Worshipping Heaven instead of a God may seem strange. But in ancient China, the Zhou Dynasty which reigned between 1050-256 BC, initiated a new social order and religious system, centred around a supreme sky god Tiān (天), a “deity who rules Heaven and Earth.” Under this system, Heaven Worship became a state religion and Tian was considered responsible for the orderly functioning of the cosmos as well as the maintenance of seasonal weather and good harvests on earth. The king called himself the Son of Heaven, the instrument by which the balance between yin and yang, growing weather and harvesting weather, was maintained on earth. His duty was to perform the animal sacrifices that Heaven demanded at the Winter Solstice, establish a relationship between Man and Heaven and ask for prosperity, longevity and good harvests for the people.
The Temple Of Heaven in Beijing, 6 km south-east of the Forbidden City, was created only in the 15th century as the principle place of worship of Heaven for the Emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties. It is four times the size of the Forbidden City as mortals were precluded from building a dwelling for themselves that was greater than the earthly residence dedicated to Heaven. Two encircling walls divide the Temple in to an inner and outer. The most important structures of the Temple are the Circular Mound Altar, the Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest.
Every winter the Emperor’s entourage went from the Forbidden City to the Temple of Heaven. Commoners were instructed to close all windows of their houses and remain indoors. The procession included elephant and horse chariots, lancers, nobles, officials and musicians. The 12m long imperial sedan chair was carried by 10 bearers. The elaborate ceremonies at the Temple which included fasting by the Emperor, animal sacrifices, music and prayers lasted for five days.
The Temple of Heaven and the 267-hectare park that surrounds it were opened to the public in 1918. Today, walking through the park one would see groups of local people that gather here every day to sing folk songs, practice Tai-Chi and sword dancing, play chess or just sit and chat.
“I have booked a couple of Masters to give you a Tai-Chi lesson this morning” the guide from Wendy Wu said. The coach drove us from our Beijing hotel to the Temple of Heaven Garden and the two Masters introduced us to the delicate art of Tai-Chi.
We walked along the 350 metre long ornamental Long Corridor from the pavilions where oxen, sheep, deer and other beasts were slaughtered and prepared before being presented as divine offerings, to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest during the annual ceremony.
The centrepiece of the Temple of Heaven is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, a grand circular hall with a three-tiered roof, supported by 28 large pillars. built entirely of wood without the use of nails. It is where the emperor prayed yearly for good harvests. The architecture of the Temple is in accordance with the concept that Heaven is round and earth square. Thus the round Hall of Prayer stands in a square yard.
We climbed up the wide marble stairs to the top terrace, walked round the elaborately painted temple and peered inside. The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests has four inner, twelve middle and twelve outer pillars, representing the four seasons, twelve months and twelve traditional Chinese hours respectively. The roof tiles are dark blue, representing the Heaven.
We walked over to the three Annex Halls with ornate roofs which were used to house the ‘divine tablets of attendant gods.’
As we walked down the steps from the Temple of Heaven and through the park with tall trees and shrubs heavy with flowers, I still couldn’t come to terms with the concept of worshipping “Heaven” for longevity and good harvests.