Temple of Heaven
Not a single nail was used to construct the iconic Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the three-tiered wooden structure that more than any other building has come to represent the city of Beijing.
Rather more interesting than this oft-repeated cliché is the reason, best explained in the international bestseller The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner: “I do not believe they can make a nail with a head,” wrote the eighteenth century seaman, “many thousands of their nails have I had through my hands, and never saw one with a head upon it such as we have in England."
The nail-free roof of the Temple of Heaven was constructed with blue, yellow and green glazed tiles symbolizing Heaven, Earth and the mortal world. Only the emperor and his priestly entourage could come here to conduct the elaborate sacrificial ceremonies necessary to attain heavenly approval for his reign.
One bad harvest, unfortunate earthquake or deadly flood threatened to remove the emperor’s so-called “mandate of heaven”: divine permission to rule China. So it was not without a measure of self-interest that he prayed for a good harvest here through hundreds of years of volatile history.
Even today, most modern Chinese unconsciously attach importance to this ancient mandate, drawing profound political conclusions from seemingly random acts of nature like the Tangshan earthquake of 1976.