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The Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China: The Way to the Gods - A Guided Tour

Updated: Jun 4



Hall of Prayer at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China

The Temple of Heaven is one of the main attractions in Beijing and one of the most iconic buildings in China. And yet, besides being such a popular tourist site, this place used to be the very center of the religious life of the Chinese capital, where the sacrificial ceremonies to honor the Gods of Heaven were performed every year by the only person who could enter the Temple, the emperor himself (with his court, of course).


Today a renowned UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Temple of Heaven is not only an unmissable stop in your Beijing trip but also gives you the chance to learn a great deal about China's ancient religion and traditions. So here is your complete guide to visiting the Temple, an overview of why you should definitely include it in your tour, its history, and many tools to understand it and the symbolism it holds!


 

In this article:


The Temple of Heaven: Why Visit
The Temple of Heaven: Your Visit
The Temple of Heaven: Plan Your Visit
The Temple of Heaven: After Your Visit

 


The Temple of Heaven: Why Visit



1. WHAT IS THE TEMPLE OF HEAVEN: AN INTRODUCTION


Despite its singular name, the Temple of Heaven, one of the most recognizable sights in the city of Beijing, is not a single structure but a complex of buildings meant to serve as a place where the emperors of China, also known as "Sons of Heaven", honored, prayed and sacrificed for the gods and for their ancestors.


The Temple of Heaven of Beijing (Chinese name: 天坛 Tiantan) is not the only one of its kind you can find around Asia but it's one of the best preserved and the biggest: this is due to its location within the last capital of the Chinese Empire, and to the importance attributed to it by the Chinese people from the first half of the 20th-century.


Distributed over a vast area of 2.73 million square meters / 8,9 million square miles or 273 hectares, the buildings that compose the Temple of Heaven include the iconic and ever-photographed Hall of Prayers for Good Harvests but are definitely not limited to it: the complex counts more than 90 buildings and 600 rooms, even though not everything is accessible today.


A place with these specifics was necessary to correctly perform sacrificial ceremonies that played a pivotal role in the political and religious life of imperial China and that allowed no mistakes, and to yearly host the emperor and the thousands of people that made up his court and that were the only ones who could witness and take part in the ceremonies.



2. HISTORY OF THE TEMPLE OF HEAVEN


Pro Tip: Everything in Chinese history works a bit differently than in Western one, starting from how the years and epochs are counted and classified! The Gregorian calendar, the one we rely on, is not used for pre-20th-century history, and imperial dynasties are preferred. For example, you may find something similar to: "In the 9th year of the Yongle Emperor of the Ming dynasty...". Here, I will always add the Gregorian year, but this might be useful for you to know if visiting China: museums/heritage sites work this way and it is very rare to find a numeric date.


➜ If you wish to be more prepared on this topic, you can check this essential guide to Chinese Dynasties


The story of the Temple of Heaven begins turbulently. Its construction started in 1402 and lasted till 1420, but getting there was not easy.


The commissioner of the Temple was the Yongle Emperor (1360-1424, reigned 1402-24) of the Ming dynasty, who had just got to the throne. To obtain it, he had overthrown his nephew after a veritable coup d'état that made him quite unpopular in the country.


But let's start from the beginning. In 1368, the father of the Yongle Emperor, the Hongwu Emperor (reigned 1368-98), after a harsh civil war put a crown on his own head and founded the Ming dynasty. He would reign for 30 years, making some significant social and institutional changes and adjusting the succession process to make sure his designated heir would get to the throne after his death.


The chosen heir was his grandson, Zhu Yunwen, later known as the Jianwen Emperor (reigned 1398-1402), who indeed was coronated after his grandfather's death. However, Hongwu had to put aside his many sons to favor his grandson, and this latter inevitably faced the consequences of this choice. When, out of fear, he tried to eliminate his uncles, he encountered the resistance of Zhu Di, who was based in Bei Ping (former name of Beijing). Zhu Di proved a too strong foe and in a matter of years he organized a successful rebellion that reached the then-capital Nanjing, forcing the Jianwen Emperor to flee. Zhu Di would take the crown, become the Yongle Emperor and later move the capital to his own hometown, Bei Ping (we will simply call it Beijing here).


At this point, unpopular and unstable, the Yongle Emperor wanted to strengthen his position and gain the favor of the gods, of Heaven: going against the norms and taking power with violence were known as actions that could enrage the gods and, since the emperor was considered the "Son of Heaven" - getting his authority straight from the sky - he could not allow that.


Yongle soon decided to embellish the soon-to-be capital, Beijing, to make it worthy of the imperial court, and to honor Heaven by building a grandiose complex to perform sacrifices and pay homage to the gods: it was to be the Temple of Heaven, which construction started as soon as the emperor got to the throne and was over before his death.


At the time, the Temple of Heaven was still called The Temple of Heaven and Earth, meaning that its purposes were more extended, and its form was not the one we see today: the main altar had a squared shape, which was typical of Temples of Earth (check here for more details about the symbolism in the Temple of Heaven).


The Temple of Heaven was built according to precise schemes: its location was Feng Shui-friendly (an ancient Chinese practice meant to create harmony between man and the environment) and corresponded to the southeastern part of the city, the south being considered sacred and traditionally the direction of Heaven.


The next emperor we encounter is Jiajing of the Ming dynasty (reigned 1521-67), who decided to renovate the Temple, finding it not up to the standards of his capital. Especially, he was not content with the squared shape of the main altar and opted for something drastic: in ca. 1530, he rebuilt the main structure, this time making it circular, and changed the Temple's name to Temple of Heaven, cutting off that and Earth and moving the Temple of Earth and related ceremonies elsewhere in Beijing (check it here!). The design was once again the fruit of a meticulous study of traditions and ancient books.


