The Significance And Symbolism Of The Temple Of Heaven In Beijing


Of all the lavish architectural feats of Imperial China, none compares to that of the Temple of Heaven, found in old Beijing. Built as a sacred site for sacrifices made to Heaven, the Temple complex is riddled with numerology, Feng Shui and symbolism. The temple was constructed during the Ming Dynasty of the 1400’s, an era which saw a revival in Confucianism.

The entire complex was built solely for the purpose of the Emperor’s duty to perform sacrificial rituals to Heaven. Because the Emperor was regarded as the Son of Heaven, it was believed that he was responsible for gaining favor with the ancestors and gods for all of his people. Twice a year, he would fulfill this duty, observing the Winter Solstice on the Circular Mound Alter, and burning incense and sacrificing animals within the Hall of Prayer, where he would pray for abundant harvests.

Numerology, an important element of Ancient Chinese cosmology, played a key role in the construction of the entire complex, from the outer wall, to the structures themselves. The number 9 was revered as having a superior spiritual resonance, as the Chinese pronunciation is similar to that of the word for eternity. Of similar importance is the number 12, which represented the solar system.

Within the compound are three main structures, all aligned on a Feng Shui oriented North-South Axis. According to UNESCO, the structures, from North to South are the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, The Imperial Vault of Heaven, and the Circular Mound Alter. Connecting the Imperial Vault and the Hall of Prayer are the Vermillion Steps which gently slope upwards towards the Alter.

Color and shape also played a significant role in the Temple design. The ceilings and roofs of the structures were intricately tiled in blue, as a representation of Heaven. Heaven was thought to be round, and Earth Square, and so the joining of square foundations with round buildings was used to represent the relationship between the two realms. Similar design elements can be found in the main wall surrounding the compound.

Today, the Temple is a UNESCO site, preserved for future generations, and cherished as the world’s largest and most extensive ritual site for sacrifice to Heaven. The complex is hailed as China’s best example of Imperial architecture, even outshining the renowned Forbidden City, and pays a noble homage to Chinese Feng Shui architecture.