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China > General information > Region and city guide > Beijing - The Temple of Heaven

♥♥ The Temple of Heaven 

 (Open daily 8 am-5:30 pm; ¥35 or ¥15 for entry to the park only; bus #17 from Qianmen) 


Some History 

Situated in a vast park a mile southeast of Tian’anmen Square, the Temple of Heaven is unmissable and its Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is seen as the pinnacle of Ming architecture.


The temple was constructed in 1420 under Emperor Yongle, when Beijing was designated the imperial capital, at a place deemed the meeting point of heaven and earth, which is reflected in its design. Heaven was thought to be circular and the earth square, so the principal heavenly buildings are round and are set above their square earthly emplacements.


As the Son of Heaven, the emperor was the primary medium between heaven and earth. Three days before the winter solstice, the emperor would abstain from meat, “stimulating” foods and spices and on the third he would travel from the Forbidden City to the Temple of Heaven’s Fasting Palace.

During the procession, all commoners retreated indoors to avoid laying eyes on the emperor – a crime which carried the death penalty. The following day, the emperor would move to the Imperial Vault of Heaven to meditate, before continuing to the grand domed Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and then emerging to ritually sacrifice animals at the Round Altar and pray for a good harvest in the coming year. 


The temple was continually used during the Ming and Qing dynasties and was solely the preserve of the emperor and his staff until it was declared open to the public on the first Chinese National Day in October 1912.

Today, the simple grandeur of the temple makes it a must-see on any tourist’s itinerary, but despite this, the size and tranquility of its grounds makes it seem less crowded than the
Forbidden City. The Echo Wall and main prayer hall have both recently undergone restorations and the latter’s paintwork and tiles now gleam resplendently in the sunlight.


Visiting the Temple 

The temple is laid out on a traditional south-north axis and is best visited in this order, although you can also enter the park at its eastern and northern gates. There are guides available at the entrances to the temple, as well as audio-guides (in English and French, ¥40) that can be dropped off at any of the gates.  


The Temple of Heaven

Although the main buildings always have a flow of visitors passing through, the temple is twice the size of the
Forbidden City and the surrounding grounds, particularly those to the west, are usually quiet and are a pleasant spot for a picnic. 


Entering through the principal southern Zhaoheng Gate the path leads to the three-tiered Round Altar (Yuanqiu).

The three levels represent Man, Earth and Heaven and on each numerically significant slabs of marble indicate the importance of the number nine in Chinese cosmology. 


The Temple of Heaven 


The top tier was seen as the center of the Middle Kingdom and as such, the world. You can ascend the marble steps and stand on the central stone, just as the emperor did, although these days you’ll have to wait your turn!  


Proceeding north from here and after passing some incredibly old trees protected by wire-mesh, you’ll reach the circular Echo Wall (Huiyinbi). Similar to whispering walls found in Roman  amphitheaters, the idea here is that you can whisper at one side of the circle and the words will quietly travel and be perfectly audible to someone on the opposite side, although the number of people testing this theory confounds most attempts. The ‘sweet spot’ in the center of the circle also creates great echoes. 


Immediately north of the wall is the octagonal wooden Imperial Vault of Heaven (Huangqiongyu) where the emperor would meditate and commune with the heavens before proceeding to the prayer hall.  


Continuing north along the imperial way you’ll start to see the fabulous sweeping azure roof of the complex’s most impressive building, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (Qiniandian). This 120-foot-high building becomes all the more amazing when you discover that not a single nail was used in its construction!

Its sits atop another three-tiered marble platform and inside is supported by four central pillars and another 12 peripheral columns, which represent the seasons and months respectively. 


The hall was completely destroyed by lightning in 1889, which was seen (correctly) as a very bad omen, given that the Qing, and indeed dynastic China, would completely collapse within two decades. It was reconstructed immediately and has just received another facelift in preparation for its next wave of worshippers during the 2008 Olympics. 


The Grounds 

Walking east from Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests takes you along a covered pathway full of old folk passing the time of day by singing opera songs, playing cards and watching the world go by. It’s not far from here to the eastern exit.  


From there you can take a taxi (or visit Hongqiao Market, just over the road). Or, if you might prefer to wander through the wooded grounds around the Fasting Palace (Zhaigong) to the west of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest.There are plenty of quiet spots for a picnic. The park is free from 6 am-8 am and, although the buildings aren’t open, it’s a great time to visit as every open space is full of people gently carrying out their morning exercises – from tai chi to ballroom dancing.

Seee also Temple of Heaven pictures, map of Beijing temple of heaven

Getting to Beijing, Getting around Beijing

The Forbidden City

The Summer Palace

Tian’anmen Square and Hutong

Jingshan Park, Shichahai, & Tibetan Lama Temple

Other places of interest in Beijing

Around Beijing : The Ming Tombs

                           The Great Wall, Great Wall pictures

                           The Western Hills

                           Zhoukoudian & Peking Man Site

                           The Qing Tombs

                           Chengde , Bishu Shanzhuang

Shopping in Beijing

Beijing Opera, Shows, and Nightlife

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Travel guide to China : Beijing (Peking) sightseeing, Beijing attractions - The Temple of Heaven, Peking - The Temple of Heaven