The last major restoration of the complex, which regularly hosted ceremonies, occurred in ca. 1751, when the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing dynasty (reigned 1735-96) decided to intervene dramatically on what is now the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and change its appearance. The result, although not in its original version, is what we see today. Qianlong, Manchu of origin, also introduced some influence of Manchu culture and Confucianism within the architecture and practices at the Temple.


Everything went pretty smoothly for the Temple and ceremonies continued to be performed at the place. However, once we reach the 19th century it is clear that things were starting to change forever for China and Asia: Westerners and their way of politics and international relations were catching on, irremediably disrupting the traditional Chinese system, including the cult of Heaven.


Before that, almost an omen of what to come, in 1889 a lighting struck the Temple of Heaven, and the Hall for Prayer took fire. A complete reconstruction was necessary, and it began soon after the incident (the new Hall was made to perfectly resemble the original). Its use was anyway limited in time, as in 1900 the Temple was occupied by the Eight-Nation Alliance during the Boxer Rebellion and used as headquarters of the Alliance for one year (from there, they set up the attack on the Forbidden City itself). Most of the furnishing disappeared on that occasion.

​The Eight-Nation Alliance was a coalition that military invaded China in 1900 with the excuse of fighting the Boxer Rebellion, which was threatening the safeguard of foreign allegations and concessions in the country. The coalition included militia from Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Japan, Austria-Hungary, United States, and Italy.

The Boxer Rebellion was the Chinese, xenophobe response to the previously-occurred colonial occupation, perpetuated by those same countries that composed the Alliance.

A new era was almost ready to begin: in 1912 the last emperor of the Qing dynasty, the last to reign over China, abdicated, therefore interrupting the long-standing tradition of performing ceremonies for Heaven. The Temple, amidst the great chaos that followed, was left to neglect, causing much damage to the buildings.


After a nostalgic attempt made by Yuan Shikai (President of the newly-founded Republic of China) to turn himself into a new emperor - he would perform a sacrificial ceremony at the Temple in 1914 - no one ever used the Temple for this purpose anymore. In 1918 it was eventually turned into a park and opened to the public, later to become a UNESCO Heritage Site (1998) and a 5A National Scenic Spot.





3. HEAVEN, EARTH AND THE EMPEROR: UNDERSTANDING ANCIENT CHINA


Your visit to the Temple of Heaven can be the perfect chance to find out more about China and its traditions! Based on my own experience, I would say that this may be very useful to orientate yourselves in today's country, as every Chinese would know about their ancient traditions and they would influence their life in one way or another.


As we mentioned, the Emperor was also known as the "Son of Heaven" (in Chinese 天子, Tianzi). The Son of Heaven ruled over the Earth, known also as the Lower Realm or "All Under Heaven" (Chinese name 天下, Tianxia), which denoted the entire world and the very concept of political power.


The custom of worshipping Heaven (a combination of beliefs, gods and ancestors) dates back to remote times in China and can be traced back to the Xia dynasty (2200-1760 BCE). Initially, this practice was intertwined with folklore and superstition, and sending prayers to the sky was basically a way to hopefully survive the million threats that an inhabitant of the Earth had to face at the dawn of civilization (famine, floods, inclement weather, diseases and more).


After some time, the emperors began to understand that by exploiting the cult of Heaven they might get some legitimization and prestige back, and slowly got full control of the communications between Heaven and Earth, pretending to be the only ones who had the authority to speak with the skies. The title "Son of Heaven" was a natural consequence of this, implicitly stating that the monarchy was in direct contact with Heaven and that the very right to be emperor was bestowed by Heaven.


As a reflection, the emperor's name became taboo and no one could pronounce, write or use it. This made the task of historians to narrate the life and deeds of a sovereign a very hard one, as they could not use the emperor's name even after his death and had to find a proper nickname instead.


However, being the Son of Heaven did not imply that the emperor could behave as he wanted: he was not considered a god himself but had to continuously prove to be worthy of the title or he risked to be overthrown. In fact, it was believed that when a good emperor was reigning over China, Heaven would show appreciation by sending favorable signs (sometimes in the form of a dragon or a phoenix); on the contrary, should an emperor behave badly, Heaven would punish him with bad omens and disasters, forcing him to issue a so-called "crime (or guilt) edict", where he had to admit his faults and ask for forgiveness.


Therefore, considering his direct and strong bond with Heaven, it was a solemn duty of every emperor to regularly show respect and honor Heaven by performing sacrificial ceremonies. These were also good occasions to exploit the right of the emperor to communicate with the gods and ask them to be clement and maybe guarantee good harvests and prosperity to the country. The emperor was the only one who could perform these ceremonies and the only one who, together with his court, could witness them.



4. THE CEREMONIES


Now let's talk about the ceremonies that were taking place there, so that while visiting the various buildings you may have a better understanding of what was actually happening there, which was impressive!


Two were the main ceremonies that took place every year at the Temple of Heaven, on winter solstice and in March, around the spring equinox. Occasionally, ceremonies have been held in summer as well, always coinciding with the most important, agriculturally-wise, moments of the year.


The main ceremony (and the most pompous) took place on winter solstice and involved long preparations, huge use of resources, and a careful performance:

  • Preparations started weeks before the ceremony, while the day before the winter solstice the emperor left the Forbidden City (his residence) with his court and the Royal Guard of Honor to reach the Temple of Heaven. This was a long, grandiose procession that moved south and entered the Temple from the southern gate (Zhaoheng Men) - the south was considered sacred and the direction of Heaven!

  • Once at the Temple, the emperor would first reach the Hall of Abstinence and stay there for three days, fasting and abstaining from excesses, pleasures, and eating meat.

