Private rooms in the Forbidden City shine again

Lavish restoration of Emperor Qianlong’s bedrooms and theatre at China’s Palace Museum

BEIJING. The lavish private bedrooms and theatre of Emperor Qianlong (a Qing Dynasty emperor from 1735 to 1796) have been restored to their former glory in China’s Palace Museum in Beijing, more popularly known as the Forbidden City.

This is phase one of a major restoration project by the World Monuments Fund (WMF) in partnership with the Palace Museum, scheduled for completion in 2018. Twenty-eight buildings are being restored, a total of 6,400 sq. m that make up the Qianlong Gardens (officially titled Ningshougong, “the Palace of Tranquil Longevity”).

The Emperor’s personal rooms—the Juanqinzhai, literally “the studio of exhaustion from diligent service”—form part of the Qianlong Gardens, which were originally planned as a miniature complex within the Forbidden City for use during the Emperor’s planned retirement. The rooms were built between 1771 and 1776, when Emperor Qianlong was in his 30s.

The sumptuous restored theatre was accessed by the Emperor via a secret door embedded in a mirror in his bedroom. The theatre’s walls are decorated with intricate hand-painted murals that transport the viewer into a Chinese garden, with a small stage for performers.

Jian Lun Yi, country representative for the WMF and a project manager for Tsinghua University’s Cultural Heritage Conservation Centre, told The Art Newspaper that a total of $15m has been earmarked for the restoration of the Qianlong Gardens, with $3.3m apportioned to the Juanqinzhai.

The complex restoration work of the “nanmu” (the now extinct “southern wood” loved by emperors) and the large murals—painted with traditional Chinese pigment paints—mainly involved craft techniques from southern China, working with bamboo used in intricate thread marquetry, embroidery and hand-printed wallpaper.

The artefacts, wallpaper and murals have remained relatively untouched since Emperor Qianlong’s reign. Ms Jian said that the rooms had been used for storage until recently. They were originally floor heated, and the restorers have installed modern temperature control apparatus to keep them at an ideal temperature and humidity for preservation.

Several calligraphic works hand painted by the Emperor, well known for his wit and love of the arts, have also been restored and hung. The Emperor’s bed has retained the skeleton of a bat found by the restorers in a compartment (dead bats were considered auspicious, according to Ms Jian).

The key piece of the restoration is a large trompe l’oeil-style painting in the theatre, sometimes accredited to Giuseppe Castiglione, a Jesuit painter living in China. Yang Zehau, who led the restoration of the painting, told The Art Newspaper that the crane in the painting was likely to be by Castiglione, and the scenery by other painters. He suggested that the bamboo lattices were added to the painting at a later date. The 170 sq. m work suffered from water damage, mould, abrasion and other issues. “We used dough to clean the painting,” said Mr Yang. His team of eight restorers, including a WMF expert, worked for seven years on the piece. “We spent about one month per panel. We couldn’t use traditional restoration methods for Chinese paintings, so we had to spend a lot of time thinking about how to do it.”

Juanqinzhai will be open to the public on a limited basis. Ms Jian said that discussions are still underway as to the details of the arrangements.

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