Temple of Heaven and a Hutong


Today was another day off of classes for me. The company found an English speaking staff person to escort me to some sights in Beijing. Her name is Isabella. She is having difficulty passing the English exam in school. She wants to work overseas. So, she needs to pass this exam. She has failed the exam twice. But, she is determined to pass it. Throughout the day, I am assisting her with her English. I am really trying to give her advice and some helpful tools to improve her abilities. She actually speaks very well. I think her problem is that she has little confidence in her abilities since she has failed twice. I explain to her that I do not know what the exam is, so it is hard for me to offer advice. But, I did tell her that Thomas Edison failed many, many times before he finally succeeded in developing the light bulb. Practice makes perfect. And, some other clichés that seemed fitting.

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Isabella and I began our day by taking the subway near our hotel to the downtown area of Beijing. When we exit the subway, I am immediately aware of where I am. I was in the same area when I came to Beijing with the summer kids to see the Forbidden City. Isabella was impressed with my sense of direction and memory. We take a bus to the Temple of Heaven. It was highly rated as one of the “must-see” sights in Beijing. I was not overly impressed with it. It is a large area. Very park-like. I am sure it is beautiful in the warmer months. But, the sights we see are not really what I had expected I guess. The buildings were beautiful. And, most everything was in English. So, it was very informative. But, there was no “WOW!” factor for me. I am including a description of the Temple of Heaven for you that I found on the internet. The history is interesting.

From Wikipedia:

The Temple of Heaven, literally the Altar of Heaven is a complex of religious buildings situated in the southeastern part of central Beijing. The complex was visited by the Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties for annual ceremonies of prayer to Heaven for good harvest. It has been regarded as a Taoist temple, although Chinese heaven worship, especially by the reigning monarch of the day, pre-dates Taoism.

The temple complex was constructed from 1406 to 1420 during the reign of the Yongle Emperor, who was also responsible for the construction of the Forbidden City in Beijing. The complex was extended and renamed Temple of Heaven during the reign of the Jiajing Emperor in the 16th century. The Jiajing Emperor also built three other prominent temples in Beijing, the Temple of Sun in the east, the Temple of Earth in the north, and the Temple of Moon in the west. The Temple of Heaven was renovated in the 18th century under the Qianlong Emperor. Due to the deterioration of state budget, this became the last large-scale renovation of the temple complex in the imperial time.

In 1914, Yuan Shikai, then President of the Republic of China, performed a Ming prayer ceremony at the temple, as part of an effort to have himself declared Emperor of China. In 1918 the temple was turned into a park and for the first time open to the public.

The Temple grounds cover 2.73 km² of parkland and comprises three main groups of constructions, all built according to strict philosophical requirements:

  • The Hall of Prayer for      Good Harvests is a magnificent triple-gabled circular building, 36      meters in diameter and 38 meters tall, built on three levels of marble      stone base, where the Emperor prayed for good harvests. The building is      completely wooden, with no nails. The original building was burned down by      a fire caused by lightning in 1889. The current building was re-built      several years after the incident.
  • The Imperial Vault of      Heaven is a single-gabled circular building, built on a single level      of marble stone base. It is located south of the Hall of Prayer for      Good Harvests and resembles it, but is smaller. It is surrounded by a      smooth circular wall, the Echo Wall, that can transmit sounds over      large distances. The Imperial Vault is connected to the Hall of Prayer by      the Vermilion Steps Bridge, a 360 meter long raised walkway that      slowly ascends from the Vault to the Hall of Prayer.
  • The Circular Mound Altar is the altar proper,      located south of the Imperial Vault of Heaven. It is an empty      circular platform on three levels of marble stones, each decorated by      lavishly carved dragons. The numbers of various elements of the Altar,      including its balusters and steps, are either the sacred number nine or      its nonuples. The center of the altar is a round slate called the Heart      of Heaven(天心石) or the Supreme Yang,      where the Emperor prayed for favorable weather. Thanks to the design of      the altar, the sound of the prayer will be reflected by the guardrail,      creating significant resonance, which was supposed to help the prayer      communicate with the Heaven. The Altar was built in 1530 by the Jiajing Emperor and rebuilt in 1740.

In ancient China, the Emperor of China was regarded as the Son of Heaven, who administered earthly matters on behalf of, and representing, heavenly authority. To be seen to be showing respect to the source of his authority, in the form of sacrifices to heaven, was extremely important. The temple was built for these ceremonies, mostly comprising prayers for good harvests.