  • The day before the ceremony, the offerings would be carefully prepared and a calf would be slaughtered, ready to be used the next day as the sacrificial victim.

  • At the end of the abstinence period, the ceremony would begin. At 4:15AM the bell would ring, marking the start of the performance. The emperor, together with ten ministers, would reach the Circular Mound Altar, while the calf would be set on fire and twelve ovens would be used to burn pine branches to drive the devil away and bring humans' prayers to the skies with their smokes.

  • During the ceremony, which would later move to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the emperor would pay homage to the gods and to his ancestors, confess his sins, and ask for forgiveness and for good harvests and prosperity for the country.

  • To inform the people, who could not witness the ceremony, that the ritual had been successfully performed, three burning torches would be placed on high masts, visible from the city.


The ceremonies taking place in spring (and occasionally during summer) were less pompous but followed a similar scheme, their main location the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests.



5. THE TEMPLE OF HEAVEN TODAY


If an emperor from the Ming or the Qing dynasties were to visit the Temple of Heaven today, he would probably be shocked by what he would find - not only because the furnishing and some of the buildings are no more or have changed, but because he would see hordes of people stepping into a place where, at his time, only him and few others were allowed to enter. Certainly, there would be many more shocks, and some would maybe leave him more shattered - but I am sure this one would hit hard!


Anyway, during your visit you will notice that, while the main buildings of the complex surely make up most of the view, the Temple of Heaven really is a park, a huge green area where people gather and entertain themselves with many leisure activities, including the most iconic ones, such as Tai Chi and Qi Gong, which are the elderly's favorite hobbies.


Originally the most sacred place in Beijing, today the Temple of Heaven is where the Chinese people can connect with their traditions, finally seeing them with their own eyes, experiencing them, and making them their own. As it often happens in China, ancient relics are brought to new life and find a new spirit - maybe less protected, less immaculate than in the Western world, but somehow more revered.



 


The Temple of Heaven: Your Visit


1. OVERVIEW, MAP AND GUIDE TO SYMBOLISM


It is now about time to start our visit to the Temple of Heaven which, as we said, is huge - an enormous green area that holds some of the highest points in Chinese architectural history!


Let's start with a map with an overview of all the main sights in the park - once there, you will have lots of opportunities to visualize the place you are visiting thanks to huge signs on the way, disposable printed maps and audioguides with a map on them, but anyway, I would still suggest starting your tour having a good sense of what you are going to see, the park is always crowded and its dimensions might disorientate you!


Map of the Temple of Heaven

Your itinerary can change according to the gate you choose to enter.


On the map, to number the sights I followed my own itinerary, which started from the East Gate. This is the most popular entrance due to the closeby metro station, and all sights here will also be presented in this order.


In case you wish to use the emperors' entrance and follow their path, choose the South Gate.


Otherwise, another popular choice is the North Gate: after passing through it, you can basically follow the same itinerary as for the East Gate (see below).



East Gate Itinerary (close to metro station) - as seen in the map

----> Enter from the East Gate

----> Exit from the West Gate


Quick Note: Moving forward, you will find links to every sight's location on Google Maps as usual. However, Google Maps will not work in China unless you have a VPN turned on on your device! Also, even if you have it, Google Maps will only be useful if you are walking, since no info on traffic/public transportation/taxi/etc is available in China.


As an alternative, if you have an Apple device, you can use the Apple Maps App, which works perfectly. Otherwise, opt for 高德地图 (extremely functional but unfortunately not available in English) or Baidu. Just remember that the Google Play Store will also not work in China without a VPN, so find yourself a good one or download your apps in advance!


Are you in China for the first time or planning your first trip to the country? Check the complete guide for first-timers here!



Symbolism in the Temple of Heaven - Important Facts To Know

The Temple of Heaven is a place rich in symbolism where everything was built following specific rules so that no human mistake could enrage the gods. But while most Chinese people naturally recognize most of the symbols, a foreign visitor may struggle to understand what they see!


Here I collected a few important facts that, if known in advance, can be useful during your entire visit:


  • Colors: as you will soon notice, the colors used throughout the Temple are not many but mostly blue, green, red and gold/yellow. They all represent something, and in particular blue is a symbol of Heaven, red is associated with a high percentage of yang (positive energy) and should bring good luck, green is another color reserved for Heaven, but also for the Lower Realm, so the Earth, and gold/yellow is traditionally the color of the emperor (just think of the Forbidden City!).

  • Squared and circular: everything in the Temple of Heaven is either squared/rectangular or circular, and rarely other forms can be found. This also has a meaning, as squared/rectangular shapes represent the Realm of Earth and the vastity of the empire, while the circle is a symbol of the Heavenly Realm (and the former normally encloses the latter).

  • Dragons and phoenixes: these two fantasy animals are ever-present in the Temple, populating and decorating every building and furnishing. This is because these animals were considered good omens, auspicious signs sent by the Heaven to let its Son (the emperor) know that he had been doing great so far.

  • Number 9: number 9 was often used in the Temple's architecture and can be especially found in the Circular Mound Altar's structure. Chinese traditions attributed odds numbers a positive energy and even a negative one - being 9 the highest single odd number, it was considered the symbol of Heaven and, therefore, a building meant to worship Heaven had to contain it. 9 was also known as the number of the emperor.

  • Taoism and Confucianism: the Temple of Heaven is considered a religious complex built over Taoist principles, which were the most associated with the cult of Heaven and the ancient traditional religion. However, later emperors who were closer to Confucianism added this latter's influence.

  • South: like everything else in the Temple, the directions are not chosen randomly but on purpose. Most of the buildings you will visit face south, which is traditionally considered the direction of Heaven.



