China Dusts Off, Restores Emperor's Hideaway

Wisteria vines restoration i

Artisans work to restore the trompe l'oeil mural of wisteria vines, painted on silk. They were removed from the ceiling of the Qianlong Emperor's theater, restored, then hung again. World Monuments Fund hide caption

itoggle caption World Monuments Fund
Wisteria vines restoration

Artisans work to restore the trompe l'oeil mural of wisteria vines, painted on silk. They were removed from the ceiling of the Qianlong Emperor's theater, restored, then hung again.

World Monuments Fund
Throne in the palace i

A small and intimate throne area within Qianlong's retirement quarters. World Monuments Fund hide caption

itoggle caption World Monuments Fund
Throne in the palace

A small and intimate throne area within Qianlong's retirement quarters.

World Monuments Fund

Tucked away in the northeast quadrant of Beijing's Forbidden City is a palace within a palace, built as the private living quarters of one of China's most celebrated rulers.

In 1771, at 61, Qianlong ruled an empire at the zenith of its power and wealth. And he had China's best craftsmen prepare a retreat for him. The Palace of Tranquility and Longevity, as it was known, included 27 separate buildings and four elaborately landscaped courtyards.

The New York-based World Monuments Fund is helping Beijing's Palace Museum to renovate Qianlong's retreat.

Henry Ng, executive vice president of the World Monuments Fund, recently showed visitors Qianlong's renovated "home entertainment center."

"The room itself was the emperor's private theater," Ng said. "It really was a theater for one."

There, the emperor could watch a performance from one of two perspectives, Ng said. A typical performance might include musicians with a drum and a stringed instrument.

The theater appears to be in a garden, with wisteria vines hanging from trellises and cranes wandering among peonies. But it's all an optical illusion. The room is enveloped in trompe l'oeil murals, painted on silk in the style of the Italian Jesuit missionary who served as an artist at Qianlong's court.

18th Century High Tech

Nancy Berliner, curator of Chinese art at the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts, has been working on the interiors in Qianlong's retirement quarters. She showed off a room of carefully restored jade inlays, carved bamboo skins and double-sided silk embroidery.

"It's embroidery that looks the same on the front and on the back," she explained. "And that was an invention that occurred just about the same time that this building was being built in the late 18th century. So it was considered like the hottest new technology, and so the Qianlong Emperor wanted it, and so he filled this whole room with double-sided embroidery."

Priceless Treasures Under Dust

After the last emperor of China was expelled from the palace in 1924, Qianlong's retreat stood decayed and neglected.

Tsinghua University architecture professor Liu Chang said that when he first entered the buildings in 1994, the dust on the floor was an inch thick.

"At the time, I had a strong feeling that there were priceless treasures hidden under the dust," he said. "We could see that underneath the dust, the colors of the murals were still brilliant. There were gold bricks in the floor, and the furniture was made of precious Zitan hardwood."

Chinese and foreign artisans worked together to restore or replace the decorations, furniture and finishes. They installed modern climate control systems and lighting.

The Palace Museum is still deciding how to limit the flow of visitors to protect the fragile interior, and how to apply these conservation techniques to the rest of the Forbidden City.

Ng believes Qianlong would recognize his creation right away.

"So much of the Forbidden City is based on ceremony and grandeur, and this space — you come in here and you get a feeling of what the personal life of an emperor might have been about," Ng said.

Yet Qianlong never moved in after his retirement.

Then as now, Chinese rulers never voluntarily gave up power. Qianlong abdicated and turned the throne over to his son. But he clung to power behind the scenes until his death in 1799.

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