Chinese emperor's lavish quarters are restored
By CHARLES HUTZLER, Associated Press Writer Charles Hutzler, Associated Press Writer – Mon Nov 10, 9:25 am ET
BEIJING – In between dispatching armies to secure the empire and building China into the richest country in the world, the Qianlong Emperor commissioned a retirement home for himself in the Forbidden City palace.
Never intended as a simple hideaway, the garden quarters built in the 1770s by the fifth emperor in the Qing Dynasty set a standard for opulence befitting an emperor renowned for his power and refinement: screens inlaid with rare hardwoods, intricate silk embroideries, delicate carvings of jade and bamboo.
To Chinese eyes of 200 years ago, it screams wealth. "It's as if everything is gold-plated," said Nancy Berliner, a curator of Chinese art at Massachusetts' Peabody Essex Museum.
Unused and sealed off for most the past century, the garden is three years into a 12-year restoration. One part, a lavish apartment and private theater for the emperor — the Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service — was officially completed Monday and will be open to the public next year for the first time ever.
Having been largely abandoned, damaged by neglect rather than the vandalism that ruined many Chinese antiquities, the studio contains one of the best-preserved interiors from Imperial China.
More than that, the garden marks a time when China's wealth and power reached an apex. When the Qianlong Emperor started the garden at the age of 61, his armies had extended the Qing empire's borders deep into Central Asia and to the Himalayas. China's economy was the world's largest, more than a quarter of the globe's output. A few decades after Qianlong's death, China would sink into war, famine and civil strife.
"The importance of the garden is that it is the most sophisticated design. This was the climax of the period," said Liu Chang, an architectural historian at Tsinghua University, who worked on the $3 million restoration, a joint project of the Palace Museum in Beijing and the New York-based World Monuments Fund.
A Manchu who rode in military campaigns and a visionary governor who ordered peasants to plant New World crops of corn and sweet potatoes to increase food production, Qianlong was also known for his love of arts. He poured that passion into the retirement studio and drew upon the talent of the empire, said Berliner, the curator who edited a catalog issued for the studio's renovation.
Craftsmen from southern China were brought in for the elegant woodworking. The walls of his private theater were covered with European-style trompe-l'oeil murals done by the students of Giuseppe Castiglione, a Jesuit missionary who became a court painter, bringing European painting techniques of perspective to the halls of power.
The murals of a green pine, cranes and vines of purple flowering wisteria posed a challenge for the restorers, World Monuments Fund executives said.
After the last emperor, Puyi, left the Forbidden City in 1924, the two-acre (0.8-hectare) garden area was abandoned while the rest of the sprawling 180-acre (72-hectare) palace complex was turned into a museum. The settling of the buildings over time and Beijing's dry winters and humid summers left some murals cracked and discolored.
Experts from the U.S. and the Palace Museum separated the paintings done on silk from the walls and ceiling, restoring them in a separate studio before returning them to their original location.
Yet the greatest challenge was finding craftsmen who could replicate the refined decorations that are no longer fashionable, said Berliner. One surprising find, she said, was an 80-year-old man in the eastern city of Yangzhou who still knew how to carve lanterns from goat horns.
Artisans from Zhejiang province have preserved techniques for using the inner skin of bamboo and bamboo thread in woodworking, skills needed to restore a two-story screen in the apartment's entrance.
The zeal the Qianlong Emperor showed for the project underscored the diligence he applied throughout his 60-year reign. Though he retired in 1796, he never moved into the studio, preferring to stay in the western half of the palace to watch over his son, the new emperor.
"Ultimately the greatest delight he derived from it may have been the creative process," Berliner wrote in the catalog.
Staff of the Palace Museum watches visitors near a restored painting on the wall in Juanqinzhai, a newly restored 18th-century royal studio which includes a private theater, in the Forbidden City in Beijing, China, Monday, Nov. 10, 2008. AP Photo by Alexander F. Yuan
Staff of the Palace Museum watches visitors beside former emperor's dragon chair inside Juanqinzhai, a newly restored 18th-century royal studio which includes a private theater, in the Forbidden City in Beijing, China, Monday, Nov. 10, 2008. AP Photo by Alexander F. Yuan
A Chinese performer plays traditional music on the stage of an theater inside Juanqinzhai, a newly restored 18th-century royal studio, while visitors record and listen in the Forbidden City in Beijing, China, Monday, Nov. 10, 2008. AP Photo by Alexander F. Yuan
A Chinese traditional music performer waits before her performance inside Juanqinzhai, a newly restored 18th-century royal studio which includes a private theater, in the Forbidden City in Beijing, China, Monday, Nov. 10, 2008. AP Photo by Alexander F. Yuan
Chinese traditional music performers wait before their performance inside Juanqinzhai, a newly restored 18th-century royal studio which includes a private theater, in the Forbidden City in Beijing, China, Monday, Nov. 10, 2008. AP Photo by Alexander F. Yuan