At the same time that the Yongle emperor built the Forbidden City, he also oversaw construction of this enormous park and altar to Heaven directly to the south. Each winter solstice, the Ming and Qing emperors would lead a procession here to perform rites and make sacrifices designed to promote the next year's crops and curry favor with Heaven for the general health of the empire. It was last used for this purpose by the president of the Republic, Yuan Shikai, on the winter solstice of December 23, 1914, updated with photographers, electric lights (the height of modernity at the time), and a bulletproof car for the entrance of the increasingly unpopular president. This effectively announced his intent to promote himself as the new emperor, but few onlookers shared his enthusiasm. Formerly known as the Temple of Heaven and Earth, the park is square (symbolizing Earth) in the south and rounded (symbolizing Heaven) in the north.
Temple of Heaven Park (Tian Tan Gongyuan; tel. 010/6702-8866) is south of Tian'an Men Square, on the east side of Qian Men Dajie. It's open daily from 6am to 8pm (may close earlier in winter, depending on weather and staff decisions), but the ticket offices and major sights are open only from 8am to 6pm, last ticket sold at 5pm. All-inclusive tickets (lian piao) cost ¥35 (¥30 in winter); simple park admission costs ¥15. The east gate (dong men) is easily accessed by public transport; take the no. 39, 106, or 110 bus just north of the Chongwen Men metro stop (exit B) to Fahua Si. However, the best approach is from the south gate (nan men), the natural starting point for a walk that culminates in the magnificent Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests.
Seeing The Highlights
During the Cultural Revolution, Tian Tan lost its perfect symmetry as large bites were taken out of the southwest and southeast corners. There's no sign that the land will be returned, with massive apartment blocks ready to sprout on both corners, but it's still a vast park that takes at least 2 hours to see in any depth. The west gate is convenient to the Altar of Agriculture. At the northeast corner lie the shopping delights of Yuanlong Silk Co. Ltd. and Hong Qiao Shichang.
Circular Altar (Yuan Qiu) -- This three-tiered marble terrace is the first major structure you'll see if you enter from the south gate (nan men). It was built in 1530 and enlarged in 1749, with all of its stones and balustrades organized in multiples of nine. Here, a slaughtered bull would be set ablaze, the culmination of an elaborate ceremonial entreaty to the gods.
Hall of Abstinence (Zhai Gong) -- Yuan Shikai fasted for 3 days in his own residence rather than here, as tradition dictated. Perhaps this was his undoing (he died 1 1/2 years later). Real emperors would fast and pray for 5 days, spending their final night in the Living Hall (Qin Dian) at the rear of this compound. Note the rare swastika emblems, a symbol of longevity in China, on the door piers. This green-tiled double-moated compound faces east, the best side at which to enter. The grounds are agreeably dilapidated, and are on a more human scale than the rest of the compound.
Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (Qinian Dian) -- Undoubtedly the most stunning building in Beijing, this circular wooden hall, with its triple-eaved cylindrical blue-tiled roof, is perhaps the most recognizable emblem of Chinese imperial architecture outside of the Forbidden City. Completed in 1420, the original hall was struck by lightning and burned to the ground in 1889 (not a good omen for the dynasty), but a near-perfect replica was built the following year. Measuring 38m (125 ft.) high and 30m (98 ft.) in diameter, it was constructed without a single nail. The 28 massive pillars inside, made of fir imported from Oregon (China lacked timber of sufficient length), are arranged to symbolize divisions of time: The central 4 represent the seasons, the next 12 represent the months of the year, and the outer 12 represent traditional divisions of a single day. The hall's most striking feature is its ceiling, a kaleidoscope of painted brackets and gilded panels as intricate as anything in the country. Don't skip the Imperial Hall of Heaven (Huangqian Dian), a smaller building to the north where the emperor would pray before the wooden tablets of his ancestors. Although Red Guards destroyed the tablets, the balustrades surrounding this prayer hall are elegantly carved.
Imperial Vault of Heaven (Huang Qiong Yu) -- Directly north of the Circular Altar, this smaller version of the Hall of Prayer was built to store ceremonial stone tablets. The vault is surrounded by the circular Echo Wall (Huiyin Bi). In years past, when crowds were smaller and before the railing was installed, it was possible for two people on opposite sides of the enclosure to send whispered messages to each other along the wall with remarkable clarity. You can still experience this magical acoustic effect at the Western Qing Tombs, but there's little hope of enjoying it here.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.