Afternoon at the Temple of Heaven

I told my friend Ares in Beijing that the one thing I missed on my first trip that I really wanted to see was the Temple of Heaven.

Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, Temple of Heaven

Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, Temple of Heaven

It wasn’t until I had left Beijing back in November that I noticed that advertisements and the news media weren’t using the Forbidden City or Tiananmen Square to represent Beijing, but the Temple of Heaven. And more and more, the Temple’s being displayed as a symbol of all China, right up there with the Great Wall and the Terra-cotta Warriors.

So when I arrived in Beijing to meet Ares and his fiancé Nancy for dinner, we popped open the cork of a bottle of red wine, its label showcasing, what else, the Temple of Heaven.

Nancy prepares tea

Nancy’s tea set


Ares enjoys tea: Ganbei!

Needless to say, the Temple was first on my agenda.

I entered the Temple complex—the grounds are larger than the Forbidden City—through the East Gate, and sprung for an audio guide. I’ve avoided audio guides on my trip thus far, but it was helpful and informative. The only drawback being that the recordings would start automatically based on your location, and would jump ahead to the following topic if you veered close to the next sensor. There was no way to fast forward or rewind, so I learned to stand completely motionless when the audio guide—we’ll call her Marla—began speaking, for fear of missing out on a crucial element of Chinese dynastic history.

Marla told me about the “Divine Kitchens” and the “Pavilion for Butchering Animals”. According to Marla, ‘butchering’ is a misnomer.

“Animals were hit on the forehead until they passed out. Therefore it is also called the ‘Department for Hitting Livestock’.”

…the Double-Ring (Longevity) Pavilion…

Double-Ring (Longevity) Pavilion

Double-Ring (Longevity) Pavilion

…”built by the Qianlong Emperor during the Qing Dynasty in honor of his mother.” [No comment.]

…The Palace of Abstinence, where the Emperor would fast before the ceremony…

Palace of Abstinence

Palace of Abstinence

[The palace required an additional fee. Following dynastic tradition, I abstained.]

…and, of course, the Imperial Vault of Heaven…

Imperial Vault of Heaven, Temple of Heaven, Beijing

Imperial Vault of Heaven, Temple of Heaven, Beijing

Next, Marla suggested I stride up the Danbi Bridge. As wide as it is, only the Emperor was allowed to traverse it, on his way from the Imperial Vault to the main hall during the solstice ceremonies. Even the highest nobles had to walk on the road below.

Danbi Bridge, Temple of Heaven

Danbi Bridge, Temple of Heaven

Today children play with their toys upon the bridge as mothers take photos with their iPads.

I paused on the other side of the bridge to take in the Imperial Dressing Room, where the Emperor would change clothes before the ceremony. This was the only place in the complex I couldn’t take photos. That sacred? Not exactly. Inside, for a few rmb, the staff will take a picture of your little Emperor or Empress sitting on a replica of the imperial throne.


Finally, the main event. What most people think of when they hear “Temple of Heaven” is actually only a small part of the complex. The cylindrical edifice in all the photos is the temple at the northern edge of the grounds, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest.


Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest

An exhibit beside the hall described the ceremonies that took place here. On the solstice, the Emperor would come to the Hall to personally ask the Heavens for a fruitful harvest in the year to come.

I marveled at the amount of energy and resources that went into this ritual. These Emperors and all their subjects pinned their hopes of survival on a bovine sacrifice that would please the gods and regulate the amount of rain and sunshine to grow and replenish their crops.

That evening I tried to stream President Obama’s ‘State of the Union’ address, the one he’d delivered a couple of nights previous on Capitol Hill. But download speeds being what they are in China (glacial—or with anything Youtube related, 0° K) I made do with a transcript, which helpfully included parentheticals delineating when the Congress applauded. (APPLAUSE) It was just like being there.

Today agriculture isn’t the alpha and omega of survival in the coming year. Although last year, with the droughts, it played a large part. Today it’s about the economy in general. So our emperors don’t offer animal sacrifices to the gods. They listen to the advice of economists and historians, investment gurus and politicians, and that’s how we’ve been able to avoid any financial crises in the 21st century.


And I wondered, how different is our system from the Ming and Qing Dynasties? Or for that matter the Zhou of 1000 BC? The tradition of offering sacrifices on the solstice goes back for millennia. By the time of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, it was believed that any deviation from the highly-regimented ritual could spell disaster in the coming year.

As I read over the President’s speech, I also checked out Wikipedia’s description of the protocols of the State of the Union, and saw how these stacked up against the placards at the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest…



  • A formal invitation is made to the President for each State of the Union Address.

[From Temple of Heaven placards]

Bronze Statue to Hold a Fast Card

  • By approximately 8:30 pm, the members of the House have gathered in their seats for the joint session…

Hundreds of Officials to Fast at Their Own Offices

  • Then, the Deputy Sergeant at Arms addresses the Speaker and loudly announces the President and members of the Senate, who enter and take the seats assigned for them.

Emperor Go Out of Meridian Gate

  • The Speaker, and then the Vice President, specify the members of the House and Senate, respectively, who will escort the President into the House chamber.

Emperor Go to Fasting Palace

  • Just after 9 pm, as the President reaches the door to the chamber, House Sergeant at Arms stands just inside the doors, facing the Speaker and waiting for the President to be ready to enter the chamber.

At the Midnight to Light the Ceremonial Lamp

  • When he is ready, the Sergeant at Arms announces his presence, loudly stating the phrase: “Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”

Emperor Go to the Sacrificial Alter

  • As applause and cheering begins, the President slowly walks toward the Speaker’s rostrum, followed by members of his Congressional escort committee.

The Firewood Stove where…”a clearly washed and shaved calf was put on the stove and burned with pine twigs and reeds in order to welcome the God of Heaven”

To Strike the Bell at Belfry of the Fasting Palace

  • The President’s approach is slowed by pausing to shake hands, hug, kiss, and autograph copies of his speech for Members of Congress.

To Start Lighting Fire For Worshipping Heaven

  • After he takes his place at the House Clerk’s desk, he hands two manila envelopes previously placed on the desk and containing copies of his address to the Speaker and Vice President.

Stone Tablet Was Transferred to Sacrificial Alter

  • After continuing applause form the attendees has diminished, the Speaker introduces the President to the Representatives and Senators, stating: “Members of [the] Congress, I have the high privilege and [the] distinct honor of presenting to you the President of the United States.” This leads to further round of applause and, eventually, the beginning of the address by the President.

[From President Obama’s State of the Union Address, February 12, 2013. Disclosure: I’m an Obama supporter and I support more gun control. The following is a juxtaposition of the speech and the placards. It’s not meant to make light of topics discussed in the speech.]


  • Thank you. Please, everybody, have a seat. Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, members of Congress, fellow Americans, 51 years ago, John F. Kennedy declared to this chamber that “the Constitution makes us not rivals for power, but partners for progress. (APPLAUSE)

Emperor Go to the Alter to Give a Salute to Heaven

  • “It is my task,” he said, “to report the state of the union. To improve it is the task of us all.” Tonight, thanks to the grit and determination of the American people, there is much progress to report. After a decade of grinding war, our brave men and women in uniform are coming home. (APPLAUSE)

To Perform the Divine Music to Welcome God of Heaven

  • After years of grueling recession, our businesses have created over 6 million new jobs. We buy more American cars than we have in five years and less foreign oil that we have in 20. (APPLAUSE)  Our housing market is healing, our stock market is rebounding, and consumers, patients and homeowners enjoy stronger protections than ever before. So, together, we have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and we can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is stronger. (APPLAUSE)


To Put a Calf on a Fire

  • But — but we gather here knowing that there are millions of Americans whose hard work and dedication have not yet been rewarded. Our economy is adding jobs, but too many people still can’t find full-time employment. Corporate profits have skyrocketed to all-time highs, but for more than a decade, wages and incomes have barely budged. It is our generation’s task, then, to re-ignite the true engine of America’s economic growth: a rising, thriving middle class. (APPLAUSE)

To Bury the Sacrifice’s Hair and Blood

  • It is—it is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country, the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, no matter what you look like or who you love. It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few, that it encourages free enterprise, rewards individual initiative, and opens the doors of every opportunity to every child across this great nation.

To Start Performing the Specific Music

  • Over the last few years, both parties have worked together to reduce the deficit by more than $2.5 trillion, mostly through spending cuts, but also by raising tax rates on the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans…

To Burn Incense Stick and to give a Salute to Heaven and His Ancestors

  • …Yes, the biggest driver of our long-term debt is the rising cost of health care for an aging population. And those of us who care deeply about programs like Medicare must embrace the need for modest reforms…But we can’t ask senior citizens and working families to shoulder the entire burden of deficit reduction while asking nothing more from the wealthiest and the most powerful. (APPLAUSE)


To Offers a Jade to Heaven

  • …Senators of both parties are working together on tough new laws to prevent anyone from buying guns for resale to criminals… Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress. If you want to vote no, that’s your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote, because in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations, anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun…

The To Offer Silks to Heaven

  • One of those we lost was a young girl named Hadiya Pendleton. She was 15 years old. She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss. She was a majorette…Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington, with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration. And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house.

To Pour Hot Water on the Sacrifices

  • Hadiya’s parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence. They deserve a vote. (APPLAUSE)

The First Offer of Wine to Heaven

  • Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. (APPLAUSE)

To Read the Ceremonial Articles

  • The families of Newtown deserve a vote. (APPLAUSE)

The Second Offer of Wine to Heaven

  • The families of Aurora deserve a vote. (APPLAUSE)

The Last Offer of Wine to Heaven

  • The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence, they deserve a simple vote. (APPLAUSE)

To Remove the Sacrificial Offerings

  • We should follow the example of a police officer named Brian Murphy. When a gunman opened fire on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, Brian was the first to arrive, and he did not consider his own safety. He fought back until help arrived and ordered his fellow officers to protect the safety of the fellow Americans worshipping inside, even as he lay bleeding from 12 bullet wounds. And when asked how he did that, Brian said, “That’s just the way we’re made…”


To Take the Sacrificial Offerings to Firewood Stove

  • We may do different jobs, and wear different uniforms, and hold different views than the person beside us. But as Americans, we all share the same proud title: We are citizens. It’s a word that doesn’t just describe our nationality or legal status. It describes the way we’re made. It describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others; and that well into our third century as a nation, it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story.

Emperor Watches the Sacrificial Offerings to Burn

  • Thank you, God bless you, and God bless these United States of America.


About sinestor

Originally from Los Angeles/Long Beach, California, I'm currently spending a year exploring the amazing world known as China. My main website is Every Day's a Holiday.

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