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
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
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.