Eight Ancient Altars in Beijing

Apart from the Temple of Heaven mentioned above, there were eight other imperial sacrificial altars in ancient Beijing, all of which played an important part in the ritual life of the Ming and Qing emperors.

Altar of Land and Grain (Shejitan)

The Altar of Land and Grain in Zhongshan Park was the site of imperial sacrifices to the gods of land (she) and grain (ji) in the Ming and Qing. The altar is a three-tiered square platform built of white marble, its shape symbolizing the ancient notion that the earth is square. There are four stone staircases, one on each side, leading up to the 1.3-meter-high platform.

The five kinds of colored earth spread over the surface of the altar (yellow in the center, green in the east, red in the south, white in the west, black in the north) were received by the emperor as gifts of tribute from subjects of his empire. The gifts, symbolizing that "under heaven, all belong to the emperor," stood for the five elements (metal, wood, water, fire and earth) which constitute the origin of all things.

Ancient China was an agricultural society. The people felt great reverence for the land and grain and elevated these things to the status of gods. The people in the hope of obtaining a good harvest originally offered prayers to the gods of land and grain up. But when the feudal emperors assumed the "mandate of Heaven" as their personal responsibility, sacrifices to the gods of land grain came under the aegis of the imperial government. On the fifth day of the second and eight month on the lunar calendar, the emperor came here to offer sacrifices.

The altar is surrounding on four sides by low red walls set with glazed bricks in four colors representing the four directions. The innermost wall, with a white marble gate set in each side, is the Altar Wall. Between the Altar Wall and the northern outer wall are the Hall of Worship (Baidian) and the Halberd Gate (Jimen). On the west side are the sacred storage chamber, sacred kitchen and a pavilion for slaughtering sacrificial animals. The Hall of Worship is constructed entirely of wood. The ceiling less roof section leaves the rafters and corner brackets exposed in what is one of the finest examples of classical architecture in Beijing. Built in the Ming Dynasty under Emperor Yongle (1403-1424), this hall originally served to shelter the emperors from wind and rain when they came to offer sacrifices. When Sun Yat-sen died in Beijing in 1925, his coffin was kept here temporarily, and in 1928, the name of the Hall of the Hall of Worship was changed to Zhongshan Hall. (Zhongshan is Sun Yat-sen' s name in Chinese pin-yin.)

Altar of Earth (Ditan)

The Altar of Earth, located east of Andingmen (Peace and Stability) Gate, was built in 1530 during the reign of Emperor Jiajing of the Ming. The square altar, representing the earth, is made of two tiers of marble, each two meters high. The number nine stood for Heaven and the number six for Earth; the upper tier of the altar measures 20 square meters or 60 chi and the lower tier is 22 square meters or 66 chi.

To the north of the altar is a small reservoir and to the south the house of the Imperial Gods (Huangqishi), where spirit tablets were stored.

Opened to the public in 1925, the area was turned into a park in 1957.

Altar of the Sun (Ritan)

The Altar of the Sun, originally known as the Altar of the Rising Sun. The altar is located sacrifices to the God of the Sun. The altar is located in Beijing' s diplomatic quarter to the northern of Chaoyangmen (Facing the Sun) Gate. A square marble platform once stood in the garden; its ruins remain. In 1949, the people' s government turned the area into Ritan Park.

In the fall of 1980, construction of a large garden was begun in the southeastern corner of the park. This garden is called "The Curving Pond and the Roses Which Surpass Springtime" (Quchi Shengchun). The garden occupies a full hectare of land with a pond in the center.

Next to the pond are three tall snow pines and to the east, peach and persimmon trees. A landscaped flower garden stands to the west. In addition, at the foot of the little hill to the east is a trio of graceful magnolias.

Altar of the Moon (Yuetan)

The Altar of the Moon was the site of imperial sacrifices to the God of the Moon. It is located near Fuchengmen (Mound-farmed) Gate on North Yuetan Street. Here, as in the other altars dedicated to the celestial orbs, there is a square white marble platform 1.5 meters high. In the early 1930s, an old caretaker recalled how the last imperial ceremony was held here 20 years before:

"It was on the evening of the autumnal equinox that His Majesty came. When the Harvest Moon shone full on the altar spread with white offerings, white silk, white jade ware and milky pearls, the Lord of Ten Thousand Years (the emperor) bowed before the creamy tablet with the silvered characters for Place of the Spirit of the Light of the Night.' Afterwards, four animals were sacrificed, a pig, an ox, a sheep and a deer, while the bell tolled from a nearby tower. Then the emperor changed his sacrificial robes in the pavilion yonder while we humble folk," he added with a chuckle, "shared the meat offerings with the moon."

