The Temple of Heaven in Beijing

UNESCO World Heritage Sites in China

This expansive temple-and-park complex is an iconic site in southern Beijing and possibly the second most popular landmark in the city. Built in 1406 by Ming Emperor Yong Le (r. 1402-1424) for conducting religious sacrifices and rituals, the Temple of Heaven’s layout and architecture are filled with ancient symbolisms, which interpret heaven as a blue, round dome and the earth as a flat, square base.

The centrepiece buildings – The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and The Imperial Vault of Heaven – each features a round, blue glazed tiled roof set on a vermilion body and an ornate marble plint. These two structures were constructed without the use of steel, cement or nails or structural support like beams and cross beams. Open to the public in 1912, the Temple of Heaven has since amazed visitors with its marvelous architecture, craftsmanship as well as its landscape design. It is also one of the most popular parks for local people to relax, do their morning exercise and fly kites.

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Temple of Heaven

The Temple of Heaven showcases a perfect geometrical setup and heavy emphasis on ancient symbolisms as old as the great philosopher Confucius (551-497 BC) himself.

The principal structures – The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, The Imperial Vault of Heaven, The Altar of Heaven – are placed along the temple’s central north-south axis, with the northern section (the prayer hall) set on a slightly higher elevation than the southern section (the altar) to symbolise heaven’s superiority over the earth.

All three structures feature a circular top (circular shape signifies the over-arching heaven and the sky), with the prayer hall and the altar each set on an expansive square base (the earth) and mounted on an ornate three-tiered marble plinth. The blue glazed-tiled roof, a rather peculiar colour for an ancient structure, represents the colour of the sky (i.e. heaven).

Even the wall surrounding the entire compound has a rounded northern perimeter, then an angular base for the southern section, again to embody the concept of heaven as a higher, celestial entity.

Temple of Heaven History

The Temple of Heaven served as a place of worship for the Ming and Qing emperors (r. 1368 – 1911). When Emperor Yong Le ordered the construction of the Forbidden City to be the imperial residence, he commissioned the ‘house of gods’ to be built on a vast area in southern Beijing.

Occupying 2.75 million square metres, the temple is nearly four times bigger than the Forbidden City (720,000sqm) – as the son of gods dared not build a grander dwelling than that of his divine fathers’. Originally called the Temple of Heaven and Earth, the temple underwent a period of expansion and was renamed the Temple of Heaven under Emperor Jiajing (r. 1521-1527), who ordered three separate temples to be built to enshrine the gods of the sun, earth and moon in the east, north and west of Beijing, respectively.

Highlights and Features

  • Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests: Set on a majestic three-tiered marble plinth, this 38-metre-tall structure boasts a three-tiered, circular, blue-tiled roof and a vermilion timber façade that combine to make it an iconic site in southern Beijing. The elaborately decorated interior houses a ceremonial throne, upon which the Ming and Qing emperors would kneel and pray to the god of agriculture. An architectural marvel, this prayer hall was constructed without the use of steel, cement or nails or structural support like beams and cross beams. Here, a total of 28 pillars – each carved from a single tree – are aligned concentrically to provide support to the roof. The innermost circle has four pillars, representing the four seasons, while the two outer circles each has 12 pillars to represent the 12 months and 12 Chinese hours that make up a full day.
  • Imperial Vault of Heaven: The vault is similar to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests but smaller with a one-tiered roof and one-tiered marble plinth. Inside, it houses the tablets of the gods of stars (e.g. the sun, Venus, Jupiter, Mercury, Mars and Saturn) and the gods of natural phenomenon (e.g. wind, rain, thunder and lightning).
  • The Echo Wall: This round wall with a single tier, blue-tiled eave surrounds the Imperial Vault of Heaven. So called for its curious characteristic – try whispering close to any point along the wall, and the sound can be heard clearly at the other end.
  • Altar of Heaven: This is where the emperor would offer sacrifices to the gods; the three-tiered altar constructed entirely from marble – 4,302 slabs in all – spans 70 metres across. Numerology and a perfect geometrical setup play a significant role here. Each of the three levels features nine concentric rings, each constructed with marble slabs in a multiple of nine (the number nine being the emperor’s number), and nine steps leading to the next level. The uppermost platform, spanning 30 metres across, can be accessed from one of the four sets of stairs (with nine steps each) positioned on the east-west and north-south axes.
  • Hall of Abstinence: Situated along the western axis, this single-storey wooden structure with a blue-tiled roof was used in a three-day fasting ceremony, prior to conducting religious or sacrificial rites. Since 1986, it has been converted into an exhibition hall where sacrificial relics are on display in the original order in which they were used in ceremonies.
  • Vermilion Steps Bridge: This cypress-fringed, 360-metre long walkway connects the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests with the Altar of Heaven. Raised at one metre high at the southern end (the altar) and four metres high at the northern end (the prayer hall), the bridge simulates the feeling of ascending heavenwards as one approaches the prayer hall. Spanning 30 metres across, the bridge has three distinctly marked paths: the middle path was reserved for the gods, to its left was the emperor’s path, and the empress and court official used the path to the right.

Good to Know and What Not to Miss

  • Plan to spend at least 90 minutes touring the main buildings inside the temple.
  • There are four types of tickets. The combination ticket (CNY 30/CNY 35) is the best value, as it allows entry into the temple as well as access to all the main buildings inside.
  • Check the opening hours before you go, as they vary from one season to the next. Certain areas inside the temple also have their own hours.
  • The best time to go is early morning

Temple of Heaven

  • Opening Hours: Gate 06:00 - 22:00; The Scenic Spots March 1 to June 30: 08:00 -17:30, July 1 to October 31: 08:00 - 18:00, November 1 to February 28:08:00 - 17:00
  • Price Range: CNY 30 (Nov. 1 to Mar. 31), CNY 35 (Apr. 1 to Oct. 31) – combination tickets.
    CNY 10 (Nov. 1 to Mar. 31), CNY 15 (Apr. 1 to Oct. 31) – entry only.
    CNY 10 (year round) – The Hall of Ceremonial Music and The Hall of Abstinence only.
    CNY 10 (year round) – The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, The Circular Mound Altar and The Echo Wall only.
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