Mr. Denby to Mr. Blaine.

No. 967.]

Sir: I have the honor to inclose a copy of the imperial decree referring to the burning of the “Temple of Heaven.” It will be seen that the officers of sacrificial worship, who were in charge of the temple, have been delivered to the board of punishments for the determination of a penalty. Why these officials should be held responsible criminally for an accident caused by lightning can only be understood by some reference to Chinese polity.

The Chinese Government offers the simplest specimen now extant of a theocratic state. The Emperor is the father of his people, and owes allegiance only to Heaven. Everything that happens is ascribed to supernatural influences. Praying, fasting, humbling one’s self before the Deity are common official acts in China. The Emperor no less than [Page 112] all the officials acknowledges his responsibility to Heaven, and at stated times returns thanks for favors accorded, and fasts and prays to avert calamity and to propitiate the Supreme Being.

At the winter solstice, and at various other times, the Emperor, attended by the great officials of state, repairs to the great altar in Peking, and as the great high priest of his race prostrates himself before the Most High God. The origin of this rite is lost in antiquity.

The direct governance of Heaven remains to-day as well recognized in the daily life of the Chinese as it was three thousand years ago; and so when calamities occur Heaven is in anger. Somebody has sinned and the sin is to be expiated by punishment and suffering. If the heart of man were right Heaven would not punish him by misfortunes. Therefore he deserves human punishments. The Emperor, being the vice-regent of God, may jointly punish those who have sinned against God. He may do so in an absolutely arbitrary manner, because he is executing the will of Heaven. Thus the theocratic principle of the government becomes of vast practical utility.

Another phase of this theocratic principle is found in the execution of insane persons who have committed crime. Heaven has caused them to be insane because they or their families or their ancestors committed sin, and therefore to subject them to the slicing process is simply to carry out the will of Heaven.

It does not appear from the decree that the accident of the burning of the temple has been ascribed as yet to the proposal to build railroads. The Emperor takes the event “as a solemn warning, and his mind is filled with awe.” What “proper precautions” the officials failed to take to guard against the stroke of lightning are not stated, nor is it necessary to state them. The untoward event proves that somebody has sinned against Heaven and punishment must be assessed against some one. The part of the altar which was struck by lightning was called the chi-nien-tien or palace of prayers. Its construction dates back to the reign of Yung Lo, of the Ming dynasty, who ascended the throne A. D. 1403. The principal walls were of marble or white jade and the timber used was a species of valuable sandal-wood. It will be difficult to secure like costly materials for its reconstruction, I inclose herewith an account of the temple, written by Dr. Happer.

I have, etc.,

Charles Denby.
[Inclosure in No. 967.]

20th September, 1889.—Burning of the Temple of Heaven.

An Imperial decree notices the burning of a part of the Temple of Heaven. On the fifth of September a thunder-storm occurred, in the course of which the Hall of Annual Prayer was struck by lightning and gradually burnt. The flames were extinguished by the efforts of the soldiers and other persons. Two officers in charge, belonging to the Court of Sacrificial Worship, can not escape the blame which falls upon them for their carelessness in not taking proper precautions. They and the presidents of court are therefore delivered to the board for the determination of a penalty. The attendants at the temple will be rigorously examined by the governor of Peking in order to find out if there have been any improper practices or not. The city fire brigade, which rendered assistance, are formally thanked for their services. The event is regarded by the Emperor as a solemn warning, and his mind is filled with awe. He calls upon his officers with earnestness and sincerity to aid him in the unceasing efforts which he will make, even more than before, to secure the good government of the country.

[Page 113]

The building which was destroyed is the three-storied temple, called the “Hall of Prayer for a Propitious Year.” It is the loftiest erection in Peking and is conspicuous even from beyond the walls, being usually the first object descried on approaching the capital from the south or east. Dr. Happer describes it thus:

“This building, by reason of its high elevation, its beautiful dome shape, in three successive roofs, covered as it is with azure coloured tiles, is the most striking feature in the park, though it is by no means regarded as the most important object. When standing at the foot, to the south of the altar, and looking up to the building, this structure on the top of this three-terraced altar presents a very grand appearance. In its shape and color it is designed to represent Heaven, the object which is worshiped there. In the rear of this temple there is a square building called ‘Imperial Heaven’s Temple,’ in which the tablets to Heaven and the tablets to the Imperial ancestors are deposited, which are used in the service at this altar, and from which they are brought into the ‘Hall for Prayer’ at the time of the annual prayer for a propitious year. In the temple are the permanent shrines upon which the tables are placed at the time of the worship. As the building is round the space inside is circular. The tablet to Heaven is placed near the north side of the circle, facing the south. There are four shrines on each side of a passage way from the tablet of Heaven to the south door, facing east and west, in which are placed the tablets of the Imperial ancestors arranged according to their rank. The first one upon the left side, as the place of honor, is the first founder of the dynasty, and on the right side is the first occupant of the throne of China, and thus successively in the order of their rank. The Imperial worshiper kneels in the passage-way made by the location of the shrines, before each several tablet successively, rendering the same worship, in the order of precedence, beginning with the tablet of Heaven. As the glass rods which are placed in the circular openings of the window blinds are azure colored, the light which comes into the building through them is tinged with the ethereal blue.”