Qianlong Garden Restoration Project

The Qianlong Garden (built 1771–1776) is a unique architectural and historic complex that has survived from China’s imperial past. Measuring approximately two acres, it was created as part of the Qianlong District and intended to be a mini-Forbidden City within the Forbidden City itself, for the anticipated retirement of Emperor Qianlong (r. 1736–1795). It is the private imperial creation of China’s longest-reigning sovereign, who was as renowned for his aesthetic taste as for his political leadership. Due to a number of fortuitous circumstances it remains relatively intact, although it has been neglected for over a century, and its famed interiors are threatened by serious disrepair. It is the only private imperial garden built for an emperor’s retirement. This distinction is reflected in the layout of the buildings and gardens among its four courtyards, the extensive and unusual use of rockery gardens that are perfectly harmonized within the site, and most of all in the extravagantly executed Qing interiors, which Chinese scholars consider to be the most sophisticated and developed period of interior design in China’s history.

They were made with the best materials and artistry that were available—meticulously crafted and elegantly decorated with bamboo marquetry, white jade cartouches, trompe l’oeil paintings, and embroidered satin sitting areas. The four surviving room-size trompe l’oeil silk murals, with Western influence and perspective, are unique not only in the Forbidden City but in all of China. The Lodge of Retirement, located in the Garden’s fourth courtyard, is considered a high point of Qing Dynasty interior design. While tourists have had limited access to some of the courtyards, the interiors and private garden have never been open to the public. The Garden survived successive generations intact because of a remarkable imperial edict that Emperor Qianlong issued during his lifetime: that this area of the Forbidden City would be preserved in future years as The Significance and Survival of the Garden part of a palace for “super sovereigns.” Were it not for that edict—in effect, an early “landmarks preservation law”—it is likely that this complex would have been significantly altered by subsequent reigning sovereigns in the Forbidden City, as this was a common practice. In more recent history, the Lodge and the other buildings in the Qianlong Garden—like the Forbidden City itself—survived the ravages of the Cultural Revolution because of the protection afforded by Chou En-lai during that period. For much of the 20th century, the lack of available financial resources protected the site from alteration—a form of benign neglect. Thus, patronage and poverty have secured this site for history, and it is now poised for restoration and presentation to a large public audience at a propitious moment.

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