The Temple of Heaven, founded in the first half of the 15th century, is a dignified complex of fine cult buildings set in gardens and surrounded by historic pine woods. In its overall layout and that of its individual buildings, it symbolizes the relationship between earth and heaven – the human world and God's world – which stands at the heart of Chinese cosmogony, and also the special role played by the emperors within that relationship.
The Temple of Heaven is a masterpiece of architecture and landscape design which simply and graphically illustrates a cosmogony of great importance for the evolution of one of the world's great civilizations. Its symbolic layout and design had a profound influence on architecture and planning in the Far East over many centuries. Furthermore, the legitimacy of the feudal dynasties that for more than 2,000 years ruled over China is symbolized by the design and layout of the Temple of Heaven.
The Altar of Heaven and Earth, together with the wall surrounding the garden, was completed in 1420, the 18th year of the reign of the Ming Emperor Yongle. The central building was a large rectangular sacrificial hall, where sacrifices were offered to heaven and earth, with the Fasting Palace to the south-west. Pines were planted in the precinct of the Temple to emphasize the relationship between humankind and nature. In the ninth year of the reign of Emperor Jiajing (1530) the decision was taken to offer separate sacrifices to heaven and to earth, and so the Circular Mound Altar was built to the south of the main hall, for sacrifices to heaven. The Altar of Heaven and Earth was renamed the Temple of Heaven.
In 1749, the fourteenth year of the reign of the Qing Emperor Qianlong, the Circular Mound was enlarged, the original blue-glazed tiles being replaced with white marble. Two years later renovation work took place at the Hall of Daxiang, and it was given the new name of the Hall of Prayers for Abundant Harvests. This was the heyday of the Temple of Heaven, when it covered 273ha. Ceremonial sacrifices to heaven were banned by the government of the Republic of China in 1911. By that date, 490 years after its foundation, the Temple of Heaven had witnessed 654 acts of worship to heaven by 22 emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties. It was opened as a public park in 1918 and has been so ever since.
The Temple of Heaven was built on a site 3.5 km south-east of the Zhengyang Gate of Beijing. The area that it occupies is almost square, the two southern corners being right-angled and those on the north rounded. This symbolizes the ancient Chinese belief that Heaven is round and the Earth square. It is a spatial representation of Chinese cosmogony on which the political power and legitimacy of the imperial dynasties was based for more than two millennia.
The three principal cult structures are disposed in a line on the central north-south axis. The sacrificial buildings are mainly in the Inner Altar, which is subdivided into two by a wall running east-west, the southern sector, known as the Circular Mound Altar, and the northern, the Altar of the God of Grain. The two altars are connected by an elevated brick path 360 m long, known as the Red Stairway Bridge. The main Temple of Heaven, the Circular Mound, repeats the symbolism of the walls, as the central round feature (Heaven) is inside a square enclosure (Earth). It consists of three circular platforms of white marble, decreasing in diameter, surrounded by balustrades in the same material. Entry to the enclosure is effected by means of a series of monumental gates. There are 360 pillars in the balustrades, representing the 360 days of the ancient Chinese lunar year. The imperial throne would have been set up in the centre of the uppermost platform, symbolizing the role of the Emperor as the Son of Heaven and hence the link between Heaven and Earth. To the north of the Circular Mound is the Imperial Vault of Heaven. It was here that the emperor made offerings before retiring to the Fasting Palace (Palace of Abstinence).
In the north enclosure, the Altar of the God of Grain, the main feature is the Hall of Prayers for Abundant Harvests, which is linked with the Temple of Heaven by the Long Corridor, 440 m long and 25 m wide. In form and materials, the hall repeats the three-tiered circular structure in white marble of the Temple of Heaven. It is surmounted by the hall itself, once again circular in plan, and with three superimposed roofs in blue glazed tiles, from which the emperor offered up prayers for good harvests. It is supported on a massive wooden framework and its interior is richly decorated.