The Temple of Heaven is the largest existing architectural complex in the world for the purpose of praying heaven for good harvests. It was included in the World Heritage List by UNESCO in December 1998.
Located to the southeast of the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven was where emperors of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties worshipped heaven. It covers 273 hectares; the layout is circular in the north and square in the south to symbolize the circular heaven and the square earth. The compound has two surrounding walls; the main buildings for worship are located within the inner wall. The main buildings – the Circular Mound Altar in the south and the Altar of Prayer for Good Harvests in the north – are linked with a 360-meter-long passage, called Danbiqiao or Red Stairway Bridge. To the west of the Altar of Prayer for Good Harvests lies the Hall of Abstinence; to the southwest are the Divine Music Administration and the Department for Sacrifices.
The Chinese have a long history of worshipping heaven. Because the rulers of the Western Zhou Dynasty (11th Century-771 BC) claimed that they were empowered by heaven, the worship of heaven was continued by almost all state rulers as a way to uphold their right of administration.
After Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, established his rule in Nanjing, he ordered a circular mound altar built on the southern slope of Zhongshan Mountain to worship heaven and a square altar built on the northern slope to worship earth. Later the ceremonies to worship heaven and earth were merged and held in one temple. After Zhu Li, the second emperor of the Ming Dynasty, moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing, he had the Altar of Heaven and Earth built in the new capital based on the standards of the one in Nanjing, but larger in size. Construction was completed in February, 1421, at the site of today’s Altar of Prayer for Good Harvests. The Hall of Worship was the main place for the ceremony. About 110 years later, Emperor Jiajing issued an order to separate the worship ceremony of heaven from that of earth. Four altars were then built in the four directions (east, south, west and north) of the city of Beijing to worship the sun, heaven, the moon and the earth. The Temple of Heaven, a1so known as the Circular Mound Altar, was built to worship heaven.
The rulers of the Qing Dynasty, which replaced the Ming Dynasty in 1644, kept the worship system. With all these readjustments, the altar system was finally comp1eted and the worship of the heaven was reformed during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795). A total of 22 Ming and Qing emperors held 654 ceremonies to worship the heaven in Beijing. The worship was abandoned in 1911 when the last emperor of the Qing court abdicated and the Temple of Heaven ended its role as an imperial altar. However, the last ceremony held at the Temple was on the Winter Solstice in 1914 by Yuan Shikai who attempted to reestablish a monarchy. Yuan developed a new ceremony and tailored special attire there for. Yuan died shortly thereafter and his regime was overthrown.
On December 2, 1998, the Temple of Heaven was placed onto the World Heritage List at the 22nd conference of the World Heritage Committee. The committee came to the conclusion that 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. The symbolic layout and design of the Temple of Heaven had a profound influence on architecture and planning in the Far East over many centuries. For more than two thousand years China was ruled by a series of feudal dynasties, the legitimacy of which was symbolized by the design and layout of the Temple of Heaven.
Every year, the Temple of Heaven receives millions of visitors from near and afar who are impressed by the complicated cultural presentation, the grand, ancient architectural complex and the secluded surroundings.