As the largest altar architectural complexes kept in China, the famous ancient building group Temple of Heaven was exclusively used by emperors in the Ming and Qing Dynasty to offer sacrifices to Heaven, and pray for rain and a good harvest. In 1961, the State Council included Temple of Heaven in the list of national key cultural relics protection units. In 1998, it was listed as a World Cultural Heritage site by UNESCO. On May 8, 2007, the Temple of Heaven was officially approved as a National 5A Scenic Spot by China National Tourism Administration.
The Temple of Heaven is famous for its precise architectural layout, unique structure and splendid decorations. With a total area of 2.7 million sqm, the Temple of Heaven is of circular shape in the north and quadrate shape in the south, indicating a round heaven and square earth. The complex is divided into an inner section and an outer section. The major buildings are in the inner section. Two building groups, Circular Mound Altar and Imperial Heavenly Vault, are in the south, and Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and Hall of Imperial Zenith are in the north, and are connected by a paved path over Danbi Bridge. The outer section, with verdant and luxuriant cypresses, mirrors a grander image of the major building complex. Acoustic principles are wisely applied in the Echo Wall, Triple-sound Stone and Dialogue Stone, reflecting mature architectural skills in ancient China.
The three-story Circular Mound Altar is in the shape of the sky, with a height of 5.71 m, a bottom diameter of 54.92 m and a top diameter of 23.65 m. There are stairs with nine steps on each of its four sides. In the center of the top story is a round stone, which is surrounded by nine fan-shaped stones, with the numbers of stones in outer layers increasing by multiples of nine. The numbers of the railing boards and balustrades are also multiples of nine, all being symbolic figures of the astronomical phenomena.
Imperial Heavenly Vault is supported by sixteen pillars, eight peripheral pillars in the outer circle and eight golden ones in the inner circle. A gilded bracket system connects all pillars so as to support the ceiling and caisson. Inside the Vault are images of dragons and phoenixes, with the gilding image on the ceiling being two dragons playing with a pearl and the image on the domed ceiling caisson being a golden dragon. The span of brackets and caisson in the Vault are unparalleled among ancient Chinese buildings.
The round Echo Wall is the outer wall of the Imperial Heavenly Vault, with a diameter of 65.1 m and a thickness of 0.9 m. The Wall is flat and bright. If two people stand beside the east Wall and west Wall separately and speak in low voices facing the north, they can hear each other clearly like on the phone.
On the stone road connecting Imperial Heavenly Vault and the Entrance stand three stones from the north to the south, which are known as the Triple-sound Stones. When the doors and windows of the Imperial Heavenly Vault are closed and there are no obstacles nearby, you can hear one echo if you clap the hands standing on the first stone, two echoes if standing on the second stone, and three if standing on the third stone.
Built in the 18th year under the reign of Emperor Yongle (AD 1420) in the Ming Dynasty, the Hall of Imperial Zenith in the north outside the inner short walls of the Altar of Praying for Good Harvests is used to enshrine and worship related gods. You can reach the Altar after passing three colored-glaze doors from the Hall. The ceiling of the Hall is decorated with blue-glaze tiles. The Hall has a high base surrounded by stone balustrades. In front of the Hall is a Moon-watching Platform, which has eight-story stone steps in front of it and on the right and left sides. There is a Guxi Gate (ancient door) inside the yard. Under the eaves hangs a plaque with characters of “皇乾殿” (Imperial House) written by Emperor Jiajing in the Ming Dynasty.
The round architecture Altar of Praying for Good Harvests is a combination of altar and hall, which was built according to the ancient saying of “worshiping the Heaven under the roof”. The three-story Altar is round in shape, with a height of 5.6 m, a bottom diameter of 91 m, a middle diameter of 80 m, and a top diameter of 68 m. The Hall is 38 m high with a diameter of 32.7 m, decorated with three layers of blue-glaze tiles. It has round eaves and a gilded pointed roof.
There is a detailed introduction to heaven worship rites in the Rite Library of the west wing hall of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Rites to worship the heaven in the Qing Dynasty are particularly displayed, including the sacrificial vessels and procedures. The Picture of Guards of Honor in the 13th Year under the Reign of Emperor Qianlong in the Qing Dynasty presents the top level of royal guard of honor in China for the first time, which is really worth your attention.
Tips: It is suggested to start from the south gate and end at the north or east gate, and visit in the order of Circular Mound Altar, Imperial Heavenly Vault, Danbi Bridge, Hall of Abstinence, Office Of Divine Music, Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and Hall of Imperial Zenith.