The Temple of Heaven, and the large and beautiful park in which it sits, is a truly impressive place. Constructed in 1420, it was one of the most important religious sites in Imperial China, and host to the single most important religious ceremony of the Imperial calendar – when the Emperor prayed for good harvests on the winter solstice. The Temple of Heaven was symbolic of the relationship between man and heaven, which was central to Chinese cosmology. It wasn’t just a temple though, this was a sacrificial altar.
After three days of fasting, the Emperor came to the park accompanied by the entire Imperial Court in all its splendour. Here he would meditate and ‘converse’ with the Gods before spending the night in the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. As a precaution, in case the Gods weren’t paying attention to all this ceremony, the following morning the Emperor performed a series of animal sacrifices in front of the Throne of Heaven. Amazing how often in human history blood sacrifice was seen as a guarantor of fertility.
Ancient Chinese beliefs would have it that the Heavens are round and the Earth square, which explains why the Temple of Heaven and many other Chinese temples are round and stand on square plinths. It was in Beijing where Heaven, the realm of the Gods, and Earth, the world of men, met. Unsurprisingly, the intermediary between Heaven and Earth was the Son of Heaven, the Emperor – another theme common to those seeking to legitimise their power.
The Temple of Heaven is a 2km walk from the Forbidden City. The route from one to the other was a grand ceremonial procession for the Imperial household; when the Emperor made his way here just before the winter solstice, commoners weren’t allowed to look upon the Imperial procession. Forced to lock themselves indoors they were instructed not to make any noise. I suspect that if the Emperor saw the mass of people swarming over the site today he wouldn’t be too thrilled: ‘silent’ is not the word that readily comes to mind when I think about my visit.
The Temple of Heaven has to be one of the most impressive places to visit in Beijing, but it is the park and the people in it that make a visit here truly worth while. I could have spent all day wandering around observing. It was an eye-opener to be amongst this crowd of people playing music, playing cards, knitting, chatting, practising calligraphy with water and a brush and exercising in a variety of peculiar ways. This was the first, but not the last, time I saw people doing backwards walking and, what can only be termed ‘rear end bumping’ against trees.
On my way out of the park I heard music and shouting. A wedding party, resplendent in traditional red wedding clothes, was making its way through the park, bringing to mind the Imperial Court when they visited the Temple of Heaven. The couple posed for photos and I was encouraged to join the photo shoot. It was fascinating and very cheerful. The bride had her head covered the whole time by a red cloth, a non-seethrough bridal veil. More intriguingly she also carried an apple.
The perfect way to end my visit to the Temple of Heaven…