Animal Sacrifice Pavilion at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China
View from the courtyard of the Animal Sacrifice Pavilion - on the right is the Well Pavilion

2. ANIMAL SACRIFICE PAVILION & DIVINE KITCHEN


The first building you encounter from the East Gate, after a brief diversion on the right, should be the Animal Sacrifice Pavilion, which kind-of-gruesome name foretells its original purpose - this was indeed a place where animals were being slaughtered and prepared for the ceremonies.


Since all rituals were sacrifice-based, animals were needed to perform them, and officers and ministers of the emperor would come here in the days before the ceremony to kill the animals (and, particularly, the calf that was going to be burned) by striking them on the head with a wooden hammer, clean and purify their bodies, then send them to the closeby Divine Kitchen to be cooked and further prepared. The cleaning sink, clearly visible within the perimeter of the pavilion, was there to fulfill that function.


This Animal Sacrifice Pavilion, all covered in beautiful green-glazed tiles, was first built in 1420 and was therefore part of the original Yongle Emperor's plan, although later reconstructed so that much of what you see today does not belong to such ancient times but is still a good reproduction. Take some time to notice the decorations on the buildings, especially the dragons, depicted all over the exterior.


In front of the main hall is a smaller Well Pavilion, not accessible but perfectly visible. From there, the ministers would take the water needed to clean the sacrificial victims.


The main hall, the Well Pavilion and the cleaning sink are all part of the same complex of buildings, surrounded by a wall that separates this area from the rest of the Temple. As for the Divine Kitchen, its area extends for 400sqm / 4305sqft, so big as to be able to host almost 100 servants and cooks when it was operative.


The Sacrifice Pavilion standing close to the East Gate is not the only one in the Temple of Heaven, another one can be found near the Circular Mound Altar (check the map), but their purpose and structure are very similar. Another Divine Kitchen can be found there as well.



Long Corridor at Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China
The Long Corridor

3. LONG CORRIDOR


Let's move from where the ceremonies were being prepared to when they actually took place - to reach the main buildings, we have to go through the colorful Long Corridor, a sort of long-stretching, painted pavilion that we can find in other important sites in China and in Beijing (for example, in the Summer Palace).


A walkway like this was normally needed to allow important people or important events to pass or happen without worrying about the possible threats of weather. This one was used primarily to transport the offerings from the Animal Sacrifice Pavilion and the Divine Kitchen to their place of sacrifice and was lit by hundreds of lanterns on the eve of a ceremony to highlight its ritual significance.


The corridor is ca. 300 meters long and is composed of 72 spaces, all sharing the same structure and design, and all shining in red, blue and green colors.


Going through the corridor in its entirety will take you to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and its iconic rooftop, however, if you head left first you will find the Seven Star Stones, a group of stones that may tell you a lot of China and its traditions - definitely worth a check!



Seven Star Stones at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China
The Seven-Star Stones - on the left, behind the first stone in the foreground, there is the eighth, smaller piece

4. SEVEN-STAR STONES


What apparently looks like a nondescript group of stones is actually a key to ancient China and Imperial history!


These stones were placed here to fill a space that, according to a Taoist priest and imperial advisor, was not to be kept empty, and to commemorate the sacred Mount Tai, the original location of the sacrificial ceremonies.


Let's dive a bit deeper into this. As we mentioned, sacrificial ceremonies have a very remote origin in China and were performed for thousands of years before the definite stop in 1912. However, the Temples of Heaven built all around the country during the centuries have not always been the sole places where these ceremonies took place - originally, the emperors had to go all the way to Mount Tai (located south of Beijing, in the Shandong province), one of the sacred mountains of China and considered the foremost of all.


Similarly to the Temple of Heaven, only emperors were allowed to perform ceremonies on that specific mountain and the sovereigns were supposed to go there every year. However, as imaginable, this soon turned very impracticable and expensive and emperors began to visit Mount Tai less and less often, performing the ceremony in their current capital.


To keep a tangible link with the sacred place they could not reach anymore, the emperors built totems like the Seven-Star Stones, a visible reminder of the traditions. Seven is the number of the peaks of Mount Tai, making the stones a small-scale version of the mountain.


Moreover, the Seven-Star Stones is said to be a symbolic representation of China and its people, seven being the number of ethnic groups living in the country. And this is why the stones are actually eight! If you look carefully you will notice an eighth, smaller stone - it was added in the 18th century by Emperor Qianlong, who was Manchu and wished his culture and ethnicity to be a full-fledged part of China (the eighth!).


Now that we have (hopefully) learned something new, we can go back to the Long Corridor and head to the Hall of Prayer!


Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests at Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China
The triple-roofed Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests

5. HALL OF PRAYER FOR GOOD HARVESTS


We are now in front of what is the most iconic sight in the Temple of Heaven and probably of the whole Beijing - it's the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the triple-roofed building that used to be the protagonist of the most important ceremony of the year!


The view is amazing di-per-se because this building with this specific structure is unique in China and in the world, and it never ceases to amaze visitors - I was honestly quite mesmerized and I remember fighting the hordes of people to see the Hall from all corners, hoping to fully grasp it with my eyes. Unfortunately, being this the hottest place to be, brace yourself for huge crowds of people, guided tours going on, and long lines everywhere.


The first thing you should notice is the structure: located at the center of a rectangular courtyard that contains other buildings, it is surrounded by a wall and stands on a 3-level platform, all covered in white marble, which height totals 6 meters/19 feet.


The Hall is circular and entirely made of wood (and therefore vulnerable to fire - in 1889 it was struck by lightning, caught fire and was destroyed). No nails were used, as the building is supported by 28 wooden pillars and decorated with plants and dragons.


