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Temple of Heaven: Architecture, History & Facts

Instructor: Graig Delany

Graig teaches Architecture, Construction and Engineering Courses and has a Master of Architecture Degree

The Temple of Heaven is a complex of religious buildings dating back to 1420. Its Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest has become an icon of the city of Beijing.

The Move to Beijing

When the Yongle Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Di, decided to move China's imperial seat to Beijing, he set in motion two great building projects: the Forbidden City and The Temple of Heaven. This move was an important shift for the Ming dynasty and China because it changed the focus from the southern oceans to the northern borders.

The Temple of Heaven was built to be a link between Heaven and Earth. The complex is larger than the Forbidden City, with many buildings, structures, and beautiful landscaping in its nearly 675 acres. The three most important structures in the complex, which we'll discuss below, are the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, the Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Circular Mound Altar. The complex has many fine examples of Ming Dynasty craftsmanship, and was turned into a park in 1918.

Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest

The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, whose use - prayer - is in its title, is the most famous structure in the Temple of Heaven. The circle is very important in the design; it represents heaven because the ancient Chinese believed that heaven itself was circular. The circular building sits atop a massive, three-layered circular base constructed of white marble. This layering continues with the three layers of the roof. These roof eaves create a closer connection with heaven. The roof itself is clad in blue tiles, representing heaven, and topped with a golden sphere.

The structure is truly incredible because it exclusively uses wood joinery, meaning no nails hold it up, just the relationship between each piece of wood. It's supported by a series of columns, which are positioned to reference the four seasons of the year, the 12 months of the year and the 12 (two hour) units of the day. The interior is decorated with dragons, which symbolize the emperor, and phoenixes, which symbolize the empress.

The Hall is enclosed by a square wall, representing earth, which the ancient Chinese believed was square. It has four entrances located at the compass points and three other structures that have supporting roles for the Hall. The original Hall was struck by lightning and burnt down, and a replacement was painstakingly recreated in 1889.

Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest
Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest

Imperial Vault of Heaven

If you go directly south on the imperial pathway from the Hall of Prayer, you'll encounter the Imperial Vault of Heaven, added in 1530 and rebuilt in 1752 to fit the wishes of Emperor Qianlong. It's a round building that contains ancient tablets belonging to god and used by the emperor during ceremonies for the winter solstice. This wooden structure has an amazing single roof covered in blue tiles that flows downward from a golden sphere. This roof has only one eave and appears simple and refined.

The interior is decorated with over 300 dragons, and the coffered ceiling is covered with green and blue designs surrounding a dragon and pearl at the center. In the middle of the chamber is a stone, upon with the sacred tablets are placed.

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