Imperial retreat dazzles after decades of decay

Mon Nov 10, 2008 7:04am EST
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By Emma Graham-Harrison

BEIJING (Reuters Life!) - The private theater has only one seat, and it is a throne. The reception area is decorated with a wood so nearly extinct that using it screams wealth and power.

The 'Studio of Exhaustion From Diligent Service' was built nearly two centuries ago to soften the retirement of one of China's greatest emperors, packed with luxury to help him while away the hours without an empire to run.

But for years one of China's most lavish and innovative interiors was locked away in a corner of the capital's Forbidden City, visited only by dust and decay.

Now a painstaking multi-million dollar effort has restored its full glory, and set a template for repairing the most delicate cultural treasures in a country which for years has been focused more on politics and growth than preserving the past.

"When we first arrived, it felt like the last emperor had just turned the key in the door and left," said Henry Tzu Ng, from the World Monuments Fund, which paid for the transformation back to the interiors the Qianlong emperor would have known.

The theater roof appears to be a bamboo trellis groaning under the weight of a wisteria vine in full bloom -- a silk trompe l'oeil painting commissioned by an emperor fascinated with recently-arrived European ideas of perspective in painting.

The Forbidden City was a winter palace, but on the walls cranes cavort in summer gardens, which together with underfloor heating and the extravagant roof aimed to take the aging occupant's mind off the snow and bitter winds outside.

"This room is unique in the Forbidden City," Ng added, as musicians recreated the traditional opera the emperor loved.   Continued...