Beijing Stories and Tips

Tiantan -- The Temple of Heaven

Tiantan - Annexe to the Hall of Prayer Photo, Beijing, China

Tiantan was the first sight we visited in Beijing, and we couldn’t have hoped for a better introduction to the city. With its cool green environs (the temple spreads out across a large park) and its finely painted and lacquered buildings, you’d expect Tiantan to be besieged by tourists. Thankfully, it isn’t – or at least it wasn’t the day we visited. The fact that it was a very hot and sultry day may have had something to do with it, but I’m not complaining.

Work on the Temple of Heaven began during the reign of the emperor Yongle; it was finally completed in 1420. The centerpiece of the temple complex is one of Beijing’s most enduring images: the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest. The hall, topped by a golden sphere (more on this later!), is a three-eaved all-wood structure built without the use of a single nail. It stands atop a circular stone platform, with staircases and railings carved with auspicious motifs: dragons, phoenixes, and mountains. The hall, incidentally, isn’t original; it was rebuilt in 1889 after the earlier structure was struck by lightning and burnt down. The story goes that lightning struck because a lowly caterpillar had crawled all the way to the top of the hall, and had reached the golden sphere, defiling it and inviting the wrath of the Almighty. As quaint as that may sound, it’s not as shocking as the fact that thirty-two officials were actually executed for letting the caterpillar ever get to the top in the first place.

After admiring the red and gold lacquered pillars of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, we moved on to the Annexes that surround the hall. These rectangular buildings, their eaves covered with glazed tiles, are lovely in their own right, and house exhibitions on the many rituals that centred round the worship at the Temple of Heaven. The ceremonies were performed by the emperor himself, and spread over several days during which the emperor fasted, offered sacrifices (of grain, fruit, and animals), and prayed to the gods for the welfare of the empire – and good harvests, of course.

Included in the exhibition are interesting old photographs showing the renovations and restoration that’s been carried out on the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest over the years: in 1935, 1971, and as recently as 2005-6.

Also nestling next to the annexes is the Imperial Hall of Heaven, where the emperor would come to burn incense before proceeding to the Temple of Heaven. The left wall surrounding the Imperial Hall of Heaven is pierced by a modest door that’s known as the Seventy Year Old Door, and there’s an interesting story behind it. It’s said that the emperor Qianlong, getting on in years, found it difficult to walk all the way to perform the rituals at the temple, and so to make the route shorter for him, this door was created. Qianlong, fearful that this would be construed as a sign of frailty by his sons, decreed – in an attempt at assertiveness, no doubt – that only emperors who had reached the age of seventy could use the door. Interestingly enough, Qianlong turned out to be the only emperor to live till seventy.

After wandering around the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest and its surrounding buildings, we walked down the broad pathway (the Danbi Bridge) that leads past the Dressing Terrace. In imperial Beijing, the Dressing Terrace was where the emperor would change his robes prior to the ceremonies at the temples. Today, it’s degenerated into a souvenir shop that also sells ice cream and soft drinks – and was doing roaring business in ice lollies on the day we went. Having cooled off with a couple of orange ices (and watched a cleaning lady remove scraps of litter with a pair of huge chopsticks), we moved on.

The next major attraction along this axis is a gnarled old tree, over five hundred years old, known as the Nine Dragons Juniper. The trunk of the juniper is so twisted and thick, fanciful ad

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