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The Altar of Earth

Updated:2008-06-06 10:19 | Source:

  Built in 1530, the Altar of Earth is located

  in the northern part of Beijing, a little way off

  Andingmenwai Street. Extending over an area of 37

  hectares, it was surrounded by a double square

  enclosure. The outer enclosure no longer stands but

  its west gate remains.

  For more than four centuries, the Altar of Earth was

  the sacred place where the emperors of the Ming

  (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties

  worshipped the God of Earth. The place, formally

  reopened in 1984, has been converted into a park

  mainly serving the aged.

  A centre for the aged opened there in 1984. At the

  centre, the public can play chess, billiards, and

  table tennis, or listen to lectures on flower-

  growing, learn "taijiquan" (a kind of traditional

  Chinese shadow boxing) or "qigong" (a system of deep

  breathing exercises).

  In 1420, the third Ming Emperor Yongle had the

  Temple of Heaven and Earth built in the southern

  part of Beijing. There he offered sacrifices to

  Heaven at the annual winter solstice and to Earth at

  the summer solstice. Having received a suggestion to

  worship Heaven and Earth separately, in 1530 Emperor

  Jiajing (1522-1566) ordered that the Circular Mound

  Altar be constructed for the worship of Heaven in

  Tiantan (now called the Temple of Heaven) and that

  Fangzetan (Square Stream Altar) be constructed for

  the worship of Earth in the Northern City. Fangzetan

  was renamed Ditan in 1534.

  The largest structure in the Altar of Earth is the

  altar known as Fangzetan - so called because a moat

  surrounds it. A sculpted stone dragon head is fixed

  on the west side of the southwestern corner of the

  moat wall; water was brought from a well through the

  dragon head. Fangzetan was built on a north-south

  axis, and it is surrounded by two square enclosures,

  both painted red and surmounted with yellow glazed

  tiles. Both Inner and outer enclosures have triple

  white marble gates to the north and one gate to the

  east, south and west.

  The altar is a two-tiered square terrace surfaced

  with flagstones; its facades are yellow glazed

  bricks. Each terrace is one metre high and has a

  flight of eight steps leading up to it. The upper

  terrace is 20 metres wide and the lower one 35

  metres. The even numbers six and eight, symbols of

  the earth, and multiples of six and eight recur

  several times in the arrangement of the square

  flagstones. On the west and east sides of the lower

  terrace lie four groups of stone sculptures, 23 in

  all. They symbolize 15 mountains, including Mount

  Taishan and Mount Huashan; four rivers, including

  the Changjiang (Yangtze) River and Yellow River, and

  four seas (ancient Chinese believed that China was

  surrounded by four seas). There are more than 20

  holes in the two terraces. They held flagstaffs and

  poles for banners and tents used during ceremonies.

  The ceremonies for worshipping the Earth took place

  once a year, at the summer solstice.

  On important occasions such as an emperor's

  coronation, birthday, marriage or funeral, a

  representative of the emperor would come to "report"

  to the God of Earth.

  The Altar of Earth was no longer used after the

  overthrow of the Qing Dynasty in 1911; it became a

  public park in 1925. It was once badly plundered

  and, because of years of neglect, became a

  wilderness choked with head-high weeds.

  The People's Government gave the Altar of Earth a

  new look in 1957, when it was once more turned into

  a park. The buildings were repaired and an orchard

  built as well as a large number of trees and flowers

  were planted.

  An overall renovation of the park started in 1981.

  The People's Government allocated a large sum for

  the renovation. Most of the buildings already have

  taken on a new look. A "pailou" or archway and a

  Bell Tower, neither of which had existed before,

  have been built on the spots.

  Built in the same year with the Altar of Earth were

  the Altar of the Sun in the eastern city, the Altar

  of the Moon in the western city and the Altar of the

  Creator of Agriculture in the southern city. The

  emperor worshipped the God of the Sun at the Altar

  of the Sun at the spring equinox and the God of the

  Moon at the autumn equinox. Both the Altar of the

  Sun and the Altar of the Moon, more or less like the

  Altar of Earth but smaller, are now public parks.

  The emperor used to make annual sacrifices to the

  Altar of the Creator of Agriculture and perform the

  rite of ploughing the first furrow there at the

  beginning of spring each year. It is now the site of

  a stadium that accommodates 30,000 people.


Editor : Zhu Jia

Opening ceremony of Beijing Olympics