Temple of Heaven
The Temple of Heaven, 天坛, in Beijing was built by the Ming Emperor Yongle, 永乐皇帝, in 1406. It is a complex of buildings and stands in Xuan Wu district in the southeastern part of central Beijing. This temple together with other complexes such as the Forbidden City was part of the Ming emperor’s mega-construction for his new capital in Beijing. Four years earlier, Emperor Yongle deposed Emperor Jian Wen, his nephew, from the throne and shifted the Ming capital from Nanjing to Beijing.
The construction took 14 years and the entire Temple of Heaven complex was invested with symbols that manifest imperial authority; dragons, the number 9, blue tiles that represent the heavens etc.
On the Winter Solstice of every year, the emperor, as the Son of Heaven, prayed at the Temple of Heaven for blessings and good harvest for his empire. The entire court accompanied the emperor for the ritual and has to abide by strict protocol to ensure smooth proceedings during the ritual.
The Temple of heaven was the most important of 4 altars in Beijing. The other three are Altar of the Earth, 地坛, Sun, 日坛, and moon, 月坛, constructed by Ming Emperor Jiajing, 嘉庆皇帝, in 1530.
These altars were not inventions of the Ming emperors but an ancient tradition that began as early as the Zhou dynasty. For almost 500 years, from 1420 to 1911, about 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasty led thousands of court officials to pray at the Temple of Heaven.
While prayer at the Temple of Heaven honors ancient traditions, the person who led the prayer is also endowed with political legitimacy and recognized as the Son of Heaven.
That is why for anyone who harbors imperial ambition, leading a prayer at the Temple of Heaven is a way to demonstrate one’s mandate of heaven and/or a litmus test of public support.
The last person to pray at the Temple of Heaven was Yuan Shi Kai, 袁世凯. He was the President of Republic of China but hoped to become an Emperor. In 1914, he led a prayer ceremony at the Temple of Heaven as part of his preparation to become an Emperor. Yuan Shi Kai did become an Emperor in 1916 but only for 83 days.
Although China is no longer ruled by an emperor, the Chinese are still proud of the Temple of Heaven as a cultural landmark and as an important showcase of traditional Chinese architecture. The name and image of Temple of Heaven has been used as a brand for many products such as sofa, cigarette, food, Chinese Tea and wine among many others.
In 1988, the Temple of Heaven was designated as a UNSECO World Heritage site and was described as “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” See: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/881