Thursday, July 24, 2008

Beijing: the Temple of Heaven

(This is part of a series of posts on our recent trip to China. We'll be posting throughout the summer as we bum around at or near home.)
Along with the Forbidden City (previous post) and Tiananmen Square (upcoming post), the Temple of Heaven is one of Beijing's most recognizable landmarks. As mentioned in our previous post, the Forbidden City, as the empire's main palace, was the ceremonial center of imperial power. The Temple of Heaven was the religious center of imperial power: it was the site of the central rites of the Chinese imperial religion, which was a mix of Daoism, ancestor worship, and prehistoric heaven worship, which you'll learn more about in an upcoming post on Dongyue Temple, a fascinating Daoist/court religion site in eastern Beijing.

For now, it's enough to know that Daoism (which Blogger doesn't recognize as the mainland-Chinese alternate spelling of Taoism--more information on the spelling controversies here), or at least the hybridized version of Daoism backed by the imperial court, features two parallel and interlocking hierarchies: one representing the order of the physical world, and one representing the order of spiritual world. What's unique and interesting about the belief system is that there is almost always a human who outranks any given deity. For example, a provincial governor outranks the city gods of his province, and the emperor outranks the provincial gods. Also, people are only allowed to worship the deities directly above them in the hierarchy--at least, without help from a priest or an official. At the bottom are the common people, who are only allowed to worship their lowly household gods. At the top is the Jade Emperor (almost always, depending on whom you ask), who is the ruler of heaven, and whom only the Son of Heaven (aka, the emperor, and second-in-command in the order of all creation) could worship directly. The emperor did so at the Temple of Heaven--along with the thousands of servants, priests, and courtiers who made up his entourage, of course.

The Temple of Heaven was originally built in the 15th century by the emperor Yongle, the same fellow responsible for the original Forbidden City. It sits on a north-south axis in the middle of an enormous arboretum, which is now a public park. It's central building is also its most iconic: the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, where the emperor prayed for (surprise!) good harvests, upon which the wealth of the entire empire depended. You can see us in front of the Hall below.

I have to say, of all the many examples of Chinese monumental architecture we saw on our trip, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests was the most photogenic--though I might give the title for most beautiful to the Grand Mosque in Xian (upcoming post). Too bad I had to contend with some impressive smog.
You'll notice that the Hall is perfectly round, like many of the other buildings in the Temple of Heaven complex, whereas most traditional Chinese architecture is rectangular or square. There is a reason for this: in Daoism, the circle is seen as a symbol of heaven, and the square (or the right angle, at least) as a symbol of earth. These two symbols are joined throughout the Temple of Heaven--the round Hall above sits on three round terraces which themselves sit on a huge raised square plaza--reflecting the Temple's function as a place where heaven meets earth. You'll also notice that unlike in the Forbidden City, the roof tiles here are blue, the color of heaven, not gold, the color of the (later) emperors.

You can't go inside the Hall, which is understandable but still a bit disappointing, though an exhibit in one of the nearby buildings gives you a pretty good idea of what it looks like inside: here's a photo of the view looking straight up from the center.
South of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is a long raised promenade called the Vermillion Steps Bridge (below), which links the Hall to the Imperial Vault of Heaven, where the spirit tablets corresponding to the Gods of Heaven were kept.
As might be expected of the home of heaven on earth, the Vault and its surroundings are mostly circular, including the perfectly round Echo Wall encircling the Vault compound, which can transmit even a whisper along its inside circumference.
Just south of the Vault, then, is the Circular Mound Altar, a raised circular platform left open to the elements (below).
As you can see from this shot looking north from the Altar (below), the Vault was remarkably close-by in a city famous for its immense distances. This is because the emperor had to carry the heavenly spirit tablets from the Vault to the Altar whenever he wanted to make an offering, and the slightest mishap during the ceremonial procession--and by "slight mishap," we're talking a sneeze, or an ill-favored pigeon, or someone slightly out of step--could be seen as an affront to the gods, and thus likely to bring down a plague or a famine. Yet another reason why it probably sucked to be emperor, even though the emperor was by a long sight the wealthiest guy in the world. So in short, the Altar was serious business, as was the Temple of Heaven as a whole. Today, though, the site is not without its opportunities for levity. I mean, just check out this weird gargoyle--since when do gargoyles wear sunglasses?

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