The Temple of Heaven Revisited

By David Marshall Published on June 4, 2024

It has felt a bit surreal, visiting Beijing again in the spring of 2024. Everything in the world has changed since I first came here, though nothing has in Heaven.

Forty years ago, the Beijing to which I paid my first visit could have been on a different planet. It was the capital of a poor, backward country, and boasted one subway line, deep underground, presumably to keep the bosses safe in the event of a nuclear war. Bicycles filled the streets, and in the evening, people sat by sidewalks, spitting out watermelon seeds, and conducted an old-fashioned ritual called “conversation.” If they wanted a screen, fifty people shared one TV set.

After wandering those hot July streets for miles, past a canal where fishermen still plunged nets, beyond which horses were not allowed, I found an entrance to the Temple of Heaven complex. I had read about the place. In his enlightening work Eternity in Their Hearts, Don Richardson described how the emperor came here once a year to pray to Shang Di, the “God Above.” Richardson believed the ancient Chinese were theists, and Shang Di was another name for the one True God.

A Path of Discovery

That visit in 1984 set my feet on a path of discovery that I have been treading ever since. In True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture, I describe what I saw and heard:

Three roofs rose one above the other like a wedding cake, with frosting so blue it seemed to have drained the pigment from the mid-summer sky. Four red and gold pillars, twelve red pillars in a circle around them, and twelve more in a wider circle inside the wall, held these layers in place. Under the eaves, where swallows flew in and out, the ceiling was carved in intricate, colorful patterns.

The building should have been as alien to me as anything on earth. Yet in odd ways, it seemed familiar. The inside pillars reminded me of four gold-leafed red letter edition Gospels. The red outer pillars suggested the twelve patriarchs and the twelve apostles of the Bible — symbolized in Christian writings by pillars sprinkled with blood.

Here, I learned, like the high priest in Jerusalem, one man came once a year to ask pardon for a nation. To whom did he appeal? Huang Tian Shangdi (皇天上帝): a Supreme God identified somehow with Heaven, who could not be represented by idols. As in Jerusalem, here, too, the sacrifice of animals would bring Heaven’s mercy . . .

As I descended the steps of the temple, a Voice seemed to silently speak: ‘I didn’t just come with the missionaries. I have been here all along. I made China.’

Cries Ring to Heaven

In my lifetime, China has changed beyond recognition. The sky grew grey as the nation industrialized, and now is turning blue again as environmental measures take effect. The city around the complex is now crowded with cars, plus the world’s largest subway system, which links to several bullet train stations that take one around the country in a few blinks of the eye. Guards let me in for free because the 22-year-old backpacker I once was is now “old.” But the cypress and junipers then two decades short of six centuries are now two decades past that age, and scoff at my childish impetuosity as I touch their knotty boughs. A sign near the entrance plainly announces that the emperor came here to worship the “God of Heaven.”

And since then, as I have read Chinese literature. I found references to a Supreme God not only in the most ancient books Confucius is said to have edited, which influenced the rituals at this altar, but in China’s great Medieval novels and even in tales by post-Maoist literary heavyweights like Mo Yan. Whether old books or new, cries ring to Heaven at moments of great crisis.

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What irony. In the capital of our new “communist” superpower rival, it seems “God has not left Himself without a witness.”

The building erected for China’s rulers to worship Him is the symbol of Beijing, and of China. But if China’s modern heads of state do not wish to go as far as the Altar of Heaven, and no longer want to sacrifice animals, they can find a more subtle witness to the God of Heaven, and to the ultimate sacrifice, in a back alley half a mile from their offices a few kilometers north.

All Creation Testifies

On a walk through Beijing’s back alleys, I found this ornate entryway to a house or courtyard. On the door was pasted the character “Happiness” (福). This character shows “God” or “divine” on the left, “one mouth” (一 口,could be “one person”) and “garden” (田) on the right. It is as if China’s most popular character were saying, “To be happy, one man in a garden must stand next to God,” a picture of Adam in Eden. And indeed, another traditional New Year’s motto, oft in evidence on doorways, proclaims that “Heaven gives happiness.”

On the left of this entryway is written, “May family affairs prosper and riches grow.” At top appears, “A sail catches the lucky wind.”

On the right are pasted the words, “Let success and good fortune come with the New Spring.”

“Come” (in the old form set here) shows a man (人) on a cross (十), and like a famous Jewish man who hung on a cross, another person on either side of him (人人). “Spring” seems to show (in its modern form) “three (三),” “days (日)” and “person (人).” The message seems to be that when death “springs” back to life, as it does dramatically in northern China this time of year, renewed hope implicates a man who did . . . some act . . . after three days.

In fact, the Chinese classics mention this hope of resurrection after three days. And in China’s great fantasy novel, Journey to the West, perhaps the greatest emperor in China’s long history, Tang Taizong, does come to life after three days. (But only in fiction. Is it a coincidence that he was the first emperor to greet Christians traveling across the Silk Road, bringing the Gospel to China?)

In his death and resurrection, a greater King accomplished that at which Chinese tradition often hints.

A Place Reserved to Meet God

Beijing is a changed city in a changed world. Countries on every continent keenly follow the decisions made in this town. Its streets are clean, without homeless people, graffiti, or drugs. Tonight I watched young women jogging or dancing without fear by a dark canal. The heart of the city lies in public spaces once reserved for the emperor: the Forbidden City. The Summer Palace. Even the enormous Qinghua University campus was built on the emperor’s personal parklands.

But the Temple of Heaven complex was reserved for God. It was the one place Under Heaven where the emperor came not as dread potentate, but humble servant.

China’s leaders have often courted bad company, and its present emperor has some dubious pals, too: Vladimir Putin. The Kim crime family. Iran’s ayatollahs, rabid with the dream of Israel’s nuclear extinction. Emperor Xi’s in-house mad scientists, like ours, seem to be working for the apocalypse or the rise of the machines.

Let Xi walk instead, in this park where his forebears once came in fear and trembling to meet God. Mere deities were subservient to the emperor, but on these grounds he recognized a higher power, and fasted, sacrificed, and prayed for all the realm “Under Heaven.”

Let him then walk back streets near the government offices, and like the ancient Persian king, read what he finds written on the wall. Let him consider how Christ died for the sins of the world and rose again, and how the Risen Christ has already blessed China. (A long, remarkable story that I have touched briefly on here before.)

The government says religion should become more Chinese. But really, nothing lies more deeply entwined with the roots of Chinese culture than the truth of the Gospel. Let the CCP become more Chinese by getting to know the God of Heaven, whom emperors worshiped for thousands of years, and His Son, whose sacrificial death and resurrection is pasted on the walls outside their offices, if only they open their eyes to see.

 

David Marshall, an educator and writer, holds a doctoral degree in Christian thought and Chinese tradition. His most recent book is The Case for Aslan: Evidence for Jesus in the Land of Narnia. 

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