Communicating with Heaven
Ancient Chinese called the universe “heaven” and regarded it as the creator of life on earth. Over the past several thousand years, emperors, high-ranking officials or commoners all devoutly believed in and worshipped this “heaven.”
Heaven Worshipping Ceremonies
The Temple of Heaven reflects China's ancient ideas of science and technology, culture and architecture. The temple served as a site for emperors to worship heaven, embodying ancient Chinese thoughts on harmony between man and nature and imperial authority.
In ancient China's agrarian society, people's survival and development relied on nature. People hoped that peace and prosperity would be realised when emperors held ceremonies to worship heaven. Emperors were believed to conduct dialogue with and tell people's wishes to heaven.
According to regulations and rites, emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties usually fasted two days before ceremonies of heaven worship in the Palace of Abstinence to show respect to heaven.
Pursuant to Emperor Qianlong's requirements on emperors before the worship ceremony, emperors were not allowed to handle criminal cases, hold feasts, enjoy music, sleep with empresses or imperial concubines, see doctors or attend funerals, drink wine, eat meat, worship gods and visit graves and need take a bath one day before worship.
Meanwhile, officials who accompanied emperors in the ceremony would stay in auxiliary rooms of Wuliang Hall, awaiting their orders.
At 3 a.m. of the winter solstice, the emperor and followers ascended the Circular Mound Altar illuminated by one hundred lanterns.
He then delivered a prayer for good harvests on behalf of his subjects. After finishing worship, the emperor kneeled at the Imperial Vault of Heaven. Ensuing activities also reflected the emperor's faith.
Ideals and Sincerity of the Emperor
Through construction and expansion during the Ming and Qing dynasties, the Temple of Heaven became a model of large building complexes. The Temple of Heaven is 1,724 metres long east to west, 1,650 metres long south to north, and occupies an area of 273 hectares, four times as large as the Forbidden City. It is divided by two enclosed walls into inner and outer temples, forming a shape similar to the Chinese character “回.”
The main buildings are inside the inner temple, where the Circular Mound Altar is on the south and the Altar of Prayer for Good Harvests is on the north, both arranged on a south-north axis divided by a wall but linked by the 360-metrelong Danbi Bridge. Both of the altars, Palace of Abstinence, Divine Music Administration and Department for Sacrifices constitute five architectural ensembles in the Temple of Heaven.
The Circular Mound Altar, also known as Divine Altar or Terrace for Worshipping Heaven, is built based on the prototype of ancient field worship ceremonies, following the rite of “worshipping heaven with bonfires in the wild.”
The Temple of Heaven complex also includes the Imperial Vault of Heaven housing tablets of gods and emperors' ancestors; the Echo Wall famous for its acoustic effects; the Sanyin Stone ( ThreeEcho Stone) amplifying nearby sound; and the Qixing Stone (Seven-star Stone) related to many legends and stories. The temple is rich in its diversity of old trees, impressing people with solemnity and magnificence.
Preserving Worship Music
Today, the Temple of Heaven has become a school to teach people Chinese worship rites and culture, free of charge.
In the 1980s, the Divine Music Administration's restoration and protection attracted attention, and efforts were made to revive Zhonghe Yayun. On the first day of 2005, the newly-renovated Divine Music Administration opened to the public with a new name of Chinese Ancient Imperial Music Exhibition Hall, displaying musical instruments and scores and costumes in worship ceremonies as well as statues of ancient Chinese music performers.
Staff members of the Divine Music Administration have sorted out musical scores concerning the heaven worship in the Qing Dynasty, and moreover, recorded over 20 music pieces that are performed with chimes and other traditional instruments.
During the cultural week of the Temple of Heaven in early 2005, nine ancient music pieces for worshipping heaven were performed in public, including Fanchaiyingdishen (literally “welcome the celestial emperor with burning firewood”) and Haiyushengpingri (“day of peaceful world”). Accompanied by such music, more than 100 performers danced to the tune of traditional musical instruments.
The Temple of Heaven, a site witnessing ancient heaven worship ceremonies, has a long history of nearly 600 years, and appeals to countless visitors from home and abroad every year for its cultural significance in history, politics, philosophy, astronomy, weather, architecture, landscaping, ethics, paintings, music and other areas.
The Circular Mound Altar
The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests