Climbing the Stairway to (Temple of) Heaven

Let’s say you’re a Chinese emperor, ruling the kingdom at some point between 1420 and 1911 and it is time to offer sacrifices and pray for a good harvest. Where do you go? I’ve got just the place: The Temple of Heaven, located just a bit south of the Imperial Palaces at the Forbidden City in Beijing.

The complex is huge – reportedly the largest complex in the world devoted to rituals paying homage to heaven – and it includes a number of buildings which were used to both prepare for and to offer up sacrifices for a plentiful harvest. The most well known of these buildings is the circular tower of the Hall of Prayer for a Good Harvest.


The hall was used for making the appropriate official sacrifices on the altar housed inside.


Of particular interest at this site, especially after seeing all the thrones and other bits devoted to making the emperor’s position most exalted, was that the Temple of Heaven includes a few features that actually knock him back down to earth. There is a processional area that the emperor would walk on to approach the temple to conduct the prayer ceremony. It is slightly inclined so that the approach to the temple actually reflects the idea of ascending to heaven.

Upon arrival at the temple site the procession would pass through the gates to enter the courtyard where the temple sits. The gate is raised on a marble platform, showing it to be one of the more significant gates in the culture, and it has three doors. While the approach path had a center lane explicitly reserved for the emperor to walk on the center of the three doors in the gate was considered too great even for the emperor; it was reserved only for the holy spirits to enter the grounds.


The temple grounds today are much more than just a relic of the past. They are well maintained as a park area and on the day of my visit they were packed with folks out enjoying the facility. There was a Chinese version of hackey sack being played (the sack has feathers on it which notably alters the flight behavior) all over the park. A few gentlemen invited me to briefly join them in their game. I was, somewhat expectedly, rather bad at it. I blame the feathers but I know that’s just an excuse.


There were others around dancing, exercising, making music or playing games. It was quite the gathering place for the locals.


Overall, a very enjoyable experience, both for the historical landmark and also the cultural experience of seeing the locals at play. Good times.

Read more from this Trip Report under the Dream2011 tag here.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.