The Temple of Heaven is considered one of the holiest sites in China, particularly for Taoists who believe in Heaven worship. The Temple of Heaven is located south of the Forbidden City and is the place of worship for the monarchs of China. The Chinese royalty (primarily of the Qing and Ming dynasties) go to the temple to pray for a good harvest via elaborate ceremonies and sacrifices.
The temple is made up of a set of Taoist buildings standing on over 6,000 acres of land. This makes it three times as large as the Forbidden City. Construction of the complex began in 1406 and was completed in 1420. The temple was built just about the same time as the Forbidden City during the Yongle Emperor's reign. Originally dubbed the Temple of Heaven and Earth, they changed the name to 'Temple of Heaven' during Emperor Jiajing's reign (16th century).
The temple complex has three main structures – the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the Imperial Vault of Heaven, and the Earthly Mount.
The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests stands 38 meters tall. It has a base made of three levels of marble stone, while the main structure is made entirely of wood. No nails were used in the entire structure. It has four inner pillars (symbolizing the four seasons), twelve middle pillars (for the twelve months of the year), and twelve outer pillars (for the twelve traditional Chinese hours). The hall is actually a reconstruction, as the original structure burned down in 1889.
The Imperial Vault of Heaven is a smaller version of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests but only has a single level of marble stone as its base. The two buildings are connected by the 360-meter long Vermilion Steps Bridge. The Imperial Vault is enclosed by the Echo Wall, which can send sounds across impressive distances. You can say your prayers softly and hear them reverberate from the smooth walls.
Another structure in the complex is the Earthly Mount, which stands just south of the Imperial Vault of Heaven. It has three levels of marble stones, with an empty circular platform on top, with a pattern of a phoenix and a dragon. The platform is surrounded progressively by 9 rings, starting with 9 plates for the innermost ring, then 18, then 27, and so on, until the 9th ring, which has 91 plates. You will notice that each ring has multiples of 9 for its plate. The number 9 is a symbol of Heaven. It is the altar where the emperors ascend to pray on behalf of their people. The emperor's act of praying actually further strengthens his power and authority as emperor – the Supreme rule of China addressing the Supreme Ruler of the Universe, or the Son of Heaven moving the powers of Heaven so that it will provide a good year for his people. The emperor ascends this platform twice a year – during the first lunar month (to pray and ask for a good harvest) and the winter solstice (to thank Heaven for the blessings received during the year).
The temple, and its structures, is a depiction of Heaven and Earth. The rectangle (symbolizing the Earth) and the circle (symbolizing Heaven) are two predominant shapes in the temple complex. The Earthly Mount and the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests are both round, while their yards are square. The outer walls also have a semi-circular end (at the north) and a rectangular end (at the south). Also, the structures have dark blue roofs – blue being another symbol for Heaven.
Aside from the three major structures, the Seven-Star Stone Group depicts Taishan Mountain's seven peaks. Taishan Mountain is also considered a holy mountain. Also, be sure to see the Seventy-two Corridors, the Divine Kitchen, and the bronze incense burner in front of the Hall of Prayer.
UNESCO included the Temple of Heaven in its World Heritage List in 1998. It underwent restoration for the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008.
The Temple of Heaven is near the Forbidden City, at Yondingmen Dajie, Chongwen District.