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A Walk Through the Qianlong Garden

Tucked discretely into the northeastern corner of the Forbidden City and removed from the palace’s sprawling stone squares, towering Imperial architecture, and hordes of tourists—each sporting the bright, colorful kitsch of their respective guide services—the Qianlong Garden rests, quietly distilling in nearly a century of forgotten tranquility.

Completed in 1776, the garden served as a retreat for the Qianlong Emperor, who used the space for poetry, art, music, reading, theater, and studies. The intimacy of the Qianlong Garden—just two acres in size—is breathtaking. On the day we visited in October, an overcast sky—a Beijing trademark—has settled over the Garden. Twisting, gnarled rockeries, narrow corridors and stairways, and tree-covered courtyards gently guide the visitor through the emperor’s sanctuary. Time seems to stand still.

In 2002, WMF partnered with the Palace Museum to conserve the garden. Juanqinzhai, the first structure completed, speaks to the wealth, brilliance, curiosity, and ambition of the Qianlong Emperor. Within the confines of Juanqinzhai—translated as the Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service—stunning details cover the surfaces of every room. From carved-bamboo skin and bamboo marquetry to colorful trompe l’oeil and intricately woven silk fabrics, the interiors of Juanqinzhai illuminate the splendor of the Qianlong Emperor’s reign.

Just as spectacular are the spaces untouched by modern life. Devoid of electricity, the interiors are illuminated only by what few rays penetrate the shuttered windows. Wallpaper hangs listlessly, graying with age. When the last emperor of China—Puyi—left the Forbidden City in 1924, the site was largely abandoned, and few entered in subsequent decades. Navigating carefully through the dimly lit rooms, the intimacy and scale become even more apparent. Small, quiet, and serene, these were places devoted to the Qianlong Emperor’s passions, far removed from the distractions of society.

Over the next eight years, WMF will work with the Palace Museum to restore the remaining 26 buildings in the Qianlong Garden. CRAFT, a beautiful new facility created by WMF and the Palace Museum in early 2011, teaches Chinese conservators how to meld contemporary science with traditional craftsmanship techniques to apply towards conservation of the buildings and objects in the garden. When complete, the 27 structures that comprise the Qianlong Garden will not only serve as a testament to the vision of the Qianlong Emperor, but as model for conservation in China.