Revisiting the Temple of Heaven
On a frigid Saturday morning, Niki is waiting on the main road outside my hotel. She has hailed a taxi, and as we climb in I can hear her utter the name of our destination. “Tiantan nan-mer.” We are heading to the Temple of Heaven. “If you don’t speak with a Beijing accent,” Niki says, referring to the pirate-like ‘r’s, “the taxi drivers won’t understand you.” It’s been barely two days since my arrival, but I can already feel the city’s tones creeping gently into my Mandarin.
The taxi glides through the sweeping boulevards, strangely empty for a city of 20 million people. Beijing is infamous for its traffic snarls but no one, it seems, is in any hurry to go places this early on a weekend. Before I know it we are cruising along the walls of the temple precinct, past the east gate and a covered pearl market.
It is not my first time visiting the temple, but my recollections are few and far between. I do not remember the trees, nor the scenery that greets us as we pull up at the south gate. What is immediately apparent is that the Temple of Heaven is far more than a collection of historic buildings. With its lawns and endless rows of old pines, the vast compound is a breathing space for urban Beijing.
At the entrance to the Circular Mound Altar, the first of several sights spread along the central axis, a troop of middle-aged couples move to the same, hypnotising slow dance. Nearby, the air echoes with the sound of jianzi, a traditional game with a history of nearly 2,000 years. Known in the English-speaking world as “shuttlecock” or “featherball”, the sport is popular throughout much of Asia.
Between the dusty blue tiled roofs, the usual package visitors with their flag-waving tour guides are surprisingly few. Although we must walk in single file to peer inside, there is no one jostling at the Imperial Vault of Heaven. From there, Niki and I continue along the broad processional route, a raised walkway named “the Bridge of Vermillion Steps”. The irony is that none of it is actually coloured red, save the lanterns that were added in recent times. But it is at its northern end where I behold the reason for my visit. Stepping up to the final gateway, I am brought face-to-face with a distant memory.
In my grandmother’s old house, tucked away in suburban Toronto, there was a precious wooden model that occupied the top spot on a magazine rack beside the staircase. Delicately carved and housed under a glass cover, it became a permanent fixture of my childhood summers, greeting me at the start of each day when I would descend the steps, bleary-eyed, for waffles and maple syrup.
Budding architect that I was, it didn’t take me very long to figure out exactly what the model represented. It was round, three-tiered and distinctively Chinese – none other than the main hall at the Temple of Heaven. “Qiniandian,” I would softly pronounce. The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. For nearly 500 years, this was the setting for an annual rite in which the emperor would ask for Heaven’s blessing on the nation’s crops.
Although it was begun around the same time as the Forbidden City, the hall that we see today dates from after 1889, when the 15th-century original burned down in the aftermath of a lightning strike. But like its predecessor, it too was built without the use of a single nail.
After circling once around Qiniandian, we leave the imperial grandeur of the temple buildings for an altogether different Beijing. All along the central axis we had heard the joyful strains of music drifting in over the brick walls, and now it was time to see it for ourselves.
Under the empty branches we discover an enthusiastic singer crooning into her microphone, belting out 80s tunes as a group of dancers swirl effortlessly across the paving stones. Still the air is punctuated by the tac-tac-tac of yet more jianzi players, and I watch them, enthralled, as they skillfully tap the feathered shuttlecocks off their hips, knees and feet. It’s a sight worth getting up for on a wintry Saturday morning.