Wednesday, 13 May 2015

The Longlist: The Temple of Heaven

What's the Longlist? It's the list for all the other great man-made spectacles in the world that haven't quite made my shortlist. I don't feel the need to research them or visit them, but as long as this blog is about the world's best man-made structures, they deserve some kind of mention. Today, the Temple of Heaven.

A few years ago, I was in Beijing, to visit its Wonder, the Forbidden City, for centuries the home of emperors from both the Ming and Qing dynasty. It's at the heart of Beijing, and the historic heart of the whole nation. It's... alright. I found it a little boring, to be honest. It's grand and pompous but also vast and sledgehammer repetitive. How many traditional Chinese-style buildings can you continue to enjoy after two hours? The Forbidden City is supposed to be the big boy of Beijing but that changes when you actually arrive in the city. Because - at least during the period I was there - the image I saw reproduced across the city, whether on advertising, logos, shop fronts, or whatever, wasn't the Forbidden City, it was the far-more distinctive Temple of Heaven. Far more distinctive, yes, and far more attractive. I visited the Temple of Heaven twice during my time in Beijing and can confidently say it is among the most beautiful buildings I have seen, and by rights should really have a place somewhere on my shortlist.

In fact, more properly the Temple of Heaven should be called the Altar of Heaven, as it's not really a temple at all. And it's more than just the single building commonly pictured, it's part of a complex containing three main building groups. These are:

The Circular Mound Altar. This is the actual altar of the of complex, and is essentially just a platform used for religious ceremonies and sacrifices. Everything you see here is built to very strict architectural and philosophical requirements, everything in groups, especially of nine, the sacred number. The imperial Chinese took this kind of thing very seriously - they were a superstitious lot.

This is the Imperial Vault of Heaven, also known as the "slightly rubbish one". To make up for being rubbish, it's surrounded by a perimeter wall called the Echo Wall because sound is supposed to travel unusually well along it. The upshot of this is that any given time, approximately 700 Chinese people are clustered along its length, yelling.

And here's the main man of the complex, with the somewhat unwieldy name of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. It looks good in photos but I can assure you it's even more attractive in person. It's a quite perfect piece of architecture, clear and simple in its form but incredibly delicate in its details. Although time and culture have moved on and removed some of the symbolic meaning for us today, there is symbolism everywhere. Earth is represented by the square, heaven by the circle, and hence the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (and the Circular Mound Altar too) are round, but standing in a square enclosure. The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests has four inner pillars, twelve middle ones, and twelve outer ones - representing the four seasons, the twelve months, and the twelve traditional Chinese hours. The roof too - the blue tiles are supposed to represent heaven. The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests isn't pretty for the sake of being pretty, it's pretty with meaning. 

The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is that rare thing in traditional Chinese architecture - it stands out. You won't see anything quite like this anywhere else. It's quite petite by the standards of most of my Wonders - 36 metres in diameter, 38 metres in height - and entirely wooden, without nails. It's quite transfixing. I won't go so far to compare it too closely to the Taj Mahal, for the Taj Mahal really is out of this world, but it's definitely nudging in that direction, being one of these buildings that I can just stand and look at, for ages and ages. As you might be able to tell, I'm a fan.

What we see now, and I'm still talking about the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, dates from as recently as the early 1890s. Because that when the current incarnation was built. But that rather misleads. Because in 1889, lightning struck the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and burnt it to the ground. It had been around for a while before - since 1420 in fact. Which for those of us who are good at remembering dates (I just use Wikipedia) may know is the same year that the Forbidden City was completed.

That's no coincidence. Most of the Temple of Heaven was built by the same emperor that built the Forbidden City, Yongle. I'm always sad to report that Yongle isn't pronounced the way it looks - it doesn't rhyme with "dongle". It's said something like "Yong-lay". Sorry. Yongle was one of these emperors who meant business. He was a Ming emperor, still in the early days of the dynasty, and he moved the capital of China to Beijing, a slightly preposterous decision as the city was colder and more dangerously positioned that the previous capital, Nanjing. It's largely because of him that successive emperors felt the need to build the Great Wall, because the rampaging barbarian hordes were all fairly close by.

