China Dusts Off, Restores Emperor's Hideaway American experts are at work in Beijing's Forbidden City, helping tp preserve a long-neglected treasure: the elaborate private retreat of the 18th century Chinese emperor Qianlong.
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China Dusts Off, Restores Emperor's Hideaway

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China Dusts Off, Restores Emperor's Hideaway

China Dusts Off, Restores Emperor's Hideaway

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

In Beijing, tucked away in the Forbidden City lies a palace within a palace. It was built to serve as the private living quarters of one of China's most celebrated rulers, but the space has been sealed off and collecting dust for decades. Now, with help from American conservators, the palace has been restored, as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports.

ANTHONY KUHN: Chinese know the Qianlong emperor as the Manchu monarch who ruled over the world's riches nation at the zenith of its power. In 1771, when Qianlong was 61, he had China's finest craftsmen prepare a retirement retreat for him. The Palace of Tranquility and Longevity, as it was known, included 27 separate buildings and four elaborately landscaped courtyards.

The Palace Museum now administers the Forbidden City. The New York-based World Monuments Fund is helping the Palace Museum to renovate Qianlong's retreat. The fund's executive vice president, Henry Ng, shows visitors Qianlong's recently-renovated home entertainment center.

Mr. HENRY NG (Executive Vice President, World Monuments Fund): Well, the room itself was the emperor's private theater. As you can see, it's really a theater for one, where the emperor could have a performance sitting on the lower level or an upper throne with two different perspectives. And on the stage itself, there would be a performance - two performers, one with a drum and one with a stringed instrument, and they'll perform for the emperor.

(Soundbite of Chinese woman singing)

KUHN: The theater appears to be in a garden with wisteria vines hanging from trellises and cranes wandering among peonies. Actually, 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.

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

Ms. NANCY BERLINER (Curator, Chinese Art, Peabody Essex Museum, Massachusetts): So, it's embroidery that looks the same on the front and on the back. 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 this double-sided embroidery.

KUHN: 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.

Professor LIU CHANG (Architecture, Tsinghua University): (Chinese spoken)

KUHN: At the time, he said, I had a strong feeling that there were priceless treasures hidden underneath the dust. We could see that, under 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 considering 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. That's expected to take until at least 2017. The World Monument Fund's Henry Ng says that Qianlong's retreat holds a special place in the Palace.

Mr. NG: Right there, you have a very, very personal insight into the emperor. Where as so much of the rest of the Forbidden City is based on, you know, ceremony and grandeur, in this space, I think, you come in here, and you get a feeling of what the personal life, an inner life of an emperor might have been about.

KUHN: As it turned out, though, Qianlong never moved in here after his retirement. Then, as now, Chinese rulers never voluntarily gave up their power, even if they retired. So it was with Qianlong, who abdicated to his son, but then clung to power behind the scenes until his death in 1799. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

BLOCK: You can see photos of the interior of the Imperial Palace at npr.org.

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