Twice a year the Emperor and all his retinue would move from the Forbidden city through Beijing to encamp within the complex, wearing special robes and abstaining from eating meat. No ordinary Chinese was allowed to view this procession or the following ceremony. In the temple complex the Emperor would personally pray to Heaven for good harvests. The highpoint of the ceremony at the winter solstice was performed by the Emperor on the Earthly Mount. The ceremony had to be perfectly completed; it was widely held that the smallest of mistakes would constitute a bad omen for the whole nation in the coming year.

The temple was occupied by the Anglo-French Alliance during the Second Opium War. In 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion, the Eight Nation Alliance occupied the temple complex and turned it into the force’s temporary command in Beijing, which lasted for one year. The occupation desecrated the temple and resulted in serious damage to the building complex and the garden. Robberies of temple artifacts by the Alliance were also reported. With the downfall of the Qing, the temple complex was left unmanaged. The neglect of the temple complex led to the collapse of several halls in the following years.

Earth was represented by a square and Heaven by a circle; several features of the temple complex symbolize the connection of Heaven and Earth, of circle and square. The whole temple complex is surrounded by two cordons of walls; the outer wall has a taller, semi-circular northern end, representing Heaven, and a shorter, rectangular southern end, representing the Earth. Both the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests and the Circular Mound Altar are round, each standing on a square yard, again representing Heaven and Earth.

The number nine represents the Emperor and is evident in the design of the Circular Mound Altar: a single round marmor plate is surrounded by a ring of nine plates, then a ring of 18 plates, and so on for a total of nine surrounding rings, the outermost having 9×9 plates.

The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests has four inner, twelve middle and twelve outer pillars, representing the four seasons, twelve months and twelve traditional Chinese hours respectively. Combined together, the twelve middle and twelve outer pillars represent the traditional solar term.

All the buildings within the Temple have special dark blue roof tiles, representing the Heaven.

The Seven-Star Stone Group, east of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest, represents the seven peaks of Taishan Mountain, a place of Heaven worship in classical China.

You have to always remember, when you are in China, what you see in museums and old artifacts, are mostly going to be reproductions. They are not the actual treasures of the country. The reason? Much like the Buddha statues and carvings at Longman Cave in Zhengzhou, many artifacts were destroyed by Mao and his government during his time as Chairman. It was a cleansing of China. And, many things were stolen from China in the early 20th century and taken to other countries. So, many things of the Chinese heritage are not in existence any longer. Complete temples were destroyed and burned. Museums and colleges were ransacked for these treasures and destroyed. It is very sad to me. I cannot imagine this happening in America where our national treasures, like the Liberty Bell, Statue of Liberty, and famous painting are burned and destroyed. But, that is what had happened under Chairman Mao and his government.

The most interesting part of the Temple of Heaven for me was the Echo Wall. This circular wall is outside. Even with many people in the area, you can still hear the echo. It is a large area, and the voices you hear are from people on the other side of the compound. Isabella were standing alone next to the wall. You suddenly hear voices, as if someone is standing a few feet away from you talking. If is very ghostly and eerie. Usually, in situations like this with “echo” locations, the voices are like whispers or you can tell it is a matter of physics playing a trick on you. But, here, in the outdoors, with only a wall next to you, it is a special feat by the builders. And, the voices really do sound like someone is standing very near you talking in a conversation.

After the Temple of Heaven, Isabella and I had lunch. It was at a small restaurant. We ate from meat dumpling for our meal and then headed off to a hutong. A bus ride and a couple of subway trips landed us in the Shijia Hutong. A hutong is nothing more than a neighborhood. With the advanced building projects Beijing is doing, they are destroying many of the hutongs and replacing them with towering buildings and more modern infrastructure. Hutongs are old China. These buildings have been around for hundreds of hears. In fact, Marco Polo governed a hutong during his years in China. A hutong residence is comprised of an outer wall encompassing the grounds of the residence. There is a main gate/door to enter the compound. In more wealthy residences, you enter a room or entry hall the farthest wall is gone, exposing the room to the outside. There is usually a decorative small wall with a mural or carving to provide a shield to the rest of the house from the front room view. I think the front room is to receive guests like a foyer. When you get past the decorative wall, it would normally lead you to an outdoor courtyard. The courtyard would have a small well and maybe a sitting area for tea and games. Around the courtyard are various buildings. They can be connected to one another, or separated from one another. These are the living quarters of the household. Keep in mind, family is very important to China. Your hutong might contain your immediate family, along with grandparents and other relatives. And, if you were wealthy enough, some of the living quarters might be there for your servants to live there in residence with you.