These 28 pillars have all a specific meaning:

  • The 4 inner pillars represent the seasons

  • The 12 middle pillars represent the months of the year

  • The 12 outer pillars the Chinese traditional division of the day in 12 hours


The roof is the protagonist, with its 3 levels, two of which are round eaves and the other is the effective rooftop, with a golden ball on top. It is entirely covered in blue-glazed tiles, shining bright in the sunlight.


Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests at Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China
The lavishly-decorated interior of the Hall of Prayer

The interior (which is, as often happens in China, not directly accessible but visible at a distance - it looks unfortunately kind of dark) is decorated with colorful paintings and in the center stands the royal throne, facing south as does the Hall itself. Here is where the emperor came to pray during the winter solstice, asking for a blessing and for a good harvest for his people. Being Imperial China a highly agricultural-dependent country, this was no doubt the most important ritual.


In the middle of the floor, there is also a marble stone plate with depictions of dragons and phoenixes - good fortune animals and symbols of Heaven, coming from above.


This building is not the original one - its first version dates back to the Yongle Emperor's reign and to the first plans, ca. 1420. However, at the time, the whole Temple was still called Temple of Heaven and Earth and the Hall was rectangular, hosting ceremonies for the celebration of both Heaven and Earth (we have no further description).


In 1530, the Hall was put down and rebuilt in a circular shape, but the blue color was still not the protagonist and the roof did not look like this. We would have to wait until 1751 and Emperor Qianlong's reign to see it taking this current form. The today-Hall is a reproduction of this 18th-century version, the original one destroyed by the 1889 lightning.



Imperial Hall of Heaven

Within the same courtyard that hosts the Hall of Prayer, you will see other buildings - most of them today are used as exhibition halls and you will find either permanent or temporary exhibitions on a topic related to the Temple of Heaven or the ceremonies. Unfortunately, much of what to see will be written in Chinese, with little to no English translation. Using Google Lens (with a VPN), Apple Translate or other similar apps will help grasp at least the overall narrative.


The building on your right when standing with the Hall behind your back was called Imperial Hall of Heaven and it was where the gold tablets, representing the gods and needed to perform the most important ceremonies, were kept in an apposite shrine under a blue-gazed roof.


Here, the emperor would come on the eve of ceremonies to pay respect to the tablets, which were then moved to the Hall on ceremony day.



Danbi Bridge at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China
View of the Danbi Bridge with its 3 lanes | Image Credits: Jason Wong

6. DANBI BRIDGE (Vermillion Steps Bridge)


Exiting the Hall of Prayer and proceeding towards the next buildings, you will have to walk a bit south and go through the Danbi Bridge - which is called bridge, but is actually a road connecting the Hall of Prayer with the Imperial Vault of Heaven. Coming from the south, the emperor would have gone the opposite way.


This 360-meter-long (1181 ft) and 30-meter-wide (98 ft) road is divided into 3 marked lanes to be walked through during the ceremonies:

  • The middle lane was reserved for the gods and the ancestors (and so in fact no one could step on it)

  • The left (east) one was for the emperor

  • The right (west) one for the ministers and the court


At the end of it (or, in fact, at its beginning) there is the imponent Chengzheng Gate and nearby stands the Nine-Dragon Cypress, which is said to be 500+ years old and is called this way because its branches resemble 9 dragons (but 9 is also a sacred number).


Going from the Imperial Vault of Heaven to the Hall of Prayer the road would actually go upwards - this is because the court was supposed to climb higher, getting closer to Heaven as they moved toward the end of the ceremony.



Imperial Vault of Heaven at Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China
The Imperial Vault of Heaven on its platform and surrounded by the Echo Wall

7. IMPERIAL VAULT OF HEAVEN


At the end of the Danbi Bridge, you will see another wall: it's the Echo Wall and it encloses the main building here, a sort of smaller-sized, single-roofed Hall of Prayer. It's the Imperial Vault of Heaven.


The Imperial Vault of Heaven is a circular structure, covered with a blue-glazed tiled roof and standing on a marble platform. It is 19 meters high (62 ft) and has a diameter of 15.6 meters (51 ft). Differently from the Hall of Prayer, it is made half of wood and half of bricks. It was first built in 1530 to host the sacred tablets of the gods and the imperial ancestors, which were later kept in the Imperial Hall of Heaven.


Facing south like all main buildings of the Temple, the Imperial Vault has a circular stone seat at its center, all carved. On it, the Heavenly Great Tablet (that referring to the gods of Heaven) was placed, while the ancestral tablets (representing the imperial ancestors) stood aside.


Besides holding the tablets, the Imperial Vault of Heaven also hosted minor ceremonies throughout the year.



Echo Wall and the Three Echo Stones

Both the Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Circular Mound Altar are known for their peculiar acoustic tricks - all Chinese visitors will know, so be prepared for a view of people trying to listen to walls and hear sounds from stones!


The Echo Wall is the wall enclosing the Vault of Heaven, is 3.7 meters high (12 ft) and has a perimeter of 193 meters (633 ft). Its name comes from it being so flat and smooth as to allow sound to swiftly pass through it - bounce over it. This means that, if you and your friends try to speak on different sides of the wall, you may hear each other voices echoing on it. Of course, doing that with today's crowds is an impossible task, but in the past this peculiarity of the wall attracted rumors that it was a sign of Heaven's presence.


The same goes for the Three Echo Stones: they are placed in the courtyard of the Imperial Vault and a shout uttered from one should be heard from another.



Circular Mound Altar at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China
A romantic view of the Circular Mound Altar - beautiful but a bit unrealistic, it's normally way more crowded | Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons


8. CIRCULAR MOUND ALTAR


If we now move slightly south, we exit the Echo Wall to enter the Circular Mound Altar area, passing through the Lingxing Gates - this is one of the most sacred parts of the Temple of Heaven!


