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  • Built: c. 141 - 86 BCE, Chang'an
  • Chinese/Japanese: 明堂 (Míngtáng / Meidou)

The Mingtang (lit. "Bright Hall") was an Imperial ritual space constructed within the Chinese Imperial palace complex at Chang'an during the Han Dynasty. Aspects of its design remained fundamental to Imperial architecture and ritual practice in China until the end of the Qing Dynasty in the 20th century.

The square structure was located at the center of a series of concentric squares and circles, a form that served as a representation, or microcosm, of the cosmos. Within this space, the Emperor, seen as himself being the link between Heaven and Earth, could symbolically stand at the center of the entire cosmos; through carefully prescribed ritual gestures and actions, including moving about the space and facing the cardinal directions, he performed a variety of Imperial rituals aimed at maintaining or righting the cosmic order.

As such, down through the centuries, the Mingtang came to be associated with the Duke of Zhou and the legendary Sage Kings, and with the ideal of benevolent and virtuous Imperial rule more broadly. In fact, it was said that only a Sage King, only a truly virtuous ruler, was even capable of building a Mingtang; like fantastic beasts such as the qilin, its very appearance was considered a sign of the great virtue of the ruler, and of the time. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the Mingtang has frequently been invoked by rulers seeking to claim legitimacy on a cosmic level. It has been suggested that elements of Oda Nobunaga's Azuchi castle may have been intended to recall, or even properly reconstruct, the Mingtang, as part of efforts by Nobunaga to claim rightful authority and legitimate power.[1]


The square Mingtang was located atop a circular terrace, surrounded by four walls forming a square aligned to the cardinal directions, each with a gate along the central axes. This in turn was surrounded by the circular moat known as Biyong, which in turn was to be approached from one of the four cardinal directions directly. The location of the complex was carefully chosen, so as to align with the tomb of Emperor Gaozu of Han, the dynasty's founder, directly to the north.

The Mingtang itself was two stories tall, with porches facing all four directions on both levels, a high-peaking roof, and turret towers at the corners. Four outer chambers were associated, respectively, with each of the four cardinal directions, and were painted in colors and designs associated with those directions.[2] The most important ritual space within the hall, however, was the chamber at its center, an empty square space which implied a circle as well. As the Emperor circumambulated this space, he symbolically passed through not only the cardinal directions (including "center"), but also through the signs of the zodiac, the months and seasons of the year, and/or the hours of the day. In doing so, in his role as comic center, as link between Heaven and Earth, he performed or reenacted the natural flow of the cosmic order.


  • Francis D.K. Ching, et al., A Global History of Architecture, Second Edition, John Wiley & Sons (2011), 220-221.
  • Mark Erdmann, "The Chinese Roots of the Azuchi Castle Donjon," paper presented at Association for Asian Studies annual conference, San Diego CA, 23 March 2013.
  1. Erdmann.
  2. That is, the blue/green dragon of the east, the vermillion or red bird (or phoenix) of the south, the white tiger of the west, and the black "warrior" (a snake wrapped around a tortoise) of the north.