Dusting Off a Serene Jewel Box
BEIJING — Like any sensible adult, the Emperor Qianlong planned ahead for his retirement. A compulsive poet who oversaw the unprecedented expansion of China’s borders, Qianlong began creating a refuge in 1771, at 61, for his golden years.
Unlike his predecessors, who ruled until death or disability, Qianlong, the fifth emperor of the Qing Dynasty, vowed to abdicate at 85 and settle down in comparatively modest quarters carved out of the Forbidden City, the imperial behemoth with 8,700 rooms that anchors the Chinese capital.
Employing the finest craftsmen of the day he spent five years building a fanciful collection of pocket gardens, banquet rooms, prayer halls and a single-seat opera house. The Palace of Tranquillity and Longevity, as it is known, would be a place to meditate, write poetry and enjoy the reviving company of his many concubines.
But like many men with abundant power and large egos, Qianlong refused to take a final bow. Even after handing the throne to his son, he kept a firm hand on his empire and remained in the Forbidden City’s sprawling royal quarters. He died, at 89, without ever having spent a night in his retirement home.
Emperors came and went, insurrections raged, but somehow Qianlong’s two-acre jewel box remained untouched. In 1924, when China’s civilian rulers tossed the last emperor out of the Forbidden City, the gates to Qianlong’s miniature palace were chained shut and largely forgotten.
For decades stories circulated among art historians of a mothballed Qing Dynasty retreat, its embroidered thrones thick with dust. Word eventually reached the World Monuments Fund, a nonprofit organization dedicated to saving imperiled historic sites across the globe. Since 1965 the fund has restored scores of Eastern European synagogues and South American cathedrals — even Ernest Shackleton’s expedition hut in Antarctica — but a Chinese palace interior was something entirely new.
“We had serious misgivings, especially given the deterioration, and we wondered if it would be possible,” said Bonnie Burnham, the organization’s president.
Six years and $3 million later the first building to be restored, Juanqinzhai, or Studio of Exhaustion From Diligent Service, has just been completed. It was an ambitious endeavor, made all the more complex by the delicate dance that takes place whenever Chinese and Westerners are forced to reconcile divergent sensibilities.
In a country where historic preservation usually entails razing a structure and replacing it with a brightly painted replica, Juanqinzhai is something of a milestone. The pavilion’s slavishly faithful restoration is an archetype that both Chinese and American conservators hope to replicate over the next eight years, as the remaining 26 buildings are refurbished. The $15 million effort will be financed by the Americans, with much of the work carried out by employees of the Palace Museum, which runs the Forbidden City.
The Americans contribute their well-practiced conservation techniques; the Chinese, their deep understanding of Qianlong’s architectural tastes and decorative predilections. The supporting cast includes aging artisans whose rarefied skills somehow survived the Culture Revolution, when traditional craftsmanship was considered bourgeois and worthy of punishment.
Zheng Xinmiao, the director of the Palace Museum, described the collaborative process as “charting uncharted waters.” “It gave us precious experience in both theory and practice,” he said during the ribbon cutting in November.
Juanqinzhai, which is to open to the public in the coming months, brings to life a level of detail rarely seen in historic Chinese buildings. Conceived as a pleasure pavilion, it is a simple rectangular box dolled up inside with translucent embroidered screens, jade-inlaid wall hangings and a distinctively Chinese form of carved decoration that involves layering bamboo skin atop dark zitan wood. The pavilion is strewn with upholstered thrones — anywhere an emperor sat was a throne — and cloisonné tablets bearing Qianlong-inspired couplets.
The pavilion’s tour de force is the private theater, which provided the emperor with a cozy perch to view chaqu, a form of opera invented by a commoner that became all the rage in 18th-century Beijing. Qianlong, who supposedly composed 40,000 poems, became a chaqu aficionado, spending long hours writing stanzas about dreamy landscapes, flower picking and the glories of a stiff drink.
For art historians Juanqinzhai’s most beguiling elements are the panoramic murals of the pavilion painted on silk. Wisteria cascades from the ceiling and magpies soar over the tiled roofs of the palace. The blend of traditional Chinese painting with the Western use of perspective and optical illusion is a testament to Qianlong’s embrace of Giuseppe Castiglione, an Italian artist and missionary who lived in Beijing at the time. The emperor was a voracious collector and art patron who encouraged his court painters to study Castiglione’s work.
Derided in the past for his family’s “barbarian” origins in Manchuria, not part of China at the time, Qianlong has been enjoying something of a renaissance in recent years. In this new official narrative he represents an era of military strength and material wealth before China succumbed to corruption, foreign domination and, as many Chinese see it, national humiliation. Despite the Qing Dynasty’s non-Chinese beginnings, Qianlong has been transformed into an idealized Chinese ruler, said Geremie R. Barmé, professor of Asian history at the Australian National University.
Mr. Barmé, the author of “The Forbidden City,” a cultural history published in 2008 by Harvard University Press, takes a jaundiced view of the Qianlong revival and in particular a spate of recent architectural restorations in Beijing that embrace the “Qianlong style.” He said that many historic buildings, including Juanqinzhai, were associated with more than one emperor and that preservation efforts should reveal that truth.
“I think the results are lovely,” he said, “but after a while it gets tiresome to see everything restored back to this presumed last great moment in Chinese history.”
More Articles in Arts » A version of this article appeared in print on January 1, 2009, on page C1 of the New York edition.