Places of Worship – Temple of Heaven

Location: Beijing, China

Era: 1420 CE

Religion: Taoism

The iconic Temple of Heaven (Tian Tan) in southeast Beijing was host to 22 Chinese emperors through the Ming and Qing dynasties, who would pray here for themselves and for good harvests for their people. Originally the Altar to Heaven and Earth was used for the worship of both heaven and earth, but once Emperor Jailing built the Fangzetan (Altar to the Earth) in northern Beijing, this temple became exclusively for the worship of heaven.[1] The main Imperial Vault of Heaven (Huangqiongyu) was built in 1530 CE and sits on a raised platform. The main temple enclosure is surrounded by the Echo Wall, so named because a whisper at any point can be heard at the other side of the structure.

Among the 92 ancient buildings within the complex is an altar dedicated to grain, Sacrifice Pavilion and a Hall of Abstinence. The design was symbolic for the Chinese to show the connection between mankind, other creatures, the environment and their Creator. The structures embodied the principles of yin and yang, and to illustrate that the heavens (yang) were superior to the earth (yin). The main Tian Tan building is also an architectural marvel as it is made entirely of wood, with the columns and other components holding it up, but without any nails! The tiered blue circular roofs represent the sky.

Emperors would come on significant days such as the winter solstice to pray to heaven on behalf of their people, and would also fast and remain celibate before performing ceremonies. The Altar of Abstinence is where emperors would stay before ceremonial days, fast and conduct their official duties including the ritual sacrifice of a bull. Ceremonies also reaffirmed the position of the emperor, and their right to rule the people, and to intercede with the creator in a way that common people couldn’t. The Hall of August Heaven held wooden spirit tables representing significant ancestors.

The temple complex is normally associated with Taoism, although most Chinese people have adopted elements of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism.

The Temple of Heaven is now open to the public, and protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site.


[1] Y. Yin, The Best Scenery and Sights in Beijing (Beijing, China: China Nationality Art Photograph Publishing House, 2005), 61.

Other References:

H. Thompson, Beijing and Shanghai (London, UK: Dorling Kindersley Books, 2007).