After 1949, bushes and fruit trees were planted here, transforming the old temple into a public park. In 1969, a television broadcasting tower was erected in the park.

Altar of the God of Agriculture (Xiannongtan)

The Altar of the God of Agriculture was the site of imperial sacrifices dedicated to the cult if Shennong, the legendary "first farmer" of China. It is located in the southern district of the city, directly to the west of the Temple of Heaven, and occupies a total area of three square kilometers. The altar itself, which faces south, is 1.5 meters. The hall to the north houses the sacred tablets and is provided with a platform for " observing the harvest."

According to the rites in the Qing Dynasty, on the day of the spring equinox as fixed by the lunar calendar, the emperor would come to sacrifice to Shennong. Following the ceremony, the emperor would plow several furrows of land with his own hands and then retire to the observation platform to watch the princes, ministers and a representative group of common folk finish the task. It was said that the emperor' s plowing"set an example of industry to his subjects, thus dignifying the toil of the meanest agricultural laborer."

The Hall of the Year God (Taisuidian) in the altar was used for carrying out sacrifices to the planet Jupiter and auxiliary halls on the east and west for carrying out sacrifices to the Deities of the 12 Lunar Months (Yuejiangshen)

After the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912, the main hall was turned into a Temple of Loyalty in memory of the 72 martyrs who died in an uprising at Huanghuagang in Guangzhou. There is also the dressing' room where the emperor changed into his ceremonial robes; a divine granary for storing the five cereals used in the ceremony; and the Palace of Celebrating Completion (Qingchenggong), where the Ming emperors carried out their pre-sacrificial fast.

Altar of the Gods of the Sky (Tianshentan)

The altar of the Gods of the Sky was the site of imperial sacrifices to the gods of wind, clouds, thunder and rain. It is located on the grounds of the Altar of the God of Agriculture. The altar is 1.5 meters high and occupies a total area of 17 square meters. A staircase of nine steps leads up to the altar on each of its four sides. To the north are four white stone shrines dedicated to the above-mentioned climatic forces. Each shrine is some three meters high and is carved with cloud and dragon patterns.

Altar of the Gods of the Earth (Diqitan)

The altar of the Gods of the Earth was the site of imperial sacrifices to the gods of mountains and seas. Located in the western part of the Altar of the Gods of the Sky, the altar is 1.43 meters high and occupies an area of 33 square meters. A staircase of six steps leads up to the platform on four sides.

To the south of the altar are five stone shrines, three of which are decorated with carvings of mountains symbolizing the Five Sacred Mountains (Wuyue) and the Five Guardian Mountains (Wuzhen) among others, and two with wave patterns symbolizing the four great seas and four great rivers.

Pounds at the bases of the shrines were filled with water only when sacrifices were held.

To the east of the altar, two stone shrines engraved with landscapes were used for sacrifices to the important mountains and rivers in the capital environs. Another pair of shrines on the west was for sacrifices to other major mountains and rivers in China.

Altar to the Goddess of Silkworms (Incanting)

The Altar to the Goddess of Silkworms was where sacrifices to Leizu (wife of the Yellow Emperor), who is credited with the invention of silkworm breeding, were carried out by the empress. Located to the northeast of Zhonghai (Central lake), it is reached by a bridge from the Temple of the Dragon King (Longwangmiao).

The Altar to the Goddess of Silkworms was built in 1742 during the Qianlong period (1736-1796). Entering through the Gate of Admiration for Silkworms, one comes to the 1,3-metr-high altar. A staircase on each side leads to the site where the sacrificial rituals were carried out.

Mulberry trees, which provide the regular diet for silkworms, are planted on three sides of the altar, and behind the temple there is a Hall of Admiration for Silkworms (Qincandian) and a pool for Washing Silkworms (Yucanchi).


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