Lingxing Gates

This majestic group of gates (24 in total) foreruns the sacrality and grandeur of what is next. They are part of a green and blue-tiled wall that surrounds the Circular Mound Altar and are distributed in 4 groups of 3 gates each. Of these 3, the central is the biggest (for the gods), the left one is medium-sized (for the emperor) and the right one is the smallest (for the court).


The gates are divided between the inner and the outer walls, of which the former is circular and the latter is rectangular.



Circular Mound Altar

This spectacular altar is the fruit of meticulous, hard work on sacrality and rituals, and was built following precise symbolism.


The structure you see is 5 meters high (16 ft) and includes 3 circular stages that get narrower as you climb to the top using the 4 sets of stairs. It is mesmerizing to see because everything is covered in carved white marble, full of decorations of plants and sacred animals. Moreover, all 3 platforms are surrounded by stone railings and columns.


This building was not part of the 1420 plans of the Temple, but was added in the 1530 renovations, then restored in 1751. What we see today has been heavily retouched in modern times, but kept the 18th-century form.


The peculiarity here is that everything was built with the number 9 in mind (here we have explained why the number 9 is so recurrent in the Temple) - all you see here has something to do with 9 or a multiple of it. As we said, there are 3 layers, and the upper has 9 circles of fan-shaped stone with a circle in the middle. Going down, the platforms have 18, then 27 fan-shaped stones, so that 9 stones are added progressively. Also, the total diameter is 45 meters (147 ft), so 9x5.


Circular Mound Altar at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China
A closer, more realistic view of the Altar

Right in the middle of the upper platform is a round stone slab called either the Heaven Heart Stone or the Celestial Heart Stone. Today, this slab is hard to reach due to the hordes of people trying to catch a glimpse of it. But in the past, this used to be one of the most sacred places in the Temple: being the exact center of the altar, this was where the emperor used to stand while performing the sacrifice rituals and asking blessings from the skies, sending prayers to the Above. Since here the acoustics are similarly tricky as in the Imperial Vault, when the emperor spoke from here, the ministers standing on the lower platform could hear a weird echo, a sort of fragor that was said to be the sound of Heaven. Like the emperor was truly speaking with the gods.



Three-Arched Gates at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China
A view of the Three-Arched Gates on a busy tourist moment

9. THREE-ARCHED GATES


It is now time to head west, reaching the last couple of areas we still have to visit in the Temple!


As we exit, we pass through 3 colorful, glazed arches - they have the colors of the earth, sky and sun and are again different-sized to allow the passage of the gods, the emperor and his court.


We head slightly right until we reach another wall, ready to enter the next area, the Hall of Abstinence.



Hall of Abstinence at Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China
Entrance to the Hall of Abstinence area

10. HALL OF ABSTINENCE (Fasting Palace)


The Hall of Abstinence is immense and covers an area of roughly 40000 sqm (430556 sqft). There is space for 167 rooms, which hosted the emperor, the Royal Guard of Honor and members of the court. Embracing it is a double ring of walls with grandiose entrances:

  • The outer wall is also called the brick wall and has a 66-meter/216-ft perimeter

  • The inner wall is called the purple wall and its perimeter measures 41 meters (134 ft)


The name Hall of Abstinence (also known as Fasting Palace) comes from the custom of the emperor to come here 3 days before a ceremony to fast and abstain from eating meat, from excesses, carnal pleasures and lavish lifestyle. It was a way to purify his body and soul before performing the sacred rituals and to prepare himself for the encounter with the skies. However, while 3 was the preferred number of days for abstinence, the emperor would sometimes follow other rules or, out of fear for his own security, decide to spend only a few hours here and fast in his residence, the Forbidden City, where the security could be guaranteed. We see this happen more and more often as we approach recent times.


In the middle of the area is the Beamless Hall, the most imponent building: it was first built in 1420 and takes its name from the absence of beams in its structure. Here, the emperor would perform rituals upon his arrival and departure and today hosts exhibitions in 4 of its 7 rooms - when I visited, there was an exhibition about beams and the beamless structure. In the other rooms, you can admire furnishing from the 19th and 20th century which, for their value, are kept behind glass but are still visible from the windows (this happens all the time in China).


At the rear of the Beamless Hall is the Palace of Rest (or Bedroom Palace) where the emperor would rest. Here, you can see several precious decorations such as porcelains, shelves, tables with brushes for calligraphy, etc.


Within this area we also find the Belfry (Bell Tower), a double-layered building facing south and hosting a 15th-century bell, built during the Yongle Emperor's reign. The bell, called the Bell of Supreme Harmony, was struck to announce the various stages of the ceremony (at 4:15AM it would be struck to announce the start of the winter solstice ceremony).



Divine Music Administration at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China
The Divine Music Administration area | Image Credits: MyWoWo


11. DIVINE MUSIC ADMINISTRATION


At the extreme west of the Temple of Heaven lies the so-called Divine Music Administration, which we are now going to visit.


This place, covering an area of 10000 sqm / 107639 sqft, used to be the most prestigious ritual music academy in China during the Ming and Qing dynasties, a place where the most talented dancers, performers and musicians would come to learn the art. Also, ceremonial instruments were kept here, waiting to be used during the sacrificial rituals.


This place is ancient and can be traced back to the initial plans for the Temple in 1420. Actually, it is one of the best-preserved areas, so several parts of what you see today come, at least in their appearance, from the 15th century. Nevertheless, the place was surely expanded over time, because it is estimated that, initially, it could host up to 300 dancers and singers, while the number grew to more than 3000 in later times. Sometimes, this area could be used as a residence for other members of the court.


