The Temple of Heaven Tour Guide Service


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 Altar.
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.

The Hall of Prayers for Good Harvest The Emperor Offering Sacrifice to Heaven
The Hall of Prayers for Good Harvest
The Emperor Offering Sacrifice to Heaven
The Circular Altarin the temle of heaven
The Imperial Vault of Heaven
The Circular Altar
The Imperial Vault of Heaven
People are singing in the Temple of Heaven Park
People are singing in the Temple of Heaven Park
People are singing in the Temple of Heaven Park
People 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 ancestors.
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 Haven.
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 as follows:
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 nine times.
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 other tablets.
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 to heaven.
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 echoing effect.
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.
Musical Instruments:
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 etc.
Dance performed:
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.
Sacrificial Costume:
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.

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