LUXURYCULTURE.COM - Forgotten in the Forbidden City


A meticulous restoration reveals a once forgotten part of the Forbidden City – an 18th century private palace that was built for an Emperor with an extravagant taste for Chinese art. Henry Ng takes us on a private tour.

Juanqinzhai in the Forbidden City, Beijing, was once the private palace of an Emperor with the most extravagant taste in Chinese arts. After years of neglect, it is now unveiled for the first time after a painstaking restoration. Henry Ng of the World Monuments Fund exclusively reveals how an imperial masterpiece shines again.

A 'mini Forbidden City' hidden within the actual Forbidden City, the Juanqinzhai – or Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service – is one of Beijing's most fascinating architectural masterpieces. Built between 1771 and 1776, it was planned as a residential complex for use by the Qianlong Emperor after his retirement in 1795. And this was an Emperor with the most lavish tastes, renowned for being a connoisseur of traditional Chinese arts and for pushing the imperial workshops to reach new creative heights of extravagance. His private palace – spread across two acres of formal gardens - included a private theater and imperial receiving room decorated throughout with fine bamboo thread marquetry, jade inlay and vast silk murals.

Last used in 1924, when China's final emperor, Puyi, left the Forbidden City, Juanqinzhai has never been open to the public, until now. November 2008 marked the end of a meticulous restoration that took six years of painstaking work by the Palace Museum, Beijing, and the World Monuments Fund (WMF), the leading independent organization devoted to saving the world's most treasured architectural and cultural heritage sites. The first phase of a major 12-year project that will see the restoration of the entire Qianlong Garden and its 27 structures, the Juanqinzhai now dazzles just as it did during the 18th century.

Henry Ng, Executive Vice President of the WMF, takes us on a tour of this important part of the Forbidden City and explains to us just how they recreated the lost materials and craftsmanship of imperial China.


What is your definition of luxury?

When basic needs are no longer luxuries for all.

Please describe this part of the Forbidden City. What was the intended use of these rooms?

In 1771-1776 the Qianlong Emperor created a 12-acre complex in the Forbidden City's 180-acre site, in the Northeast quadrant and created the Ningshougong (Palace of Tranquility and Longevity) district. He designed the district as a "mini Forbidden City" that he could use after his planned retirement in 1795, fulfilling a filial oath that he would reign no more than 60 years, so that his beloved grandfather the Kangxi Emperor could retain the distinction of being China's longest-reigning emperor. (Although Qianlong officially abdicated the throne in 1795, he continued to effectively rule the nation until his death in 1799.) It is the only complex in China ever built for a retired emperor. As such, the district encompassed ceremonial public spaces and courtyards in the front (southern half) and private residential and leisure spaces in the rear (northern half), including a private garden.

The garden measures slightly less than two acres and is now commonly called the Qianlong Garden. It has four courtyards and 27 pavilions and structures, but the jewel of the garden is the two-story Juanqinzhai (JQZ), The Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service, which is the final building to be encountered at the far northern end of the garden complex. It has a two-storied formal receiving room, a double-height private theatre, a study, a bedroom, as well as rooms for leisure and spiritual devotion.

The Qianlong Garden, with its 27 structures is one of the largest areas in the Forbidden City to remain relatively untouched since imperial times. It had been largely neglected after China's last emperor, Puyi, left the Forbidden City in 1924. Although many areas of the Forbidden City have since been restored and opened to the public, Juanqinzhai – as is true for all the buildings in the Qianlong Garden – remained derelict and un-restored for almost a century. It had always been off limits to the public and largely neglected after China's last emperor, Puyi, left the Forbidden City in 1924.

What are the most significant features of the rooms?

The most significant interiors and furniture in the QLG, such as those in Juanqinzhai were designed as creative ensembles with thematic motifs and precious materials. The complex was built when China was the largest, most stable and richest nation on Earth and little expense was spared in their creation. The materials included jade, porcelain, European glass and lacquer, and were executed with elaborate workmanship, such as kesi and inlays. They were carried throughout the design of the individual buildings. It is these interiors, rather than their more traditional exterior architectural envelopes, that make the QLG unique, but also make them challenging to conserve.

