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Reinventing Beijing

Tourists gather in the Forbidden City, which is now being extensively restored.
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Photo: Dean Kaufman

The current restoration of the Forbidden City is the largest undertaken in generations and the most comprehensive ever. With assistance from conservators provided by Italy’s Cultural Ministry, the exterior of the Hall of Supreme Harmony is being overhauled, many of the palace’s extensive yellow-glazed roofs are being retiled, and new wooden pillars are being erected in place of rotting supports.

At the northeast corner of the former imperial palace, away from the tourist hordes who swarm through the vast complex (there were 8 million visitors last year alone), the World Monuments Fund is helping to restore a secluded area known as the Qianlong Garden. The garden, which includes two dozen pavilions, was created as a retirement retreat by Emperor Qianlong, a patron of the arts and prolific poet who reigned from 1735 to 1799. Under his rule, the empire reached new heights in terms of power, geographic expanse, wealth, and influence.

The lavish pavilion interiors, designed with an extraordinary refinement reflecting Chinese supremacy during Qianlong’s reign, have never been open to the public, and most have remained shuttered since the abdication of the last emperor early in the 20th century. Qianlong invited the Italian painter and Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Castiglione to help decorate the rooms with colorful trompe l’oeil silk murals that unite Western techniques with Asian themes. Set among intricately embroidered panels, they are juxtaposed with walls covered in bamboo-thread marquetry, carvings in red sandalwood and rare zitan rosewood, and jade ornamentation.

Much of the Forbidden City comprises vast open spaces that were the scene of imperial court ceremonies. But the Qianlong Garden is "one of the few places where you get a sense of the emperor’s private life," Henry Tzu Ng, the WMF’s executive vice president, says as museum watchmen open rusting padlocks to permit us entry into the long cloistered realm.

Once inside, we see how the retreat has suffered from neglect over decades of Communist rule, when haphazard alterations and slipshod repairs were made. Museum staff, inexperienced in working with delicate interiors, installed fire alarms with little thought given to their placement, often hammering nails through the delicate, 18th-century wallpaper. Strips of tattered wall coverings dangle in the dimly lit chambers, cracks cover the exposed wood beams, and layers of lacquer are peeling away. A thick coat of dust mutes the original precision of brocaded, carved, and inlaid details.

One of the chief obstacles to restoring these opulent quarters is that many of the requisite craftsmen are no longer alive. But the Palace Museum has begun seeking out skilled artisans capable of replicating the fine kesi embroidery and reproducing the unusual lamps used to illuminate the rooms. "It’s a great challenge, because a lot of the techniques have been lost completely. We’ve had to investigate how to bring them back," Cao Jinglou, former head of the conservation department, says.

After a yearlong search, the museum located workers who could produce a durable, traditional mulberry-bark backing for the fragile silk paintings, locating them in the southeastern Anhui province. Another craftsman, who had special training in transforming dried goats’ horns into globular lamps such as those found in the imperial palace, was discovered near Nanjing. The 74-year-old man, the third generation of his family to make the lamps—first for the palace and later for the museum established in the former imperial residence—was forced to abandon his craft in the 1960’s, during the Cultural Revolution, when Red Guards destroyed his tools. In subsequent decades, he worked in a cannery.

The Palace Museum has pledged to help him recreate those tools and revive his craft, which dates to the seventh-century Tang Dynasty. "There are millions of people like him who had their lives destroyed," says Ng, who traveled from Beijing with conservators to meet the Nanjing master. "This might help redeem not only his craft but also his dignity."

In recent years, a broader reevaluation of the importance of China’s imperial heritage has brought about a new esteem for these incredible, long neglec­ted rooms. Chinese landmark authorities recognize that their isolation from foreign influence under Mao prevented them from acquiring outside expertise. "They were in the refrigerator for many years, and they’re desperate to catch up with the rest of the world in terms of conservation," says John Stubbs, WMF vice president for field projects. Through the WMF, Western experts are now helping the Chinese learn modern conservation techniques, and a new conservation studio has been created within the Forbidden City. The Qianlong Garden paintings are being repaired here, and when I visit, I see a central silk panel that has been restored to stunning effect. It shows a life-size red-crowned crane—a symbol of longevity in Chinese tradition—peering out amid clusters of pink and white peonies. Here is a vivid result of importing Western conservation practices and awareness, and I consider whether this might also spur China to restore not just key relics and landmarks but also save a greater part of the capital’s historic fabric. I hope so.

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