天坛 (tiān tán) is a large temple complex just south of the centre of Beijing known in English as the Temple of Heaven (or, less commonly, the Altar of Heaven). It is one of my favourite tourist spots in Beijing – I visited about 10 times over 10 years. I’ve seen it in dusted with snow, full of blossoms, shrouded by pollution, and sparkling in sunlight. I love the peaceful stands of trees, the beautiful old temples, and also the chaotic noise of many groups of (usually older) people doing exercises or enjoying music together.
I love the parks full of centuries old trees, like the gnarled junipers – even if most are behind fences – but it’s the community aspect of activity in the temple grounds that I most enjoy about visiting the Temple of Heaven. The park-only tickets (without access to the temples themselves) are about half price, and then seniors get a further discount, so it’s common for groups to meet there to do activities together – dances, exercises, singing, and more.
My first visit was in April 2004, with a group of international students from my off-campus dorm. It was a brisk early Spring day, but the skies were gloriously blue. I visited three more times that year, including twice in the summer – with my sisters in July (a muggy, smoggy Summer day) and with Amanda in August (with the weather not much better).
The most memorable of my 2004 visits was with Cathy in December. It had snowed a few days earlier and while most of the walks had been swept, some of the paths and gardens were still beautifully white. It was Christmas eve, actually – I went to school in the morning and in the afternoon we went sightseeing. We also saw scaffolding being erected around the main temple. This was the beginning of big renovations done to different tourist sites around Beijing in the lead up to the 2008 Olympics.
I visited twice in 2006, with two different visitors from Australia – Nick and Nicole. Refurbishment was well underway, with different parts of the temple closed at each visit. Colourful patterns were repainted in the bright and eye-catching colours. While there were some complaints about this refurbishment messing with the historicity of the temples, the reality is that they had been repainted many times before. I like that the repainting gives an idea of what the temples probably looked like originally. The air was clean and cool for my visit with Nick in July, but we got DRENCHED in a summer thunderstorm not long after leaving.
Nicole’s visit that September coincided with some work I was doing during the Beijing International Book Fair – playing hostess to some visiting publishing house representatives from the US. She accompanied our group on a visit to the temple, which was memorable for me particularly because of the clouds. The air was super clear, and there was lots of light, but above us were roiling dark grey clouds.
In January 2007 I went back with my sister when she visited Beijing. Being late winter it was cold, and smoggy, but we had fun. Being around Chinese new year there were some signs up to mark the occasion, but nothing hugely festive. I remember paying more attention to the marble work this time around. We also played on the empty exercise equipment area outside the East gate.
I went along with two other Australian friends on their visit in April 2009 – an unfortunately smoggy day but enjoyable visit nonetheless, especially with so many colourful blossoms flowering. What I remember most about that particular trip was enjoying the activities – listening to groups singing together, or a pair performing Chinese opera songs, watching the ladies doing their choreographed dance and exercise routines, and much more. Also notable was the large crowd that gathered to watch a young laowai (foreigner) being taught to dance! It was also the first time I really paid attention to the double tree.
My parents visited during the National Holiday in October that year; I didn’t join them but enjoyed their photos of the patriotic flower displays (quite a thing in Beijing) under the clear, blue holiday sky. During a visit in 2011 with a friend-of-a-friend, we stumbled upon a harmonica orchestra, which was for me the highlight of that particular visit – and something I looked for next time!
When my family visited in June 2012, my sisters and brother-in-law and his brother stumbled upon a group of old Chinese men doing stretches, gymnastic exercises, and knee fighting. As none of them had a common language in which to communicate, my siblings of course joined in. My sister started emulating a stretch, at which point an old Chinese man came over to correct her posture and make it REALLY hurt. My brother in law joined an old man working out on a monkey bar type contraption. His brother got into the knee fighting and was promptly toppled by an old man barely as tall as his shoulder.
On another note, a few years ago I became aware of discussion about similarities between the system of sacrificial worship associated with Tiantan, and that of the Old Testament – especially the annual Day of Atonement ritual. There is evidence that early Chinese believed in a supreme creator God, and that Tian Tan was the site of an annual sacrifice made by the king (seen as also a priest) on behalf of all the people. (If you’re interested in learning more, these articles are a good place to start.) There has been debate about early Chinese religion for centuries, especially when it came to translating the Bible, and what word to use for God – whether to use existing Chinese words or something new. Those who believed that ancient Chinese worship reflected belief in a one God (especially the Jesuits) argued for using the ancient name for God. Those who believed Chinese religion was pagan idolatry not to be encouraged argued for the creation and use of new terms.