A Guide to the Imperial Worship of Heaven at the Temple of Heaven

The Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China

Worshipping the God of Heaven at the Temple of Heaven is the most important national and imperial ceremony for the Ming and Qing emperors as sons of heaven.

The private imperial sacrificial rite was held 654 times by 22 Ming and Qing emperors at the Temple of Heaven according to ancient Chinese records. The ceremony held on winter solstice is the most complicated and solemn among all. The Temple of Heaven and the streets leading from the Forbidden City to the temple had to be renovated before the day of the official event.

Preparing for the Winter Solstice Worship at the Temple of Heaven

Five to ten days before winter solstice, the animals to be sacrificed were examined in the slaughter houses of the Temple of Heaven. Three days before the ceremony the emperor would start fasting. The emperor should have stayed in the Hall of Abstinence all three days and nights according to the book of rituals. But for the sake of security, the emperor observed the first two days of the fast in the palace and only left the Forbidden City the night before the worship.

The praying script and more than 700 types of sacrifices were ready in the final two days before the worship. Government officials would place all the sacrifices properly on the Circular Mound Altar while the emperor continued his fasting in the Hall of Abstinence in the Temple of Heaven the night before the worship.

The Worshipping Ceremony at the Circular Mound Altar

The bell in the Hall of Abstinence tolled one hour forty-five minutes before sunrise as the emperor was leaving for the Circular Mound Altar. The emperor, with his golden canopy, carriages and jade palanquin, was accompanied by a procession of guards of honors, senior government officials, personal guards, musicians and dancers carrying leopard-tailed spears, ritual broad swords, bows and arrows.

The ceremony started after the emperor changed clothes in the tent by the altar. The tolling of the bell stopped whereas drums and music started. Calves were burnt on the southeastern side while lanterns were raised on the southwestern side of the altar. A kind of mysterious sacredness filled the whole Temple of Heaven.

There are nine steps for the official worship. The emperor had to burn incense, pay tribute to the ancestors, offered holy wine and perform the traditional ritual called the “three prostrations and nine kowtows” to the God of Heaven. Each step was concluded by a particular piece of music with military and civil dances. The emperor completed the ceremony by praying for peace and happiness for his people.

Reviving the Imperial Ceremony at the Temple of Heaven

The imperial subjects never got a glimpse of the most significant worshipping ceremony in ancient China. But the whole ceremony is reproduced, as closely as it can be known, during Chinese New Year at the Temple of Heaven again. It is part of the program of the Cultural Festival at the Temple of Heaven.