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Beijing treasures: a hidden world on view

In a rare exhibit, treasures from a Chinese emperor's private retreat in the Forbidden City are on display at the Peabody Essex Museum.

By April AustinContributor / September 24, 2010

The Qianlong Garden complex consists of 27 structures on two acres of land in Beijing’s Forbidden City. The complex is now being restored. Meanwhile, a collection of artifacts from the royal compound is touring the US.

Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum


As Americans declared their independence in 1776, on the other side of the world, an introspective emperor was celebrating the completion of his opulent retirement compound in Beijing's Forbidden City.

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The Qianlong Emperor spared no expense in assembling this group of 27 structures, including pavilions, gazebos, and a private theater, on two acres in the northeast corner of the Forbidden City, a fortified enclosure that was China's seat of power for 500 years.

Although he kept other palaces, the emperor intended the Qianlong Garden complex to be his personal retreat. To that end, he commissioned the finest Ching Dynasty-era craftsmen to create exquisite furnishings, carvings, screens, and wall murals.

One hundred and forty-eight years later, in 1924, the last emperor, Puyi, left the Forbidden City, sealing the gates behind him. In all that time, successive emperors had followed an edict forbidding changes to the Qianlong Garden.

Revolutions came and went. China became a Communist state and eventually opened parts of the vast Forbidden City to its citizens and tourists. But the Qianlong Garden remained closed and forgotten, asleep beneath layers of dust.

Now, the emperor's retreat is being uncovered and restored, and 90 of its furnishings have arrived in the United States for a rare showing before they are permanently reinstalled in the Qianlong Garden. "The Emperor's Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City" is on display at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Mass., and will travel to New York and Milwaukee in 2011.

IN PICTURES: Treasures from the Forbidden City

The essence of the exhibition is not about specific objects, as beautiful as they are, says Henry Ng, executive vice president of the World Monuments Fund, which is involved with the restoration. "These objects are the physical manifestation of traditional Chinese values. They help us understand the role of Confucianism, Buddhism, nature, and harmony in Chinese culture."

The emperor was a powerful military leader who expanded Chinese territory, but he was also a patron of the arts, a scholar of Confucian philosophy, and a follower of Tibetan Buddhism. His life was circumscribed within the walls of the Forbidden City and so everything he encountered re-inforced his image of himself and his nation as supreme.

"He could be compared to Louis XIV of France," says Maxwell Hearn, curator of Asian art at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The magnitude of cultural ambition, the extraordinarily embellished world, the lack of impetus to look outward. They shared those characteristics."

The Qianlong Emperor may have lived an insular life, but he knew about European culture, particularly the architecture of the Versailles Palace and the latest painting styles.