Illustration: a yip


New leader Xi Jinping visited Shenzhen last month, echoing Deng Xiaoping's 1992 southern tour. Apart from the obvious economic message - Deng is credited with leading China towards a market economy - Xi's homage to the late paramount leader was probably intended to reinforce his own legitimacy to rule.

Chinese emperors had many ways of legitimi-sing their authority, one of which was making offerings to heaven. The English translation of huangdi as "emperor" loses the religious connotations of the ancient title tianzi ("son of heaven"). The latter, which predates huangdi by almost a millennium, gives a clearer indication of the monarch's spiritual role on top of his temporal one. It was he alone who had a direct channel of communication with heaven ( tian).

Each winter solstice, the emperor would lead the nation in making offerings to heaven. In a solemn ceremony that lasted several days, he would perform various rituals involving seclusion, fasting and prayer. From the days of the Ming dynasty, emperors made offerings at Beijing's Temple of Heaven, the construction of which took 14 years, starting in 1420.

Still standing majestically in beautiful sprawling grounds, the "altar of heaven" (a more accurate translation of tian tan) is one of the must-see attractions in the capital today.