For centuries it was one of China's best-kept secrets. Tucked away in the northeast corner of the Forbidden City in Beijing is a leafy landscape garden that the Qianlong emperor built for his retirement after a 60-year reign between 1736 and 1795.
Also known as the Ningshou Gong Garden, its construction took six years (1771-1776). However, the entire complex was gradually cut off from the outside world. It was left undisturbed until 10 years ago, when the Palace Museum - which runs the Forbidden City complex - teamed up with the New York-based World Monuments Fund on a project to restore the garden as well as the 27 buildings inside to their former glory. And for the first time in its 240-year history, the doors were opened to an enclave meant strictly for the enjoyment of the emperor alone. What surprised researchers and conservationists most were how well-maintained and preserved everything were.
'The last emperor [Pu Yi] turned the key and left it in 1924. The garden was left dormant until 2000, so everything was left there and there was just a lot of dust,' says Henry Tzu Ng, executive vice president of the World Monuments Fund.
Among other factors, the Ningshou Gong Garden was closed to the public because it was an intimately scaled private retreat, Ng says. 'None of the buildings were really appropriate for public access as it was made to the scale of one person. It's a very meditative space. You can hardly imagine that but there is just enough room for the emperor to walk through. It was not meant for attendants or guards. It's as if he wanted his own world.'
But thanks to the project's education and outreach goals, the Hong Kong public can now share the emperor's world through a new exhibition titled 'A Lofty Retreat from the Red Dust: The Secret Garden of Emperor Qianlong', to be held at the Hong Kong Museum of Art from June 22 to October 14.
On show are 77 sets - or 93 individual exhibits - of paintings and calligraphy, furniture, murals, architectural elements and religious art on loan from the Palace Museum that will shed light on the emperor's philosophical thoughts and religious beliefs, and his pursuit of longevity and eternal bliss, according to its curator Rose Lee Wing-chong.
'We want to create a show that shows Qianlong in a different role, not as the emperor but a devoted father, a filial son, a hunter and a scholar,' she says. 'So there is a set of colour paintings showing the emperor as a young man riding on horseback as well as his calligraphic works. Since the garden was created for his retirement, what the emperor planned there reflected his ideals and longings, showing his personal liking as well as scholarly thinking.'
The highlights of the exhibition, some of which had never left the capital before, include three life-size wall murals that come from two pavilions: the Yucuixuan (Bower of Purest Jade) and the Yanghejingshe (Supreme Chamber of Cultivating Harmony). A newly restored mural from Yanghejingshe features an outdoor scene with children flying kites, says Lee.
It is believed there are fewer than 10 of these murals left in the whole of the mainland, of which five are in this garden, in situ, in the buildings in which they were painted.
Nancy Berliner, curator of Chinese art at the Peabody Essex Museum who hosted the US edition of the exhibition two years ago, says the walls and ceilings of some of these buildings were decorated with trompe-l'oeil paintings. The technique was brought to China from Europe by missionary artist Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), who arrived in Beijing in 1715 and served three emperors as a court painter. The realism of his murals so astonished his Chinese patrons that Qianlong commanded Castiglione to teach his techniques, including the use of three-point perspective and the effects of light on volume, to Chinese artists in the imperial atelier.
Castiglione died several years before the emperor began planning his garden, so it was his Chinese disciples who rendered the surprisingly three-dimensional effects portrayed throughout the garden interiors, Berliner says.
Most of these, as well as other special architectural features of the pavilions in the garden, have remained intact. Ng, of the World Monuments Fund, attributes that to several reasons, one being the emperor himself.
'Usually when an emperor dies, [the court] would redo things and reconfigure the space or redecorate. But because in Qianlong's time he had issued an imperial edict that said that after he was gone, he'd like the space to continue to be used for the purposes he'd designed it, so in a way he almost gave the earliest historic preservation edict,' Ng says. 'That meant there was a lot of history that could still be discovered about Chinese architecture 20 to 30 years ago.'
That these large murals are available for public viewing today is due largely to the conservationists - both from the Palace Museum and its American partners - who painstakingly restored the ancient artworks using modern techniques and traditional Chinese craftsmanship.
Ng says the mainland still possesses an intangible heritage in terms of techniques and materials that had not been seen since imperial times, and the World Monuments Fund felt it was important to acknowledge and understand these craftsmanship and traditions.
'The Chinese government wanted to preserve this site using a method that preserves and uses traditional techniques. They didn't want to just re-do it, they want to understand how it was made; they wanted to respect the traditional craftsmanship but use the latest scientific conservation principles and approaches that reach the highest standards,' he says.
'On the Palace Museum side, they learnt the international approaches to conservation, but the American team, although they come from institutions that have Chinese collections, they've never worked on a site like this where everything is in situ so they are seeing materials and methods of production they'd never seen in a museum collection.'
Of the 27 pavilions in Ningshou Gong Garden, Juanqinzhai (Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service), is the only one that is completely restored (so its interiors will not be touring). Completed in 2008, Juanqinzhai is noted for the unique trompe l'oeil paintings on silk that adorn the ceiling and walls of its private theatre, and its jewel-box-like reception room decorated with fine Chinese woodcrafting techniques.
The project - which is expected to be completed in 2019 - is a challenge, especially when it comes to sourcing materials for the restoration work.
Ng cites the example of the conservation team trying to source the right type of materials for the wall murals from Anhui province. These are made of layers of fine mulberry papers - and 'paper of that quality has not been made since imperial times, perhaps the emperor especially commissioned it but there hasn't been a tradition within China to use the most original methods and materials,' he says.
'Originally the Western conservationists were going to buy the paper from conservation paper makers ... but then they said they didn't want to buy from the market, they wanted to make it internally, within China, who invented paper. This was imperial paper and we should try to remake it.
'We worked with a paper maker in Anhui province, this guy in the mountains, and produced paper of a quality that was even better than the original. So it was made in China by a Chinese paper maker. This is part of the living heritage tradition that the project is trying to continue.'
The whole restoration project is expected to cost US$25 million. The Palace Museum is contributing US$5 million, largely to cover conservation of the exteriors and infrastructure of the garden's buildings. The World Monuments Fund - one of the first international organisations to resume preservation work at the historic temple complexes in Angkor in the immediate aftermath of the Khmer Rouge regime, and has worked with conservation groups in nearly every part of Asia - is raising the remaining US$20 million.
Once the project is completed, the artwork and artefacts will remain on site so 'A Lofty Retreat from the Red Dust: The Secret Garden of Emperor Qianlong' may be the first - and last - time to see these precious historical items up close.
'A Lofty Retreat from the Red Dust: The Secret Garden of Emperor Qianlong', June 22-Oct 14, Hong Kong Museum of Art, 10 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Mon-Tue, Fri-Sun, HK$20, Wed, $10. Inquiries: 2721 0116