Wangfujing Street, Beijing 27 June 2008
“The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests” is the symbol of Beijing. If you watched the 2008 Olympics, you saw it. There are lots of pictures of it on the Internet. Visiting it is a lot like the the Lincoln Memorial or “The Mona Lisa”, lots of people. This is a detail of the first of three roof levels. You reach this view after climbing three tiers of steps. There are 12 pillars like the two you see and the circumference is about 100 meters. These 12 pillars represent the 12 two hour periods in a day. Inside of them is a circle of 12 more pillars representing the 12 months. Finally, inside those are the 4 main pillars representing the 4 seasons. It is 39 meters high and 32 meters in diameter. I have no idea how many or what kinds of dragons and phoenixes are gilded on it. Here is the part that interests woodworkers. Except for the tile roof, the whole building is wood and no nail or metal fasteners were used, it’s all mortise and tenon. Hand cut. The wooden pillars are Nanmu which most think is cypress but it’s not, its deciduous. Like cypress though, it is rot resistant and grows straight. The Hall is visually overwhelming and I suspect it was intended to be.
Detail of the north gate of Tiantan Park ( The Temple of Heaven) in Beijing. It is rounded as Heaven was considered round. Left and south of this wall is the largest structure, “Qiniandian” or “Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests”. There are thousands of ancient pine and cypress trees nearby, including a 500 year old Juniper known as “Nine Dragon Juniper”. This is a large green oasis in a city of about 18 million.
Built in 1530 and restored in 1752, the The Imperial Vault of Heaven housed the tablet of God and the tablets of the Emperor’s eight ancestors. It is a smaller version of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest. Surrounded by an echo wall, whispers spoken on one side can be heard on the other side. It is connected to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest by the Vermilion Steps Bridge, a 360 meter raised walkway that leads to the Hall of Prayer. The left and right doors in the gates are for tourists. The central door is reserved for Gods and Emperors. It is closed. On this south side, representing Earth, the gate buildings are square. The north gate buildings are rounded, as Heaven is round. Photographed from the third tier of the Altar of Heaven. *Full disclosure: There were some tourists in this photograph. I eliminated them in Photoshop. No one was hurt and their electrons were 100% recycled.
I tried to make photographs that had no difference between 1420 when this was built and 2008 when I was standing here. On a weekend with lots of tourists it requires luck and imagination. This is the middle of three tiers, significant because the other two major structures also have three tiers for a total of nine. Nine was and is a very important number.
Photographed at Tiantin (Temple of Heaven), Beijing, China.
Detail of stone carving on balusters between the south stairs leading to the “Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests”. The Emperor attended ceremonies here. This is a five clawed dragon, a symbol of the Emperor since about 200 B.C. and only allowed on royal structures. Five clawed dragons are also specific to China. As the dragon got further from China, he has fewer claws. Korean dragons have 4 claws and Japanese dragons 3. I didn’t count the scales but a proper Chinese dragon has 117 scales, 36 Yin and 81 Yang. If original, this one has been outdoors since about 1406 A.D.. Chinese culture considers dragons as symbols of benevolence, intelligence and goodwill. Or as a Chinese office mate once told me “Dragons are good!” That’s a very different perspective from western legend such as Saint George.