The Temple of Heaven, located in Doncheng, Beijing, China
is an architectural marvel in terms of location, symbolism and historical
significance. It was constructed in the early
15th century (1406-1420) along with the Forbidden City under the
rule of the Yongle Emperor to be a centerpiece of the link between Heaven and
Earth and despite a barrage of damage causing conflicts, it remains standing. It’s influence of design, structure, and
symbolism remain evident throughout China to this day.
This holy site was built with the primary purpose of
offering sacrifice to the God’s, who would, in turn, bless the land of China
with bountiful harvests. Obviously, these
harvests were crucial to the well-being of the Chinese people and therefore,
the design of this temple must have been done in such a way that allowed the
prayers to be delivered to the gods as efficiently as possible. The architects of the temple accomplished this
by two specific acoustical design contributions. The first of these can be found in the Imperial
Vault of Heaven. This vault contains and
Echo Wall, and as its name implies, the functional purpose was to ensure that
the prayers emitted from within were carried throughout the land. It achieved this by relying on its circual
shape and “smooth brick” walls1. Since the prayers heard
at this site needed to reach heaven, the second acoustical design was implemented;
the guardrails surrounding the Circular Prayer Altar. These guardrails acted as a sounding board of
sorts, that reflected the prayers emitted from the Circular Prayer Altar to the
heavens. With these two elements, this
holy site had guaranteed that the prayers for harvest did not go unheard.
The symbolic elements of the design of the Temple of Heaven
and integral in it’s standing as the link between heaven and earth. This symbolism is no more evident than in the
pervasive use of squares and circles throughout the temple. The square is the symbol or Earth and the circle
was the symbol of Heaven. This relationship can be seen with greatest clarity in
the Hall of Prayers and the Circular Mound Altar, in which a circle shaped prayer
altar lies upon a simple square.2 This circle, square symbolism is also
demonstrated when viewing the entirety of the temple grounds from above. There is a silo shape to the grounds, with
the north side, beginning at East and West Heavens Gates, creating a
half-circle. The southern end of the
complex, south of the East and West Heavens Gates, is a perfectly formed square. This layout is unambiguous evidence of this temples
relationship with Heaven and Earth.
However, the importance of symbolism in this complex are
not limited to shapes. In Chinese
culture, the number nine (9) is representative of the Emperor of China and of the
heavens. The use of nine, of some
multiple thereof, is used throughout many elements of the temple as an homage to
both culturally significant figures.
As with the circle symbolism, the nine is can be seen in
the Circular Mound Altar in the form of nine ring of plates, one of nine, one
of 18, one of 27 and so forth until there is finally a ring of 81.
Further to the circles squares and the number nine, the references
to the cosmological beliefs are ubiquitous in the design of the temple. The north end of the grounds is elevated above
the south end, which symbolized an ascension to heaven, and the original roof
colors of green, blue and yellow were a direct nod to heaven.
The calendar is not forgotten in the use of symbolism in
the temple either.
The Hall of Prayer reflects the Chinese calendar with the
number of its com-ponents. The total number of pillars in the Hall are 28: the
four highest and largest columns stand at the center of the Hall, around that
are 12 pillars, and again around those are another 12. The innermost columns
represent the four seasons, the 12 middle columns the months of the year, and
the 12 outer columns the 12 hours of a day. The 24 outer and middle columns represent
the solar term, whilst the total number of columns signify the ‘Twenty–Eight
Besides the heavy symbolism installed into the design of the
temple, the rituals carried out by the Chinese inside the temple was of immense
importance and had a certain level of perfectionism. It was understood by the religious figures
executing the prayers and performing the sacred sacrifices would do so in a
manner that was scripted to embrace every detail. For if there were any errors or missteps in
these holy ceremonies, the promise of a bountiful harvest could be forsaken.
Today, the Temple of Heaven draw thousands of visitors annually
from around the world. The isolationist
approach of the 15th century has given way to a stream of tourists
that can walk on the holiest of grounds surrounded by lush forests of pine all
while enjoying lunch that is no doubt, made from the ancestral harvests of yesteryear. The sounds of the neighing beasts awaiting their
turn on the sacrificial alters have given way to the sounds of children
enjoying some of the parks that dot the temple grounds. Even though the purpose of this site has
changed over time, its place of the space between heaven an earth remains
cemented in the Chinese culture.
While the Temple of Heaven and the Chartres Cathedral share
an element of cultural, religious and spiritual significance, there are many
differences in the function and construct.
From an outsider’s perspective, the Temple of Heaven relies on some rather
opaque symbolism; the machinations of the number nine, the odes to the four
seasons, and the colors that were meticulously chosen to adorn the roof
tiles. On the other hand, the Chartres Cathedral,
best known for safeguarding the Sacta Camisia once worn by the Virgin Mary, is
more forthright in it’s purpose and symbolism.
This is best seen in the stained-glass windows that have been in place
since the 13th century. Each
window tells a wordless story of biblical importance through picture and color. These beautiful windows are, of which there
are over one-hundred and fifty, are hued in pinks, yellows and blues. Another significant difference between these
two historical landmarks can be spotted in the architecture. The Temple of Heaven is heavily influenced by
typical Chinese architecture, with a typical north south focus and pagoda like roofs. Alternatively, the Chartres Cathedral is and exudes
its gothic influence, with it’s flying buttresses reaching for the heavens and its
Latin cross form. This was for aesthetic
appeal and function as the flying buttresses were crucial in supporting the immense
height and weight of the structure as well as supporting and displaying the
ornate stained-glass windows.
While the differences
in the architecture and symbolism are stark, the similarities are
striking. One, is the inclusion in the
Unesco World Heritage sites.4 Unesco states
“Heritage is our
legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future
generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources
of life and inspiration”
mantra, it is easy to understand how these two wonders of architecture and beauty
earned their place on this prestigious list.
Another significant similarity to attributable to these structures is
the acoustical sensibilities integrated into both structures. The