Thursday, 4 April 2013

The Temple of Heaven

Just about nowhere matches of the diversity of interaction found at the Temple of Heaven.

Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China

A few weeks ago, while engaged in 'office hours' conversation with one of my students, I watched him pause to examine a few shelves of Chinese dictionaries. I knew that a question was coming, and thought he might ask about language or reading or the purpose of spending one's life teaching and thinking. What came next was out of the blue for me: "What’s your favourite place in China?"

While I have considered such things as favourite numbers, colours, and even movies, I had never quite thought about my favourite place - and in China, on top of it. There is a pretty clear difference between 'likes' and 'favorites,' as any browser of social media sites knows. I was quite certain that I hadn’t reflected upon many favourites since childhood, or at least the last time I read an all-time greats list of movies.

So, although I stopped momentarily in my mental tracks, I was even more surprised by my rapid, almost automatic, response. Even now, well over a fortnight later, I am surprised by the speed of my reply. It is as though I had always been certain, yet never was given the opportunity to express it. It will take the rest of this post to explain what, where, and why.

The Temple of Heaven (天壇; 天坛).

That is my favourite place in China.

This massive structure in the southern reaches of Beijing encompasses powerful religious strains in Chinese culture, and is a meeting place for religiosity writ large (and small). In proper cosmological fashion, the massive round roof links to the heavens, while its formidable square foundation is planted firmly in the earth. This simple 'equation' ("heaven is round; earth is square" 天圓地方) provides the intellectual framework for just about every significant idea in Chinese imperial religion, not to mention social thought and architecture. The idea goes back to the early classics, and hints of it can be found even in the oracle bone inscriptions of the ancient courts. Heaven and earth provide the framework, and social life - with its, by turns, fervid and tepid religiosity - flows through the space between them.

This is not a simple idea, by any means, so let’s slow down and consider it more carefully. The basic formulation works something like this: heaven () swirls above, but it is anchored by the pole star, which serves as a still-point of a turning upper-world. Nobody has captured this idea better than Confucius, and he even gives us a head start on our next point: "Performing rule with virtue is, by analogy, like the Pole Star, which resides in its place while the multitudinous stars encircle it."

So there it is. The thousands of points of light purl and eddy around the motionless centre. As Confucius hints, matters down here on earth work in similar ways, and virtually all ritual architecture in China follows the analogy. Indeed, the idea is so deeply embedded that it soon found its parallel wherever concentrations of human life appeared. The classic grid for Chinese capital cities worked in contrapuntal fashion to Confucius’s description, and similar concepts seemingly coursed through the brick and mortar. Try to dispel your disbelief; sacred architecture around the world is both practical and deeply religious - at the same time. The French scholar Marcel Granet (1884-1940) has explained these matters beautifully. I paraphrase him here, and will return to a fuller appraisal of his ideas in many future posts.

From the pole star down to the tip of the central palace, it is as though a beam of heavenly virtue () travels. Shooting down through the centre of the palace, it explodes outward in arrow-straight, right-angled lines in each of the four cardinal directions (east, south, west, and north, in proper cosmological sequence). The centre provides the fifth 'direction'. The moral force of the rounded heavens thus emanates throughout the mortal realms of the squared earth.

All of this - every little bit from tip to toe - is embodied in the Temple of Heaven. It was the sacred site at which Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) emperors gave harvest thanks to heaven and further strengthened the heavenly and earthly connections in a profoundly agricultural world. Heaven is round; earth is square. The realms cohere nowhere more closely in Chinese religious architecture than at the Temple of Heaven.


Now, that’s a bucketful of information, and I won’t blame you for taking a little pause here to get a sip of water, have a seat, and maybe pluck a few strings on your trusty erhu, pipa, or guqin. It will calm the twirling revolution of ideas in your mind, and help us to focus on the rest of why the Temple of Heaven is my favourite place in all of China. It seems like more than just a few paragraphs ago that we got this started.

You see, the Temple of Heaven is fun.

It is open to the public, (there is a fee for out-of-town visitors, but - depending on one’s residential situation - it can be waived) and teems with social energy - abounding in music, dance, and theatricality. It is a meeting point for such a wide array of people that I find morning visits often turn to full afternoons and sometimes long evenings. This is not the Temple of Heaven of the Qing imperial family, to be sure. One August day just a year or so ago, I spent a full day there, admiring the structure, examining the careful documentation of the imperial rites performed in earlier times, and noting the throngs of travelers - busloads of tour groups powering through the gates - who came to see the great temple.

And then I stepped to the side, walking into the vast acres of grass, trees, and shrubbery. It is a park like few others. Badminton players shot volleys over the shrubbery, and a Chinese version of a game Americans call 'hacky-sack' (the Chinese version of this game dates back at least to the Song dynasty, 960-1279) kicked ever onward among encircled competitors. Then something stopped me in mid-step. I heard a familiar tune, but with a strange twist. It finally occurred to me that it was the theme song, known to everyone in China who has ever watched television, from the popular drama Journey to the West. The group played on traditional instruments, and a crowd gathered into an expanding series of orbits all around it.

Musicians at the Temple of Heaven
A few more steps down the path showed an elaborate display of traditional instruments and vocal performances, complete with direction and audience participation. Further still, a modern dance class was just getting underway, and, as I ventured deeper into quiet space, small groups or pairs studied, quizzed one another, or held hands.

That day, as on many others after walking the square grounds under a round heaven, I admired the sheer diversity of interaction in one place. Where had I seen all of this happening in the same place? Just about nowhere. It isn’t difficult to get to 'favorite' from there. @sima1085


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