The Sun Altar (日坛)

Built in the ninth year of the Jiajing Ming emperor (1530), the Sun Altar (日坛)was where the Ming and Qing emperors payed homage to the sun, or the ‘great bright god’ (大明神). In Beijing, there are seven other sites of worship where the emperors offered sacrifices.

In Chinese mythology, ten suns took turns to warm and nourish the earth. These suns were actually the ten sons of Di Jun, the celestial emperor of the East. One day, rather than taking turns to warm the earth, they all rose from the east bathing the earth like an iridescent prism. Their combined solar energy ended up scorching the earth, driying up rivers and burning forests. The Jade Emperor sent the legendary archer Hou Yi to the rescue. Hou took his arrow and strung it from his magic bow shooting down nine suns and leaving one to continue to radiate and nourish the Earth.

This story would not have been unknown to the Ming and Qing emperors, but they were not shooting arrows into the sky. When China's emperors assumed the mandate of heaven, performing sacrifices to the gods of grain and land, for example, was a public responsibility. If there was a natural disaster that seriously affected the supply or production of grain, this was understood to mean that the emperor had lost his mandate to rule his earthly subjects.

The Sun Altar is surrounded by a circular wall with four gates. In the center there is a large retangular stone altar where offerings to the sun were made directly under the open sky. The altar was originally in red glazed tiles symbolizing the sun. Four stairs surround the altar each with nine steps, nine being most auspicious number in the pecking order of imperial numbers and synonymous with the emperor.

The most important rites for the emperor took place during the winter solstice. A major public relations event with a supporting cast, including the Director of Sacrifices. Different coloured robes designated the specific altar. The emperor wore a red double-dragon robe for the Sun Altar, a white imperial robe was was worn for the Moon Altar, and a blue double-dragon robe for the Sky Altar (Temple of Heaven).

Each altar had a place for sacrificial objects, a kitchen, abbatoir and warehouse where the sacrificial animals (oxen) and ritual food was prepared and a bell tower. There were prayers read by the emperor exclusively for each ceremony. The remains of the slaughtered animals were burnt in tiled ovens.

In Chinese the sun altar is also called 'chao ritan'(朝日坛). The word ‘chao means 'facing toward' but it can also mean 'imperial,' or 'royal.' The character 'chao' is also pronounced 'zhao' which means 'morning,' which gives us the time of the day when the ritual was performed. 'Chao Ritan' can therefore mean 'imperial sun altar, 'facing sun altar,' or 'morning sun altar.' 'Chao ritan' can be rendered into English as 'an imperial ritual at the Sun Altar which took place in the morning [where the emperor and his entourage] faced the sun.'


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