do special
mental exercise such as writing on the ground in water with brush.
You can also practice with them if you are so inclined.
Located in the southern part of Beijing, the Temple of Heaven is
the place where the emperors in the Ming and Qing Dynasties held
sacrificial ceremonies to heaven and prayed for good harvests. Built
in 1420, the 18th year of Emperor Yongle’s reign, covering an area
of 273 hectares, it is the largest and the best-preserved sacrificial
building complex in the world.
The Temple of Heaven consists of two important parts: the Circular
Mound Altar in the south and the Hall of Prayers for Good Harvests
in the north. The main buildings include the Hall of Prayer for
Good Harvests, the Hall of Imperial Zenith, the Circular Mound Altar,
the Imperial Vault of Heaven, the Hall of Abstinence, the Sacred
Music office, the Long Corridor, the Sacred Kitchen, the Sacred
Storeroom, and the Slaughter House.
The precisely lay out in the whole complex, the strange echoing
effect in the yard of the Imperial Vault of Heaven, the mysterious
number of nine used at the Circular Mound Altar, the beamless structure
of the Abstinence Hall, the unique design in the Hall of Prayers
for Good Harvest, the gorgeous paintings on the buildings and thousands
of cypresses of hundreds years old, all of which attract the tourists
from all over the world.
What is worth mentioning is the implication of rich historical and
cultural connotation of the Temple of Heaven. To offer sacrifices
to heaven has a long history in China that can be traced back to
thousands of years ago. The spiritual and material civilization
achieved and richly accumulated at different stages, which is embodied
in the cultural history of offering sacrifice to heaven. As you
visit the place and dig deep into history you will feel how wonderful
are the great contributions made by the Chinese people to development
of the world civilization and culture. What they have achieved is
truly marvelous and all embracing: astronomy, climatology, physics,
mathematics, ritual system, ethics, philosophy, agriculture, animal
husbandry, costume making, culinary art, music, dance and fine arts.
Hall of Prayers for Good Harvest
Emperor Offering Sacrifice to Heaven
Imperial Vault of Heaven
are singing in the Temple of Heaven Park
are singing in the Temple of Heaven Park
Offer Sacrifices to Heaven
Sacrifices were very popular in human’s history everywhere as well
as in China. According to the “Record of Rites”, even 3,000 years
ago in Zhou Dynasty, our ancestors began to offer sacrifices to
heaven and the sacrificial ceremony to heaven for grain was officially
made a state ceremony. In China the emperors called themselves the
sons of heaven and they believed everything in the world owed its
origin to heaven. So they showed great respect to heaven.
In feudal China, the worship of gods and defense of the nation by
armed forces were two major responsibilities of the monarch. In
medieval China, as in medieval Europe, both monarchical authority
and religious authority were regarded as supreme. The Pope could
enthrone the monarch in Europe, but the religious leaders in China
had nothing to do with the enthronement of an emperor. However,
the emperor was required to offer sacrifices to gods at the time
of enthronement. Monarchial authority and religious authority relied
on each other for support. From the standpoint of ancient Chinese
philosophy, religious authority should be the subject and monarchial
authority the object. Thus the emperor was called the “son of heaven”.
But in reality the order was reversed. For instance, some emperors
dared to suppress Buddhism and destroy its scripture. In China,
monarchial authority was supreme and religious authority subsidiary.
As Chinese people believed god was in everything, many sacrifices
had to be made. Like human beings, the gods were divided into classes,
and the sacrifices offered to them were also graded. A “major sacrifice”
conducted by the emperor in person was presented to the God of Heaven,
of Earth, of the Ancestral Temple, of Land and of Grain and to Confucius;
an “less important sacrifice”, conducted by either the emperor or
by an official on his behalf, was presented to the God of Sun, of
the Moon, of Farming and of Silk worm; and a “group sacrifice,”
conducted by an emperor’s official, was presented to the God of
Medicine, of Fire, of Towns, of Jade Springs. A god might be upgraded
under certain circumstances. For instance, Emperor Qianlong upgraded
the God of Drought and offered a “major sacrifice” to him when he
prayed for rain during a dry spell that had lasted many years.