In this hutong, there is a museum. It talks about the famous people that lived in the hutong, the hostory of the neighborhood, and has many artifacts showing the daily life of the people there. This is the kind of things I wanted to see in China. Authentic old China. If you ever get a chance to visit Beijing, forget the Forbidden City and the more known tourist locations (although you still have to go to say you went there), you need to find these smaller venues to really appreciate China. Visit a hutong before they disappear under the more modern glass and steel towers taking up the skyline of Beijing. And, I highly recommend the Shijia Hutong Museum. It is free, it is authentic, and it is well worth your time. One interesting fact…did you know that the New York City street plans are derived from the way hutongs were designed in Beijing? Many cities, where the streets run lengthways, forming squared blocks are designed from hutong layouts.

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Here is more information on the Shijia Hutong Museum:

How many stories can be hidden within one long hutong? Walking into courtyard 24 of Shijia Hutong, a hutong museum, you will be greeted by a bumpy road and decorations reminiscent of the Republic of China.

The entire museum takes up 1,000 square meters, and consists of eight exhibition rooms and one multi-function room. The various items on display show the hutong life as it was decades ago. There are copies of labor contracts from the 1920s and 1930s, shallow baskets used by traditional Chinese households, and faded bus tickets that haven’t been used by citizens for a very long time. There are also two rooms whose interiors are furnished according to typical domestic furnishings of a Beijing family from the 1950s and 1960s, as well as the 1970s and 1980s, respectively. In a room from the 1950s or 1960s, there would be a bed, a table, two chairs and two dressers, all simplistic wooden furniture. A semiconductor radio receiver would be a costly item in such a room.

In contrast, domestic furnishings for a family in the 1970s or 1980s would be more fashionable, with composite furniture introduced into households, thus came the catchy expression, ‘We have composite furniture here, we have a convertible sofa there; right in the middle of them lies our black and white television set’. These items are mostly collected from citizens, and they are like witnesses of history, recording the transitions of Shijia Hutong.

In the exhibition room entitled ‘Memory of Time’, you’ll find a small workshop-like studio where you can listen to recordings that captured the sounds in hutongs as they were. Professional audio equipment is set up within so that, with a tap on the touch screens, you can hear different ‘sounds in the hutongs’. These sounds are categorized according to three time periods: before the 1950s, in the 1950s and 1960s, and in the 1970s and 1980s. Included there are different devices used by traditional Beijing street vendors to draw the attention of potential customers, like the chimes held by a quack, or the gongs candy vendors used to attract children while travelling from hutong to hutong. Listening one by one to the sounds of wind, rain, thunder, or even the sounds made by night watchers striking a clapper, you will feel like you have been sent back in time to a tranquil hutong in that time period.

Enter the history exhibition room. Right in the center stands a miniature sandbox from Shijia Hutong that is seven or eight meters long by two or three meters wide. Organized neatly within are 130 courtyards with plastered walls and tiles: miniatures of courtyards once inhabited by many a celebrity.

Shijia Hutong is most well-known for its education. In fact, as early as 1724, the second year under Emperor Yongzheng’s reign, Shijia Hutong had already established itself in the education world. The Qing Dynasty set up Zuoyizongxue, essentially a private tutoring school for Manchu (an ethnic group in China, to which the emperors in the Qing Dynasty belonged) only, by the western entrance of the hutong. It’s more than 280 years old now. In the first year of the Republic of China, Zuoyizongxue was transformed into the Second Municipal Middle School, which in the 1930s was moved to Neiwubu Street which was one street away from Shijia Hutong. In the later years of the 1930s, Shijia Hutong Elementary School was established in place of the former Second Middle School. These two schools have remained the best in Dongcheng District, and they are among the best schools in Beijing.

Predecessor of Tsinghua University

During the final years of the Qing Dynasty, Shijia Hutong became a place where all students had to go if they planned on studying overseas. In the early 20th century, the Bureau of Educational Missions to the United States which held examinations at Shijia Hutong to decide who could study abroad, was also headquartered there. The Bureau of Educational Missions to the United States was ‘responsible for selecting, administrating, dispatching and contacting students, and other related affairs’.

The Bureau of Educational Missions to the United States played a very important role, even though only three groups of students actually took the examination there. The government had been planning to build Tsinghua Yuan, but the school was not to be built in one day, so they held three examinations in Shijia Hutong. After that, the government no longer organized the examinations; instead, they delegated the responsibility of selecting students to study in the United States to Tsinghua University. Therefore, it’s not too far-fetched to say that Tsinghua University had its origin in Shijia Hutong. Many celebrities passed their exams in Shijia Hutong and went abroad to study.


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