Treasures from the Qianlong Garden in the Forbidden City

Students of Chinese art, culture, history and lovers of magnificent, exquisitely rendered objects should be aware of  a very impressive but fleeting exhibition currently on view at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA.  I recently had the opportunity to spend a day lingering over this glorious exhibition ( and some of the rest of the museum as well ) and highly recommend it to anyone able to make the trip to Salem.

The exhibition is The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City and it is a first-hand look at “ninety objects of ceremony and leisure” – furnishings, screens and panels, murals, jades, cloisonne and other priceless possessions – that once belonged to the Qianlong Emperor ( r. 1736-1796).

In advance of his retirement, the emperor commissioned the construction of a private compound and garden within the Forbidden City, complete with reception halls, study rooms and shrines for his personal enjoyment and relaxation.

The Qianlong Emperor was one of the richest and most powerful men in the world in his day, and he outfit his private rooms with objects made from the most precious materials by the best skilled artists and craftsmen. It is these personal objects of the Qianlong Emperor that are on exhibit at the PEM.

According to a press release from the PEM, the Qianlong Emperor was “a connoisseur, scholar and devout Buddhist. He created a luxurious garden compound to serve throughout his retirement as a secluded place of contemplation, repose and entertainment.”

Nancy Berlinger, curator of Chinese art at the PEM, is quoted as saying ” the treasures are from a part of the forbidden City that’s so different from the rest of the Forbidden City. These objects were made for a context that’s about being contemplative. It’s not about being big, official, national, a victorious ruler or emperor. It’s about being a scholar, and Confucian and a Buddhist.”

The majority of buildings in the Forbidden City ( some 179 acres houses 980 buildings ) have been shuttered since the last emperor left the Forbidden City in 1924 and have never been opened to or visited since by the public. The Qianlong Gardens ( also known as the Tranquility and Longevity Palace Garden ) is now part of a decade-long, multi-million dollar conservation initiative being undertaken by the World Monuments Fund and the Palace Museum in Beijing.

So, what better thing to do with such valuable objects than to pack them up and send them ‘on the road’ and out of harms way, so to speak. Which is exactly why the treasures are making a tour of the USA before returning to their rightful place in the renovated buildings in the Qianlong Garden. (Just thinking about how these objects are moved, packed, insured and coddled before, during and after shipment is a process that I would love to see documented on film).

Not only is it a thrill to see workmanship such as this on the highest level of achievement, but I felt a tremendous amount of  awe viewing these masterpieces because they have never before been seen by ‘the general public’.

In fact, except for a handful of Asian art experts, conservation workers, government officials and museum staff,  visitors in the USA who view these objects at the three chosen museums will be seeing these treasures for the first time, even before they have been  exhibited in China.

The decision to bring the story of the restoration of the Forbidden City and the Qianlong Emperor’s treasures to the American people first was made by the Chinese government and the Palace Museum in the spirit of cultural awareness, education and cooperation among  museums.

These objects will travel only to three museums in the USA ( PEM in Salem, the Met in NYC and the Milwaukee Art Museum ) before returning to China.

In recent years the PEM has also received much praise for one of their permanent exhibits – the Chinese house known as Yin Yu Tang. This is a wealthy merchants house in the Chinese vernacular style built in the early 1800’s in the rural village of Huang Cun in Anhui Province.

After nearly 200 years of continuous family living, the house was no longer lived in by any of the original family members. It was dis-assembled, brought to Salem, and carefully re-constructed on the museum grounds. One visits the old house, which is furnished as it might have been when people lived there, and an audio tour allows the voices of family members to escort visitors thru the rooms with stories and bits of history.

There is nothing like this authentic Chinese house anywhere in the USA, and the juxtaposition of the simple life of the family who occupied Yin Tu Tang and the sublime treasures from the private quarters of the Qianlong Emperor makes a striking study in contrasts of individual status, living environments and material possessions.

The mission of a world-class museum is to expose visitors to a kaleidoscope of wonders about culture, tradition, the history of people, places, wildlife and things on earth. The PEM should be applauded for the exemplary work that they have put into bringing these diverse and compelling aspects of China to its visitors.

The PEM website is worth a visit, also – there is much to see and learn. Visitors to the museum can also purchase advance tickets for viewing these two exhibits online.

The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City’, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts, September 14 – January 9 2011.  www.pem.org

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