As the emperors worshiped so many kinds of gods, lots of temples
were built accordingly. The Temple of Heaven was built in the southern
part of the city, the Temple of Earth in northern part, the Temple
of Sun in eastern part, the Temple of Moon in western part, the
Ancestral Temple and the Temple of Grain and Land beside the Forbidden
City and so on.
In the old times, the heaven and the earth were worshipped together
as well as separately. In Qing Dynasty they were worshipped separately,
but when the emperors worshipped the heaven they also worshipped
their ancestors in the Temple of Heaven, because that originated
the idea of “Offering Tribute to Heaven and Respecting Ancestors”
of ancient Chinese people. In olden days the belief was held that
“everything under heaven owes its origin to heaven and human beings
find their root in ancestors”. The emperors also believed that their
ancestors lived in heaven after died. In the Temple of Heaven you
can see the tablet of Heavenly King flanked by the tablets of the
first eight Qing Dynasty emperors from Nurhachi to Daoguang. As
you know the tablets represented the Heavenly King and the emperor’s
As the times of worshipping to heaven, it was different according
to different dynasties. In 732AD, the 20th year of Emperor Xuanzong’s
reign In Tang Dynasty (618AD—917AD), it was made explicitly that
the sacrifices to heaven were to be held four times a year. For
example, offering sacrifice to heaven to pray for good harvest in
the early spring, to pray for timely rain in the early summer, to
offer sacrifice in the late autumn and on winter solstice. The succeeding
dynasties followed this practice.
Preparations for the Sacrifice
In feudal China, The emperors attached great importance on worshipping
heaven and the
Sacrificial rites were very complicated. So much work would be prepared,
take the example in the Qing Dynasty as follows:
1. Choosing the sacrificial day In ancient
time, the sacrificial day would be set by divination. The
“Book of Rites” says:” to define a day for sacrifice to heaven by
divination means to receive the will at the ancestor’s temple by
divination on tortoise shell. This showed reverence, honor and filial
piety to ancestors.” As the monarchs believed that their ancestors
were the massagers between the heaven and human beings. “On the
day of divination the king would stand by waterside to hear it,
thereby getting admonishment from above”. The practice of choosing
a date by consultation prevailed in the Qing Dynasty. To offer sacrifice
on the Winter Solstice was fixed. As the time to offer sacrifices
to heaven, to pray for good harvest or timely rain depended on the
24 solar terms of the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches.
2. Informing god after the date
was set, the emperors would send the officials of Rites to inform
the Heavenly King and other gods by writing invitation cards and
burned them in the temple in order that the Heavenly King and other
gods could participate on time.
3. Inspection of sacrificial animals, utensils,
tablets, sacrificial address Before sacrifice the emperors would
inspect the animals including calf, ram, pig, deer, rabbit etc.
Then the officials from five ministries and five departments will
be posted on duty by turns to keep watch on the animals to ensure
everything is correct. At the same time the emperors and the officials
would check the utensils and food containers to ensure they were
clean. The emperors would review the sacrificial address in the
Hall of complete harmony in the Forbidden City and check the tablets
in the Temple of heaven.
4. Having rehearsals of sacrificial rites like
a dressed rehearsal of major celebrations of today it was necessary
to have rehearsals before the formal sacrificial ceremony took place.
In the Qing Dynasty it was regulated that a rehearsal of music and
dance must be carried out in the Sacred Music Office ten days before
the ceremony. All related officials must take part in it.
5. Taking oath and making pledges at ritual ceremony
Oath taking was necessary for the grand sacrificial ceremony. Originating
from the rites of the Zhou Dynasty oath taking was to remind those
who took part in ceremony of their obligations so as to show reverence
to heaven and filial piety to ancestors. The practice was followed
since the Zhou Dynasty. In the Qing Dynasty the oath was written
down on a little board with dragon decorations, reads: “on this
day such an official had his oath taking. He must adhere to the
rules and rites. If breached he would published without fail according
to the law of the state”.
