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What is the Temple of Heaven?

The Temple of Heaven is located in Beijing, China.
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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 18 November 2014
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The Temple of Heaven is a collection of Taoist temple structures in Beijing, China. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been since 1998. The Temple of Heaven is also known as the Altar of Heaven, and occasionally as the Temple of Heaven and Earth.

Physically, the Temple of Heaven covers 675 acres (275 hectares), making it more than three times as large as the Forbidden City itself. The Altar of Prayer for Good Harvest is the focus of the complex, standing 125 feet (38m) high and 100 feet (30m) across. Other main locations include the Center of Heaven Stone, which is a point where echoes form if spoken from, the Imperial Vault of Heaven, and the Circular Mount Altar.

The Temple of Heaven was built in the early-15th century by the Yongle Emperor, the amazing builder who also built the Forbidden City. In the 16th century the Temple of Heaven was expanded by the Jiajing Emperor, who also built the Temple of Moon, the Temple of Sun, and the Temple of Earth.

The Temple of Heaven was very important to Chinese Emperors. One of the titles of the Chinese Emperor was the Son of Heaven, and it was from Heaven that the Emperor received his power. In order to show respect, the Emperor was expected to make sacrifices to Heaven, particularly to ensure good crops.

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The Temple of Heaven was erected to facilitate the Emperor’s sacrifices to Heaven, and twice a year he would travel with his royal retinue to the Temple to perform very specific rituals. During this time none of the party ate meat, and no commoner was allowed within. The Emperor was expected to perform the rituals exactly, and every small mistake was seen as a reason for calamities befalling China as a whole. In the early-20th century, the President of the Republic of China performed ceremonial prayers at the Temple as part of a larger plan to become Emperor.

The Temple of Heaven as a whole is full of symbolism, and on a large scale represents the relationship between our world and the Heavenly world. There are three terraces in the Temple, each of which was used for a different set of sacrifices and prayers by the Emperor. The first terrace symbolized the Earth, the second symbolized Man, and the third symbolized Heaven itself.

The Temple of Heaven was substantially restored in anticipation of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and seems fresh and new. The place is not only popular among visiting foreign tourists, but also among the Chinese, who often congregate there to play cards, spar with swords, and perform traditional theater forms. The atmosphere is at once reverential and playful, and it is considered by many to be one of the highlights of a visit to Beijing.

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