As well as building his imposing palace, Yongle also needed a place for religious worship, and that's where the Temple of Heaven came in. Chinese emperors were regarded as being the sons of heaven, and thereby had heavenly authority. It was extremely important to them to show respect to the source of that authority, and this was done in the form of sacrifices to heaven. Hence the Temple of Heaven. It was built pretty speedily - though done to very precise specifications, it's not a complex undertaking. From thereon, up to twice a year, Yongle or the many emperors that succeeded him, would move from the Forbidden City to the Temple of Heaven in a special procession. The biannual ceremonies were sacred, so sacred that not only were ordinary people barred from participating, they weren't even allowed to see the ceremonies or even the procession. I don't know what the punishments for eavesdropper were, but knowing the imperial Chinese, it would have been a little more serious than a stern ticking off. You were best advised to stay far away. Once at the Temple of Heaven, the emperor would perform an intricate ceremony that had to be done to perfection. There was no room for error. A single, tiny mistake would be a very bad omen for the coming year's harvest. I'm pretty sure nobody could possibly have enjoyed these proceedings, and everybody would have breathed a big sigh of relief when it was all over, and they could go back to the palace and gossip about eunuchs, or whatever it was they did back then to pass the time.

That, pretty much, was the life of the Temple of Heaven for almost five centuries. There were some notable events and tweaks done in that time though. Most notably, in 1530 the emperor Jiajing extended the complex. It was him that had the Circular Mound Altar constructed. He wanted to separate the sacrifices made to heaven and earth, and the Circular Mound Altar was built to the south, which would symbolise heaven. It is at this time the Temple of Heaven acquired the name it still has today.

In the mid-18th Century, the Qing emperor Qianlong gave the whole thing a makeover, enlarging and strengthening the complex, and bringing it to the exact format and layout we see now. The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests burnt down, as I mentioned, in 1889, but was quickly rebuilt. But by this period, things weren't going at all well for the emperors of China. The world was changing and China was changing, and no amount of prayer was going to stop that. The Boxer Rebellion, a Chinese uprising against the various foreign forces imposing themselves upon the country, resulting in further damage as the foreign alliance, an alliance of various European nations, America, Japan, and Russia, occupied the Temple of Heaven complex for a year, desecrating it. A little over a decade later, the Qing dynasty fell. Thousands of years of imperial rule in China was over. After a recorded 654 acts by 22 emperors, the Temple of Heaven no longer had a purpose. It was left unmanned, and the damaged building was left to sit, rot even, in silence.

But not for long. By 1918, China was by now a republic and they had to do something with all these old imperial buildings. The Temple of Heaven was opened to the public for the first time ever in its history, and ensured that it wasn't left to rot. UNESCO made it a World Heritage Site in 1998.

Visiting the Temple of Heaven is a pleasure. The main complex is composed of the three aforementioned main buildings. Additionally, the Imperial Vault of Heaven is connected to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests by a 360-metre walkway, that gives a fabulous approach to the complex's showstopper. But actually, the Temple of Heaven is bigger than that too. It's part of Tiantan Park, and as you'll all know, Tiantan in Chinese is written 天坛. What does 天坛 mean? It means "Temple of Heaven".It's a little confusing, but the Temple of Heaven - rather than just the single building that is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests or the complex of three buildings - is actually a 267-hectare park. That's only marginally smaller than Central Park in New York. Within that park is around 600 old Chinese buildings, but what makes it a pleasure is the atmosphere. It's green and spacious and filled with trees, and also filled with mostly elderly Chinese people dancing in groups, exercising in groups, taking walks, playing with children and toys, and just having a lovely time. None of which could have happened before 1918, when it was exclusive property of the emperor. Even if the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests didn't exist, I'd be recommending Tiantan Park, just because of its atmosphere. That it has one of the prettiest buildings you'll ever see, makes this a must-visit in Beijing. Much moreso than the Forbidden City.

I expect I'll visit the Temple of Heaven again, and look forward to it. The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is one of these rare buildings that is simply spot-on. If I was ever to form a "super-longlist" of places that really should have been included on the shortlist, this would be right up at the top.

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