6. Fasting Performing fast was very important for
the sacrifice to the Heavenly King and ancestors. Like other formal
ceremonies it had strict rules and requirements. The rules of the
Zhou Dynasty stipulated, “the person who participated in sacrificial
ceremony must abstain from sleeping with wife, listening to music,
etc. for seven days and restrict diet for three days to purify the
body, mind and conscience.” This is the way to show sincerity, piety,
holly and purity before men were able to make interchanges with
the heavenly god. In the Qing Dynasty the rules for fasting were
as follows:” during the days of fasting one must not handle any
criminal cases, nor attend to court duties with the exception of
important issues. Do not listen to music. Do not sleep with wives.
Do not inquire after sick person. Do not offer condolence to the
dead. Do not drink wine and enjoy meat. In addition one must not
eat onion, garlic, leek and the like. Do not sweep the tomb, etc.
On the day prior to keeping fast one has to take a bath. Those who
were disabling or have ulcers are not allowed to participate in
the fast. Otherwise, that would be blasphemous to the gods in heaven
and impious to ancestors. In different dynasties the period of fasting
were different. In the Qing Dynasty the emperors would have 3 days
fast, two days in the Forbidden City and one day in the Temple of
7. Placing the tablets of the Heavenly King, other
gods and emperors’ ancestors Quite near the sacrificial ceremony
all kinds of tablets would be placed in dragon pavilions and carried
to the Circular Mound Altar of the Hall of Prayers for Good harvests.
8. Waiting for the time of the ceremony the emperors
in the Qing Dynasty would have two days fast in the Forbidden City
and then he would move to the Abstinence Hall for another day. When
the emperor left his palace, the road leading to the Temple of Heaven
would be well decorated. But the people in the city were not allowed
to watch the emperor. The civilians were ordered to stay at home
with windows closed. The emperor would live in the Abstinence Hall
in the night before the worshipping ceremony. At 5:15 a.m. the Supreme
Harmony Bell in the Abstinence Hall would ring. Then the emperor
would get up to go for the ceremony. On the way to the Circular
Mound Altar or to the Hall of Prayers for Good Harvest he would
change clothes into sacrificial robe on the Costume Platform. When
everything was ready the ceremony would begin.
Procedures of Sacrificial Ceremony
The procedures of formal sacrifice are very complicated, which are
1. Welcoming the heavenly god The ushering official
said loudly:” Set ablaze the Fanchai stove to welcome the heavenly
King. Music starts.” The official in charge of the stove would light
the stove and the “middle harmony splendid music” would begin. The
emperor ascended the first tier of the Altar and knelt down to offer
incense-sticks and kowtow to the tablets of gods and his ancestors.
The emperor faced north, kneeling down three times and kowtowing
2. Offering jade and satin The ushering official
said loudly:” Now offer jade and satin. Start music.” The emperor
went to his worshipping place in front the tablets. Holding up a
basket containing green jade and satin he laid it on the table in
front of the tablet of the Heavenly King. He did the same before
3. Offering the roasted calf The ceremonial official
chanted loudly:” Presenting roasted calf. Start the music.” Then
the official poured boiling hot broth over the roast calf in the
container to treat the Heavenly God.
4. Three presentations of wine Wine would be presented
three times when the official read the prayers. At this time dance
and music would be performed.
5. Removal of offerings After the three presentations the offerings
would be taken away. Music would be played again. The emperor knelt
down three times and kowtowed nine times.
6. Sending off the heavenly god The sacrificial
ceremony was an exchange between heaven above and men below. Sine
heavenly god was invited to come down, it should be sent off after
the ceremony. When the music began to play, the emperor must kneel
down three times and kowtow nine times to see the heavenly god off
7. Watching the stove Watching the stove to burn
the sacrificial objects was the last process. It was the most spectacular
and exciting event. All the prayer boards, satins, jades and so
on would be taken to the “fanchai” and ‘liao” stoves to burn. When
the event began the band would play melody. With face to the east
the emperor stood at his own place. The officials were gathered
according to rank. The person in charge would set ablaze the fire
in the stoves and all calves, satins and incense-sticks would be
burnt to ashes in the stove. It was said the Heavenly King could
enjoy the offerings by this way. Up to then, the whole ceremony
was finished. The emperor would go back to the Forbidden City accompanied
by the officials.