Like the Hall of Abstinence, the Divine Music Administration contains several buildings and pavilions. The largest is called Ningxi Hall and was used by court officials for rehearsing the most important rituals. Today, you can recognize it for its permanent collection of musical instruments and because it regularly hosts performances of ancient ceremonial music and dance.


Another pavilion called the Xianyou Hall lies just behind the Ningxi Hall and is a finely decorated building that holds ceremonial robes and costumes and showcases statues of ancient Chinese musicians.


The last pavilion to notice is the Divine Hall, made of 79 verandas and used as an exhibition hall where you may learn more about the history of the Divine Music Administration and of music in China.



Longevity Pavilion at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China
The peculiar form of the Longevity Pavilion

12. DOUBLE-LOOP LONGEVITY PAVILION


Get ready to say goodbye to the Temple of Heaven as we are reaching the very last stop in our itinerary! It's the Double-Loop Longevity Pavilion and, in fact, its story does not really belong here.


This funny-shaped pavilion was actually built for the former imperial garden, Zhongnanhai, located near the Forbidden City and today used by the government. It was moved here in 1976 during renovations in Beijing and adjusted to fit the Temple of Heaven - in fact, being this latter a huge park itself, one cannot say this wasn't a good choice!


The pavilion was first built in 1741 and commissioned by emperor Qianlong as a birthday gift for his mother - this explains the name and form, which symbolizes longevity and wanted to represent good fortune and an auspice for a long life. It has been recently repaired and can be admired in fresh bright colors.


Once you are done with the visit to the pavilion, you are ready to leave or you can spend some other time wandering through the park and searching the many gardens on the way (check the rose garden nearby!). If you stick around the pavilion, remember that the closest exit is through the West Gate!



 


The Temple of Heaven: Plan Your Visit


1. HOW TO REACH


The Temple of Heaven is huge and therefore has 4 entrances, which correspond to the 4 main gates, one for each direction. Every gate has its own ticket office and you can have your tickets and documents checked at any of the four.


The choice of a gate really depends on where you are/stay - my hotel was so close to the East Gate that I didn't even need to use the metro! In general, remember that metros and buses are pretty inexpensive (a few cents in EUR or USD) and taxi rides cost way less than in Western countries.


Here below are the addresses of each gate and information on how to reach every single one:



East Gate (most popular)

The East Gate is certainly the most popular entrance, as it lies very close to a busy metro station. Of course, this means that it is also very crowded and you might have to wait for some time to get your tickets and documents checked!


This is the Chinese name of the East Gate in case you wish to reach it by taxi: 天坛公园东门, and this is the address on Google Maps if you wish to walk there.


The easiest way to reach the East Gate is by metro: Line 5, Tiantandongmen Station, Exit A.



North Gate

The North Gate is another popular entrance and from here you will be able to follow almost the same itinerary as for the East Gate. However, it is less served by public transportation and does not have a metro station nearby.


In case you are reaching it by taxi, this is the Chinese name: 天坛北门, and if planning to walk, this is the address on Google Maps.


Otherwise, the North Gate can be reached by bus, with lines 6, 34, 35, 36, 72, 106 and 110. The stop is Temple of Heaven North Gate.



South Gate

The south would be the entrance taken by the emperor if still using the Temple for ceremonies, so it's a good choice.


No metro stations nearby, but it can be reached by bus with lines 36, 53, 62, 122, 525, 958, 141, 200 (Inner and Outer Ring). The stop is Temple of Heaven South Gate.


If you are looking for a taxi, then the Chinese name of the gate is 昭亨门 and to walk there, here is the address on Google Maps.



West Gate

Finally, the West gate, much used as an exit and less used as an entrance. And yet, this one is the only other gate with a metro station nearby, so it's actually a good alternative.


Unfortunately, the closest sights once entered are the Hall of Abstinence and the Divine Music Administration, which should really be visited at the end of your tour (mostly because they are a sort of appendix, while the main buildings used for the ceremonies are close to the South and East/North Gate).


To reach the West Gate by metro look for this station: Line 8, Tianqiao Station, Exit C.


If heading there by taxi, this is the Chinese name of the gate: 天坛西门 and this the address on Google Maps for you to walk there.



2. TICKETS & TIMETABLE


Purchasing tickets in China can be a bit confusing for foreigners and not always easy (mainly because apps and websites are in Chinese)!



Opening Hours

The Temple of Heaven is a park and is open all days of the year - it is frequented by locals and especially elderly people, who spend their time practicing Tai Chi, Qi Gong or playing games. The attractions follow a different timetable.


The Park is open daily, the attractions are closed on Mondays.

​PARK

​ ATTRACTIONS

PEAK SEASON (APR-OCT)

​6AM-9PM (Gates close at 10PM)

​8AM-6PM (Last tickets sold at 5:30PM)

LOW SEASON (NOV-MAR)

​6:30AM-9PM (Gates close at 10PM)

8AM-5PM (Last tickets sold at 4:30PM)


Tickets & How To Buy

As I was saying, buying tickets for anything in China is not always easy - but manageable with some experience!


First of all, here is an overview of the available options:

PEAK SEASON (APR-OCT)

​LOW SEASON (NOV-MAR)

​Entrance Ticket (Park only): 15 RMB (ca. 2 USD or EUR, 1,6 pounds)

​Entrance Ticket (Park only): 10 RMB (less than 1,5 EUR or USD, ca. 1 pound)

​Combined Ticket (+ Attractions): 34 RMB (less than 4,50 EUR or USD, circa 4 pounds)

​Combined Ticket (+ Attractions): 28 RMB (ca. 3,50 EUR or USD, ca. 3 pounds)

Reduced Ticket: 7.5 RMB (Entrance) or 17 RMB (Combined)

​Reduced Ticket: 5 RMB (Entrance) or 14 RMB (Combined)

​Divine Music Administration (Separate Ticket): 10 RMB

Divine Music Administration (Separate Ticket): 10 RMB

Children under 18 years, Students 18-25 and elderly people (60+ years) may benefit from free entrance or discounted tickets.