The two primary rooms are the formal reception room and the private theatre, each with it's own distinctive features.

The main reception room is framed by elaborate wood panels that are embedded with decorative jade cartouches and inset with panels of double-embroidered translucent silk. The wood itself on the panels is fabricated with rare examples of very fine bamboo thread marquetry, and wood carpentry techniques, such as inner-bamboo-skin carving, seen nowhere else in the Forbidden City. After a national call for qualified craftspeople, master craftsmen were identified in Dongyang in the Zhejiang province to restore these interiors in-situ.

The theater room contains JQZ's most distinctive and valuable artistic and historic feature – the trompe l'oeil murals that cover the ceilings and walls of the private theater in the building's west wing.

How important is the art and murals found in the space?

Although the use of trompe l'oeil perspective can be found in many Chinese screens and paintings of the time, the room-sized architectural trompe l'oeil paintings that define the entire theater space are rare. It was a favorite style of the Qianlong Emperor who deployed it in many imperial sites, especially in the Summer Palace outside Beijing and in the Jianfu Garden in the Forbidden City. However, virtually all of them were destroyed over time except for the ones in Juanqinzhai.

The only such murals left in China are the ones in the Qianlong Garden. And the theater pavilion in JQZ is the only room that is totally enveloped in them. They are unique in the Forbidden City and all of China and the sole surviving example of this marriage between the western art technique of illusion and Chinese motifs.

During the restoration, what new discoveries were made about the Emperor and the Forbidden City?

One of the most amazing parts of the project was the sense of discovery that propelled our work. Even in a world famous site such as the Forbidden City, which is visited by millions of tourists every year, a unique gem such as Juanqinzhai still remained hidden. When we first entered Juanqinzhai, and many of the other buildings in the Qianlong Garden, the rooms were stuffed with furniture and objects of the finest imperial quality. They were treasures, and the last time they had a life as objects of utility or beauty was when the emperor used them. They'd been forgotten ever since Puyi, left the Forbidden City in 1924 and turned the key on the locks of these rooms.

The objects helped us rediscover near-forgotten methods and techniques of Chinese craftsmanship and artistry of the highest quality. This will benefit the future direction of conservation work in the Forbidden City, and it will be one of the project's most important legacies.

One of the great mysteries about Juanqinzhai is the identity of the creator of the famous architectural mural with the crane and bamboo moon gate. Did Giuseppe Castiglione, the Jesuit painter at Qianlong's court, or one of his Chinese disciples paint it? Previous debates were based only on photographs of the mural because the painting itself was not accessible. Now for the first time a full debate can take place with the original room housing the painting accessible and cleaned. The restoration also added information for scholars—scientific analysis, pigment examinations, paper analysis and the spatial arrangement of the various individual panels that make up the mural—that might shed light on the authorship of this renowned painting.

Chinese architecture of this kind often frames the external view. Is this the case here?

Absolutely. The gardens contain 27 pavilions and buildings, many with extravagantly designed interiors, scattered along a wildly varied man-made landscape of formal courtyards, towering rockeries, grottoes and intimate spaces. There are many buildings, vistas and features "borrowed" from some of the many places that he visited during his extensive travels throughout his kingdom. And from within many of the buildings themselves, windows and door openings "frame" a natural vista that might be seemingly natural or random but was obviously very thought out.

We will continue over the next eight years to restore the other buildings in the garden and the garden itself – its pathway, rockeries, plantings and water features.

Chinese culture is sometimes said to prefer to replicate and replace rather than restore. Was that the case here or was this an actual restoration?