The Acoustic Phenomenon in the Temple of Heaven:
Two people stand widely apart by the side of the wall. If one of
them whispers towards it at one end the other will be able to hear
clearly on the other end. As if they were speaking over the phone.
The Echoing Wall is circular one with a compact structure built
of polished bricks and the face of the wall is very smooth. In addition,
the wall is capped with an eave, so the sound is neither easy to
be absorbed by the wall nor is it possible to slip away from the
wall from top above. Such being the case, the sound wave has to
go along the wall from one end to the other, thereby producing the
The scientific theory behind the Triple Sound Stone
As the first piece of stone is right in the center of the courtyard
and when you stand on it calling, the sound wave comes back from
the wall all at same time, so you can only hear one echoing sound.
But if you stand on the second or the third stone you can hear it
twice or thrice due to the different distances from the stone to
the wall and the three buildings, which require a different time
for the sound wave to travel forwards and backwards.
Sacrificial Music and Dance:
The sacrificial dance and music formed an important part of the
grand sacrificial ceremony to heaven. They were of the basic ritual
type developed side by side with the development of the sacrificial
activities of the people. The ancients held that “Rite” and “Music”
were closely connected with each other and inseparable. The “Record
of Music in the Book of Rites” described the relationship of rites
and music in depth. “Music shows harmony between heaven and earth,
while rite shows the natural order between them.” “Grand music must
be harmonized with heaven and earth and everything will be flourished.
Sacrifice to heaven and earth should be offered. Music performed
at the ceremony for sacrifice to heaven before the Ming Dynasty
was called “Ya Yue” It was called the “Middle Harmony Splendid Music”
The Ya Yue or refined court music” had its root in the cult of nature
and totem, a sacrificial activity in primitive form in ancient China,
it was organized by the sorcerer. The performance put on bizarre
costumes and facial make-ups to imitate various types of gods and
deities in singing and dancing. The pleasant melodies embellished
poems, graceful dances acts of imitation and presentation had became
rhythmically standardized. Played at the grand ceremony for heaven
it displayed a pious and solemn spirit, with a pleasant atmosphere
and an artistic combination of songs and refined music. That was
very important in the Chinese music and dance culture.
The musical instruments used for the worshipping ceremony were handed
down from the ancient time, which include wind instruments, stringed
music instruments and percussion instruments, such as big hanging
bell, bells, litho phone, xylophone, lyres, drum, zithers and flutes
When worshipping the heaven civil and military dances were performed
to express the reverences to heaven and ancestors. According to
the rites, when the ruler gained control over the country by means
of virtuous deed, he should offer sacrifice to heaven by civil dance.
If he conquered the country by military power he should offer military
dance. The Ming and Qing took control of the country by military
prowess so military dance was performed, followed by civil dance.
The civil dancers held “Yue”, a flute-like bamboo pole with six
holes that were painted red in left hand and “Yu’, the feathers
of a tail of a pheasant fixed on a wooden handle with dragon carvings
in the right hand. The military dancers would hold “gan” a shield
in left hand and “qi” an axe in the right hand. The civil dance
and military dance expressed fully the unique spirit in combining
the military with civil administration of ancient China.
The emperor for the sacrificial ceremony would wear the special
robe and crown. The upper part of the robe was black and the lower
part red. The sacrificial robe was decorated with twelve flowery
patterns, the upper part of which was painted and skirt below embroidered.
The patterns included the sun, the moon and the stars, which signified
celestial bodies. The dragons changed shape to symbol different
gods. The mountain meant clouds and rain, signifying the super abilities
of the emperor to stabilize the country. Fire was used to signify
brightness and helped to guide the officials and people to abide
the mandate of heaven. Rice floor, which were white, gave nourishment
to people. There were twelve strings of pendants hanging from the
crown signifying twelve months in a year.