Regarding how to buy the tickets, you have several choices:


  • At the counter: it is possible to buy them directly at the counter, using either cash or apps like Alipay or WeChat. It won't be super easy to speak with the guys there but you will surely find a way. However, this can be risky (especially if you have only a few days to spend in Beijing) because if you don't go there early in the morning, they may sell all the available tickets for the day. Go there to buy your tickets for the next day maybe, or very early in the morning. Expect to wait for some time.

  • On WeChat: since COVID, China has become a country where everything can be bought via WeChat, including museum tickets. To do so, you would have to search for the Temple of Heaven account on WeChat, then buy the tickets through the Mini App (once there, you will become familiar with these terms, trust me). Otherwise, you can find the QR code for the account on their official website (Chinese) here: http://www.tiantanpark.com/. The QR can be found on the buttoned menu on the right. Tickets can be paid with WeChat or Alipay.

  • Through Travel Agencies: another quick, useful method is to buy the tickets through a travel agency specializing in ticket purchasing for foreigners. They will ask for a commission, but considering the very inexpensive ticket prices, it is still totally affordable. To buy the tickets for you, they will need your personal information and passport number. You may check TravelChinaGuide, Expedia, Trip.com.


Please remember that tickets only become available 7 days in advance and may finish quickly, so you can make plans, but try to always have an alternative in hand!



Audioguides

The Temple of Heaven offers a good audioguide service, which is available in Chinese and in several foreign languages, such as: English, French, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, Korean, German, Portuguese, Italian, Polish, Slovak, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Czech, Mongolian, Bulgarian, Arabic, Thai.


They are super useful because they come with a nice little interactive map of the Temple that has a small red light. The light will "follow" you and get illuminated once you reach an attraction, the voice will also start talking automatically once you reach a building.


Audioguides can be rented at any of the four gates and given back at your exit. The price varies depending on the language, the Chinese version costs less, foreign languages cost more. There is also a deposit required to rent an audioguide, it will be given back to you when returned.

  • Audioguide (Chinese): 20 RMB + 50 RMB deposit

  • Audioguide (foreign language): 40 RMB + 50 RMB deposit (ca. 5 EUR/USD or 4,50 pounds for the guide and ca. 13 EUR/USD or 11 pounds for the deposit)

Audioguides are available 8:15AM-6PM (Peak season) or 8:30AM/5PM (Low season).



3. USEFUL (AND IMPORTANT!) INFO


➊ Are you in China for the first time or planning your first trip to the country? Check the complete guide for first-timers here!


If planning to visit the Temple of Heaven (and when visiting attractions in China in general) there are a few things that you should keep in mind to have a smooth visit:


  1. ALWAYS BRING YOUR PASSPORT - without it, you won't be allowed to enter as you will have to pass through a mandatory security check. Also, when you buy your ticket, it will be associated with your passport, so your passport is basically your ticket.

  2. All attractions will be extremely crowded (especially in summer) - be prepared for that because this is something slightly different than in Europe or other countries, as people will sometimes push you and you will have to go through many lines.

  3. Almost everything will be written in Chinese, except for some basic info along the way - so read your guide in advance or have it in hand while you visit! Remember to check these few must-know facts before you start.

  4. Prefer written guides or audioguides, as walking tours through the park can be very unmanageable with the hordes of people (personal recommendation).


How much time should you spend in the Temple of Heaven? The Temple is huge and, considering the security checks, controls, time spent in queues, you would need at least 4/5 hours to visit it. However, I spent 5 hours there and it honestly felt like it wasn't enough - a full day would be perfect!


When should you visit the Temple? Summers in China are crazy, tourist attractions are overcrowded and it can be a bit discomforting (I was there in summer obviously). So, if you have a choice, prefer the low season (Nov-Mar). If you can't, the Temple of Heaven will still be one of the best heritage sites to visit in China, as its dimensions allow you to enjoy it and find some space to rest and relax.



Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China
A crowded view of the Imperial Vault with the Hall of Prayer behind and the Lingxing Gates


The Temple of Heaven: After Your Visit


1. THE TEMPLE OF EARTH, SUN AND MOON


Now that you have visited the majestic Temple of Heaven, you may wish to continue your tour through Chinese traditional religion by visiting the other Temples that were hosting ceremonies in imperial China!


Of course, the Temple of Heaven, dedicated to the highest of the gods and to the imperial ancestors, was to most important and the biggest, but this doesn't diminish in any way the historical and cultural value of these other centers.


  • Temple of Earth (Chinese name: 地坛, Ditan): this was where the emperor would come to pay homage to the Gods of Earth (so related to his own empire, the Lower Realm) on summer solstice. Since the 20th century, and similarly to the Temple of Heaven, the Temple of Earth has been turned into a park and today is a relatively popular attraction in Beijing. Be prepared to spend several here hours to see it all!

  • Temple of the Sun (Chinese name: 日坛, Ritan): here, emperors would come to offer their respect to the Sun, another important element of the traditional religion. Its location is opposite to the Temple of the Moon. Again turned into a park, it is now considered a 3A Scenic Spot (Temple of Heaven is 5A, the highest) and is definitely worth a visit - a nice stroll here will take you a couple of hours.

  • Temple of the Moon (Chinese name: 月壇/月坛, Yuetan): today mostly a nice green area with a surrounding wall that is a reminder of the history of this place, the Temple of the Moon is a good spot for a relaxing stroll. Ceremonies here took place during Fall.






 

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