Heavenly Circumstances

The Temple of Heaven gets a facelift in time for the Olympic Games

By: Jim Calio

This is the first Image
The Chinese have spent
$5.9 million on renovations.
Imagine if you will, what it must have been like in China long ago, when the emperor and his retinue, tens of thousands of courtiers, soldiers and other officials, would leave the safe confines of the Forbidden City and make the two-mile trip south to the Temple of Heaven, the most venerated of all shrines in the ancient world of the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Along the route, ordinary people were not allowed to look upon the Son of Heaven, as the emperor was known. Shops and houses were shuttered as the noisy, seemingly endless parade went by. Finally, the long procession found its way to the entrance of the temple, where the emperor would pray for a bountiful harvest in the coming spring.

Today, of course, there isn’t anything comparable to that royal pomp and circumstance. On any given morning on the grounds of the Temple of Heaven or Tiantan as it’s called people practice tai chi, some fly their kites and others can be seen ballroom dancing to the sounds of modern music emanating from a CD player. There are even food stands and vendors selling bottled water. And in a bow to modern times, the various buildings that comprise the temple area now have themed displays.

The Temple of Heaven, which is the name for a collection of structures in a 640-acre park, is considered by many to be a perfect example of imperial Ming architecture. If someone were to fly over it, they would notice that temples dot the landscape, and while their bases are square, the base of the Temple of Heaven is round. This is because the Chinese of that period believed that heaven was round and the earth was square.

Construction of the temple was completed in 1420, during the reign of Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty. He also built the Forbidden City, although the latter is smaller than the extraordinary temple. The reason being that since the Chinese emperors called themselves the “Son of Heaven,” they didn’t dare make their own dwelling, the Forbidden City, larger than a dwelling for Heaven. The tradition of visiting the Temple of Heaven ceased with the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1911.

Each year at the winter solstice, the emperor would make the journey to the Temple of Heaven to offer sacrifices and pray for a successful harvest. And since agriculture was the economic underpinning of China in those days, a successful harvest was extremely important. The emperor would fast for three days, two in the Forbidden City and one at the Hall of Abstinence, a smaller structure in the Temple of Heaven complex. During this time of abstinence, the emperor wore special robes and could not eat meat or drink wine. He could only eat vegetables, and even then, no garlic or onions. He could not enjoy any entertainment, and he couldn’t conduct the business of state. And, perhaps most difficult for a man with hundreds of concubines, he had to remain celibate.

The blue-domed, three-tiered Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, perhaps the most famous building in the park, burned down in 1889, but was quickly rebuilt, reportedly with wood imported from the U.S. The original structure used no nails in its construction.

The Chinese are not unaware of the tourism value of the Temple of Heaven. In 2005, the government began a $5.9 million renovation of the park. The idea was to make it ready for the expected influx of tourists for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics a spectacle that even a modern emperor would appreciate.