The "Bright Hall" (mingtang 明堂) or "Hall of Distinction" was the central hall of the ancient royal and imperial palace, where important ceremonies like audiences, offerings, celebrations, appointments in office, grants for the elderly, educations instructions, sacrifices and offerings, the ritual ploughing, reverence to worthies, banquets and ceremonial entertainments like archery, the presentation of captives, announcements in relation to the calendar or prognostications were held.
The term is first seen in the text Kaogongji 考工記, which is part of the ritual Classic Zhouli 周禮. The section on the constructing engineer (jiangren 匠人) records the exact dimensions of the hall: It is measures with the help of nine-foot (chi 尺, see weights and measures) long mats (yan 筵). The Mingtang Hall of the Zhou dynasty was nine mats long and seven wide, and the inner chamber of the Hall was elevated above the ground with the height of one mat. The central Hall was surrounded by five square pavilions with a side length of two mats
The Confucian master Zheng Xuan 鄭玄 (127-200) of the Later Han period 後漢 (25-220 CE) commented on the name of the hall that "mingtang" meant a hall, where government and instruction or education was made clear (ming zheng jiao zhi tang 明政教之堂). He also quotes from the chapter Chengde 盛德 of the book Da Dai Liji 大戴禮記, which explains that in the hall, the king received the regional rulers (chao zhuhou 朝諸侯), and from Cai Yong's 蔡邕 (132-192) commentary Mingtang, Yueling zhangju 明堂月令章句, where it is said that the Bright Hall was the grand temple (taimiao 太廟) of the Son of Heaven, where he was conducting sacrifices (siji 祭祀). Cai informed that the Xia dynasty 夏 (21th-17th cent. BCE) used to call this hall shishi 世室, and the Shang 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE) named it zhongwu 重屋. Some sources even speak of the invention of the Bright Hall by the mythical figure Shen Nong 神農, or the Yellow Emperor 黃帝.
The "Bright" Mingtang Hall 明堂, as illustrated in the ritual compendium Sanlitu jizhu 三禮圖集注, 4 (Siku quanshu 四庫全書 edition).
Cai Yong, Gao You 高誘 (fl. 205), and the Jin period 晉 (265-420) commentator Ji Zhan 紀瞻 (253-324) held that the designations mingtang, qingmiao 清廟, taimiao, taishi 太室 and biyong 辟雍 all meant the same building, but names differed according to the use. Biyong, for instance, was a name referring to the function of schooling. The Jin period writer Yuan Zhun 袁準 (late 3rd cent.), author of Zhenglun 正論, was of a different opinion, because Wang Mang 王莽 (r. 8-23 CE), for example, had both a Mingtang Hall and a Biyong built in the southern parts of the capital Chang'an 長安 (today's Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi). The Qing period 清 (1644-1911) master Hui Dong 惠棟 (1697-1758) followed the theory of Zheng Xuan and believed that the Mingtang Hall was the palace of grand instructions (da jiao zhi gong 大教之宮).
A fragment of Zheng Xuan's Sanlitu 三禮圖 (included in the collection Yuhanshanfang jiyi shu 玉函山房輯佚書) informs about the construction of the hall. The Zhou used to build five chambers (shi 室) which constituted the hall (see image in the Sanlitu jizhu 三禮圖集注). Their names were derived from the Five Agents (wuxing 五行), with "earth" in the centre. The Qin dynasty 秦 (221-206 BCE) gave it nine chambers with a terrace of 12 levels (jie 階). In 31 CE the Later Han dynasty had a Mingtang Hall constructed where the lower parts were square and the upper ones round. The "twelve halls" (? shi'er tang 十二堂) symbolized the diary of the ruler with daily changing duties (ribiao 日表), the nine chambers with their eight windows each symbolized the nine provinces of the empire, and the 72 windows symbolized the unity of the cosm; the twelve doors of the chambers finally symbolized the months with their change of Yin and Yang 陰陽. Zheng Xuan adds that Hu Boshi 胡伯始 provided information that in ancient times the Qingmiao Hall was covered with reed (mao 茅) , while in modern times, tiles were used, but below the tiles, reed was still applied as a reminiscence of the ancient custom.
Huan Tan's 桓譚 (23 BCE-56 CE) Xinlun 新論 explains that the round/square shape symbolized the earth (square, below) and Heaven (round, upper part). This text also mentions the symbolism of the Five Agents for each part of the hall.
The ritual book Da Dai Liji mentions the nine chambers, too, and says that each of them had four doors (hu 戶) and eight windows (you 牖), which makes a total of twelve openings. The text also mentions the reed-covered roof and explains that the hall served to "distinguish high from low" (ming zun bi 明尊卑), like it is also said in the chapter Mingtang wei of the ritual classic Liji (see example from the chapter).
The book Huainanzi 淮南子, tending to Daoist philosophy, held that the Mingtang hall was a place where neither underground moisture nor precipitations from above would harm the emperor, so that he could be revered, the ghosts an spirits be approached by rituals, and proper treatment be shown towards the people. References to the Mingtang Hall are also made in the books Chunqiu fanlu 春秋繁露 (chapter Wangdao 王道), Baihu tongyi 白虎通義 (chapter Delun 德論) and the subclassic Hanshi waizhuan 韓詩外傳.
The largest Mingtang Hall ever built was that of Empress Wu Zetian 武則天 in her capital Luoyang 洛陽. It was called Wanxiang shengong 萬象神宮 "Hall of the spirits of the ten thousand appearances" and was 294 feet (chi) high and 300 feet wide and had three stories, the lowest of which was square, that the two others round. The Mingtang Hall of Emperor Huizong 宋徽宗 (r. 1100-1125) of the Song dynasty 宋 (960-1279) in Kaifeng 開封 (Bianjing 汴京) was the last one that was built. Emperor Shizong 明世宗 (r. 1521-1566) of the Ming dynasty 明 (1368-1644) renamed his Yunjibao Hall 元極寶殿 and had it called Mingtang Hall.
It is quite probably that Mingtang Halls in the southern part of the city were a different type of building. The Classic Xiaojing 孝經 (paragraph Shengzhi 聖治章) mentions an offering to King Wen 周文王 in such a hall. Zheng Xuan comments that this hall was located in the south of the royal capital, and had its name "bright" just because it was located in the luminous south. It had eight windows (chuang 窗) and four doors (he 闔), and had the combined square/round shape as known.
The Qing period scholar and publisher Ruan Yuan 阮元 (1764-1849), author of an essay called Mingtang lun 明堂論, was of the opinion that the emperors originally also used to dine and sleep in the Mingtang Hall. Later, when the palace compounds became larger and buildings more, several Mingtang Halls were built in the eastern and southern parts of the imperial palace, in order to preserve the ancient system.
Occasionally the word mingtang is also used for an ancestral shrine (zumiao 祖廟).
In Chinese medicine a map of the twelve meridians (jingluo 經絡) and the acupoints (zhenjiu xuewei 針灸穴位) is also called "map of the bright hall" (mingtang tu 明堂圖 or mingtang jing 明堂經). The term mingtang can also mean the nose, or the lung, or an acupoint just above the nose (shangxing xue 上星穴). The word mingtang is also used as an alternative for the point jianggong 絳宮 in Daoist inner alchemy, or for a concentration of moisture before certain types of lairs in geomancy.