To answer this question accurately, one must do so in layers. When it comes to building and building materials, the Chinese and other Asian cultures can sometimes place a higher priority on functionalism and practicality – the building has to work, keep out the rain, enclose a space properly – than they might on retaining the original material. With regard to historic buildings, 1911 is a key date. Any building after 1911 is not considered historic (post imperial era) and not subject to a strict preservation ethos. If a building predates 1911 it is treated as an historic relic; however, if it has been altered or repaired after that date, that repair is not historic. So if you have an imperial building that has never been repainted or restored, they will work to keep as much of the original surface and materials intact as possible. However, if that building was repainted in the 1950s or 1970s as many buildings were, they have no qualms about repainting it again, anew.

One of the reasons the Qianlong Garden buildings are special and highly prized by the Palace Museum is that the entire complex has remained relatively unchanged since its original conception and creation in the later 18th century. Many buildings in the Forbidden City and in China were changed over their long history – palaces were converted to temples, and whole districts redesigned. But Qianlong issued an imperial edict at the time he constructed the Qianlong District that this quadrant of the Forbidden City would forever stay for the same purposes. The fact that the interiors were also never renovated or restored since their creation makes them historic artifacts and the approach was to conserve as much of what was possible and use new materials only as essential, but also to use, as much as possible, the original materials and techniques.

The vast amount of the restoration is original, very little is new and the only new materials were largely restricted to in-fills where original material was lost beyond repair. The largest area of replacement/reproductions was for imperial textiles, which are the most fragile material and deteriorated over the past 200 plus years. Most of the surviving textiles were archived although some of the best-preserved originals were installed in one room on the upper floor of the reception room so they could be studied by scholars. The other area of loss was in the faux bamboo fencing in the theater pavilion. It was an exotic lacquer-like finish that when cracked, could not be salvaged.

How did you, the WMF, find the artisans and craftsmen that worked on the restoration?

The Studio's décor had fallen into disrepair over years of neglect. Many items were beyond repair and others were far too delicate to be displayed. The WMF-PM conservation plan called for replacements that were as close as possible to the originals while adhering to modern scientific standards.

Many of the crafts needed to re-create these items were assumed to have been lost to history. However, after a June 2004 press conference announced the project, more than 20 municipalities contacted the Palace Museum, eager to share their local expertise. A treasure hunt of a kind was then underway with representatives from the Forbidden City's conservation department and WMF went to outer provinces to meet with potential craftsmen who still practiced the ancient techniques in textiles, paper making and elaborate woodworking. Most of the textile work was done by craftspeople in Suzhou where the original embroideries and brocade were made some 200 plus years ago. Master wood craftsmen were identified in Dongyang in Zhejiang province to restore these interiors in-situ. Dongyang is the historic center of traditional wood carving in China and the original panels had been made by craftsmen from this area in the 18th century.

Many of the materials used in the Forbidden City are now extinct. How did the WMF overcome this problem?

Some of the materials no longer existed – the mine from which the original jade had been extracted has long been depleted – and new sources had to be found. But of equal challenge was the lost craftsmanship. Craftsmanship of the imperial quality with which the original materials had been made vanished for the most part during the past century in China. While we could find a papermaker, for instance, we couldn't find a papermaker who was still making it to the high standard needed for this project. We brought in paper specialists from the US to work with the Chinese papermaker to upgrade their techniques to produce a conservation grade paper that could be used as the backing on the trompe l'oeil wall and ceiling paintings. In 2004, WMF and the Forbidden City searched and found artisans skilled in inner skin bamboo carving and bamboo thread marquetry; and a studio of wood carvers for the three-dimensional murals. On subsequent trips, the WMF-PM team found experts in embroidery, both for the translucent, double-sided silk panels and for the richly brocaded upholstery, and craftsmen who could still make the Studio's small, portable lanterns, the only examples of which were broken. While many of these craftspeople had expertise in these techniques, what was new for them was applying them in a situation of restoration, and not just in making new works.

More info:

World Monuments Fund

To make an appointment to view Juanqinzhai, contact the Palace Museum, Beijing.

The book, 'Juanqinzhai in the Qianlong Garden: The Forbidden City' by Nancy Berliner, is published on March 25, 2009. Click here to pre-order:

Beijing City Guide

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