Stand before the buildings that comprise the Temple of Heaven complex and you will see the personification of humankind’s desire for order amidst worldly chaos. The flawless manifestation of this is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. An entirely symmetrical structure, it consists of three upturned, dark blue-glazed saucers, separated by bands of ornate, pale blue-and-gold carving, and topped by a gilded sphere. Its architecture is steeped with meticulous allegory. Within, three rings of columns prop the blue-tiled roof, a personification of the sky. Four columns at the center signify the four seasons, twelve in the next ring characterize the twelve months of the year and twelve outer columns the twelve hours of the daytime. The entire building is also, by virtue of its circular shape, a symbol of heaven itself.
It was to this building that the emperor of China, himself known as the Son of Heaven, would come in solemn procession on the eve of the winter solstice to pray for healthy crops and to meditate in the adjoining Imperial Vault of Heaven, a scaled-down version of the Hall of Prayer. The next day he would return, to perform ritual sacrifices and prayers on the Circular Mound Altar, a three-tiered marble terrace in the same complex.
Symbolism plays a crucial part in the design: the number of flagstones in every circle of the Mound’s three-tiered terrace is a multiple of nine—the imperial number. The harvest ceremony had to be performed without a hitch. According to tradition, the slightest mistake on the emperor’s part was a bad omen for the nation’s wellbeing over the coming year.
Contemplating the symbolism and symmetry captured in these buildings, you glimpse a respect for form and tradition that was not mere superstition, but active worship. At the same time, the sounds of secular China provide the modern-day visitor with an earthly counterpoint: laughing teenagers experimenting with the Imperial Vault of Heaven’s echo wall, while the voices of their elders waft over from morning choral practice in the surrounding park, singing old favorites from the Communist songbooks.