The Palace of Abstinence lies to the northwest of the Circular Mound Altar and next to the west gate of the Park of the Temple of Heaven. It was a place for the emperor to abstain from food before the Worshipping Heaven Ceremony started. It has several distinctive buildings, such as the Beamless Hall, the Rest Palace, and the Belfry. The articles in the buildings such as the throne, the screens and even Qianlong’s ink brushes, are all original and therefore very precious.
Function of the Palace of Abstinence
During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, the emperor would go to the Palace of Abstinence three days before the formal Heaven Worshipping Ceremony. During the three days, the emperor would live alone and eat a simple vegetarian diet without wine. Entertainment and court intrigue were avoided. The emperor would bathe several times to prepare well for the ceremony. In 1731, Emperor Yongzheng of the Qing Dynasty changed the ritual because he worried about his safety living alone for such a long time outside the Forbidden City. He ordered an Inner Palace of Abstinence built inside the Forbidden City and lived there for the three days preceding the ceremony. At 11 o’clock pm of the day before the ceremony, he would transfer to the Palace of Abstinence in the Temple of Heaven. In fact, he only stayed about four hours inside this palace.
Facing the east, this square building complex covers an area of 40,000 square meters (430,556 square feet).There are two walls enclosing the palace – the outer called the Brick Wall with a perimeter of 66 meters (217 feet) and the inner called the Purple Wall with a perimeter of 41 meters (135 feet). The gates to the palace are set on the east side of the wall. A cloister of 167 rooms was built around the inner wall to house the royal guards. The cloister is decorated with over 1,300 delicate colored paintings.
Located in the center of the Hall of Abstinence, the Beamless Hall is the main hall, where ceremonial rituals were held on the arrival and departure of the emperor. It was built in 1420. Its name is derived from the fact that the hall is supported only by the walls and a brick dome. There are no beams. A placard board on the lintel bears the inscription 'Admirable as Heaven’ in Emperor Qianlong’s handwriting. The hall originally had seven rooms. Four of the rooms have been converted into exhibition halls: the Architecture Exhibition, showing the history and evolution of the architecture; the Abstinence Ceremony Exhibition displaying the sacrificial relics as well as introducing features of the abstinence system and rituals during the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 - 1911); the Official's Abstinence Exhibition, depicting the officials fasting; and the Emperor Abstinence Exhibition showing pictures of twenty-two emperors who came to the Temple of Heaven for the Worshipping Ceremony including thirteen Ming emperors and nine Qing emperors. After visiting this exhibition, you will have a general idea about how much emphasis each emperor put on the importance of worshipping heaven.
The Resting Palace is at the back of the Beamless Hall. The main room has tables, porcelains, and other ornaments in it. There is a Study Room in the palace, where bookshelves, tables and “the four treasures of study” (writing brush, ink stick, ink slab and paper) are set. The bedroom has a couch especially for the emperor. In the north and south parts of the palace, there are five rooms for preparing meals, tea and fruit. At the back, there is a palace for princes to fast.
At the northeast corner, a double-layered bell tower facing the south, named the Bell of Supreme Harmony, was built to house a gigantic bell cast in Yongle’s reign during the Ming Dynasty. The bell has a large, thick body with a height of 2.8 meters (9 feet), a thickness of 0.1 meters (0.3 feet), and a diameter of 1.55 meters (5 feet). Its body is carved with beautiful pictures. The bell can be heard far and wide when struck. Before the ritual started, the bell was struck to announce the departure of the emperor from the Palace of Abstinence, his arrival at the altar, and the ending of the ceremony. Today, visitors can personally strike the bell to pray for good fortune and happiness.
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