November 10, 2008 / 12:07 PM / 10 years ago

Imperial retreat dazzles after decades of decay

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.

Experts were brought in from major foreign museums to help with lighting and moderating the impact of Beijing’s harsh climate. But the biggest challenge was finding experts in skills that even in the 18th Century were rare and expensive.

“Finding the craftsmen who knew these specialized techniques was a very difficult thing to do,” said Nancy Berliner, curator of Chinese Art at the Peabody Essex Museum, underlining the extreme luxury of the white jade, hard wood, fine carved ‘inner bamboo skin’ and double-sided embroidery.

“It is as if everything is gold-plated,” she added.

But the pull of diligent service — or raw power — proved stronger than the idyll of comfortable, contemplative retirement.

The Qianlong emperor never spent a single night in his retirement home, preferring a complex closer to the heart of the palace where his son was nominally in charge.

“He wanted to keep political control, even when his son was ruling, though we know later emperors came here,” Berliner added.

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