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Notes on the Geography of China: Beijing: Temple of Heaven : Photo 1

world pictures China: Beijing: Temple of Heaven

We can begin a visit at the Altar of Heaven (Tiantan), built in 1420 and also known as Round Mound (Yanqiu) and South Altar (Nantan). It's easy to hurry past it, even though it was the site of imperial China's most important annual ceremony, which took place on the winter solstice.

To get in the mood for what happened here, listen to the Jesuit Gabriel de Magalhaes--yes, a distant relative of Ferdinand Magellan. Magalhaes resided in Beijing during the reign of the second Qing emperor, the Kangxi Emperor (1662-1722), and he left this description of the imperial procession on its way to the solstice ceremony:

"Heading the procession are twenty-four men carrying huge painted drums which they sound solemnly at intervals, and twenty-four trumpeters carrying instruments three feet long and ornamented with golden circles and tuned to the note of the drums; twenty-four men carrying long, red-lacquered poles topped with bundles of gilded leaves; a hundred halberdiers with lances shaped like crescents; a hundred bearers of gilded maces; four hundred bearers of richly carved and decorated lanterns; four hundred bearers of torches made of scented wood which burned with a brilliant perfumed flame; two hundred lancers, their weapons trimmed with brilliant strips of silk or the tails of leopards, wolves and other wild animals; twenty-four bearers with banners with the fifty-six constellations, into which the Chinese formerly divided all the stars of the heavens, painted upon them; two hundred bearers of fans mounted on huge poles gilded and painted with the sun and the moon, dragons and animals; twenty-four bearers of ceremonial umbrellas with deep flounces richly embroidered; a group of men carrying the 'eight utensils' which the Emperor ordinarily uses--a golden basin, a pitcher, a silken napkin, etc.; ten horses white as snow with saddles and bridles set with pearls and precious stones; another hundred lancers and Court chamberlains forming an escort around the chair of the Emperor."

And that was just the procession in front of the emperor: behind him were 5,000 princes, eunuchs, and officials. (Quoted from Frank Dorn's The Forbidden City: The Biography of a Palace, 1970, p. 60. Dorn, who lived in Beijing in the 1930s, writes of at least one group of Westerners staging an evening picnic and dance on the altar.)

Note the triple gateway; matching ones are on the cardinal sides of the circular altar.

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