Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Temple of Heaven

The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the landmark feature of the Temple of Heaven, peeks over the walls that keep ignorant tourists (us) from treading once-sacred ground.

One of the Chinese government's qualms with Christianity is that it's a "foreign" and "western" religion. But a look at the Temple of Heaven suggests that atheism, which emerged as the Communist government's preferred worldview, is even farther removed from the traditional Chinese psyche than some of the more "superstitious" ideologies.

Heaven holds a prominent place in the traditional Chinese belief system. Of course, when the Chinese say "heaven," they don't mean the place where the saints will reign with Jesus Christ one day. Nor do they think of heaven as a concrete location boasting golden streets, crystal seas and cherubs strumming harps. While I haven't researched much about their view, I do know that it's steeped in Confucian and Daoist traditions. Defining Chinese cosmology is a tricky thing because it changes depending on what mix of belief systems is operating, but I think it's safe to say that in varying views, heaven can be both a realm that houses deities and a sort of fate-like entity that guides events on earth.

The Temple of Heaven, built in the 15th century by the Ming Dynasty, was a place reserved for the emperor and his attendants, where he would go to make sacrifices to appease the gods (or the fate-driven cycle) that produced a plentiful harvest throughout the land. I could spend days researching tidbits like the many ways in which the imperial number nine is incorporated into the architecture, or describing the way the cosmology of the day is reflected in the roundness of the three tiers of the temple's main structure.

But the most interesting thing about this place is looking beyond the present-day structures to their ancient precursors. What made the Ming emperor and his court choose this particular site upon which to build their premiere temple? It's likely that it was a sacrificial site before they decided to build it. And the fact that sacrifices occurred before 1420 AD begs the question: Did the Chinese ever have it right? Were they ever in possession of the truth?

The Bible says that after the Babel incident, God confused the languages of men and dispersed peoples throughout the earth. Obviously, the banished peoples, who shared the same language and milieu before Babel, would also share a similar heritage and mythology even though they could no longer communicate with one another. Some Chinese characters illustrate this possibility, and it's possible that prayers to heaven could have once been directed to the Lord of Heaven, whom the Chinese call Shang Di.

Of course, much of this is speculation, but that seems fitting considering the fact that we had to speculate about what the inside of the complex looked like. The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the three-tiered, circular, orb-topped building featured on postcards of Tiantan, was only visible at the points where it peeked over the outside the walls of the complex. Unfortunately, the government cares more millions of people that will come to Beijing in 2008 for the Olympics than a few American tourists who made it just before closing time. Renovations are good for everyone except the people that plan their trips during them.

Having given it our best shot, we exited on the north side of Tiantan park, a beautiful and peaceful retreat stuck in the middle of bustling Beijing. Then we stuffed ourselves into taxis and headed back to the Sino-Swiss Hotel, where we'd try to stay up just long enough to allow our bodies to adjust to the time change before crashing onto our customarily hard Chinese beds.

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