The Emperor’s Secret Garden

Nancy Berliner

Nancy Berliner Exhibitions

  • Fig. 1. Mural of an interior scene from the Yucuixuan (Bower of Purest Jade) in the Qianlong Garden, Beijing, c. 1776. Ink and colors on paper, 10 feet, 4 ¾ inches by 12 feet, ⅜ inch. Many artists from the ateliers of the Qianlong emperor (r. 1736–1796) contributed paintings to the scene, among them Yao Wenhan (active c. 1739–1752), who executed the view in the center of the back wall. All photographs are © Palace Museum, Beijing.
  • Fig. 3. Hanging panel, c. 1776. Sandalwood, jade, lapis lazuli, malachite, zitan, and glass; 43 ½ by 75 ¾ inches. This panel, one of a pair from the Juanqinzhai (Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service), the northernmost building of the Qianlong Garden, depicts one of the Qianlong emperor’s favorite themes, an ancient plum blossom tree, symbol of endurance, purity, and the coming of spring.
  • Fig. 2. Court fan, one of a pair, from the Yanghe Jingshe (Supreme Chamber of Cultivating Harmony), c. 1776 . Wood, brass, and paint; 38 ⅜ by 25 ¼ inches. The fans are mounted on poles 69 ⅞ inches tall. Ceremonial fans that either incorporated eagle, peacock, and duck feathers, or, like this one, had those feathers painted on them in trompe-l’oeil fashion, were ceremonially placed on either side of the imperial throne to indicate the emperor’s prestige.
  • Fig. 4. Gu form vessel, Shang dynasty, c. 1600–1046 b.c. Bronze; height 10 ⅝, diameter 5 ⅞ inches. The Qianlong emperor was a collector of ancient bronzes and often displayed them, as was popular at the time, in room settings. In the mural from Yucuixuan, ancient bronze vessels sit on the long altar table.
  • Fig. 5. Mandala, eighteenth century. Cloisonné enamel; height 22 ½, diameter 19 inches. In addition to being a strong adherent of Confucianism and Chinese arts and literature, the Qianlong emperor was also a devoted Buddhist and followed the Tibetan Buddhist traditions. This is one of several three-dimensional cloisonné mandalas he commissioned during his lifetime.
  • Fig. 6. Partition from the Yanqulou (Building of Extended Delight), c. 1776. Zitan, silk gauze, and porcelain; height 66 ¼, width 33 ½ inches. The
    Qianlong emperor found innovative ways to ornament lattice partitions in his garden. The ones depicted in the mural have paintings inset in the upper portions. Those in the Yanqulou have porcelain insets framed by the precious tropical wood zitan.
  • Fig. 7. Couch bed with footstool from the Xishangting (Pavilion of the Purification Ceremony), c. 1776. Rootwood; height of couch 45 ½, length 93 ½, depth 60 ¾ inches. A woman and her child in the Yucuixuan mural play on a
    couch-bed, known in Chinese as a luohan chuan, or “arhat bed,” which were often placed in public rooms and used for sitting or napping. This rootwood example ultimately derives from furniture made from naturally shaped wood
    first used by Buddhists, Daoists, and scholars who wanted to express their resonance with the ways of nature. In the eighteenth century, this rustic became popular in the palace for casual seating by the emperor and the women of the court.
  • Fig. 8. Gateway between the first and second courtyards of the Qianlong Garden.
  • Fig. 9. View through a bamboo partition into the theater room of the Juanqinzhai (Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service) with its massive trompe-l’oeil mural and painted ceiling. The Qianlong Garden is the only place where eighteenth-century trompe-l’oeil murals of European influence can be seen in the Forbidden City—or anywhere in China—still in their original locations.

Having always vowed to retire after ruling for sixty years (out of respect for his grandfather the Kangxi emperor, who had reigned for sixty-one), the Qianlong emperor ordered a grand complex to be built for his retirement deep within the Forbidden City, the home of the Chinese emperors since 1420. Completed in 1776, after years of dedicated labor by builders and artisans, the complex had at its heart a two-acre garden compound featuring twenty-seven lavishly decorated buildings. In its rockeries, naturalistic spaces, and exquisite interiors, filled with objects chosen by the Qianlong emperor for his own personal enjoyment, he intended to devote himself to his Buddhist studies, write poetry, and contemplate his role in the workings of the cosmos.

While the primary function of the garden was contemplative, the buildings also served as places to display this imperial connoisseur’s massive collection of ancient and contemporary art. At his bidding, his ateliers of highly specialized designers and artisans created some of the finest examples of Qianlong era architectural design, furnishings, wall decorations, and trompe-l’oeil paintings. In accordance with his meticulous directives, the rooms showcased a wide variety of artistic techniques. One chamber contained latticed partition panels set with cloisonné ornaments, while in another, colorful porcelain medallions embellished the partition panels (see Fig. 6). In several, bamboo thread marquetry, a highly-refined technique of slicing bamboo into slender threads and then adhering them in complex geometric patterns, decorated lattice panels and furniture (see Fig. 9).

Walls and ceilings were decorated with trompe-l’oeil paintings, a technique brought to China from Europe by the 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 the Qianlong emperor commanded Castiglione to teach his techniques, including the use of three-point perspective and the effects of light on volume, to the 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 (see Fig. 9).

Among the four trompe-l’oeil murals that survive is a lovely interior scene of palace women and children celebrating the Chinese New Year, which is applied to the rear wall of the elegantly named Bower of Purest Jade (see Fig. 1). Painted to imitate the wallpaper on the walls and ceiling of the room, the mural seems to add ten feet of depth to the small chamber. The viewer can almost hear the cheerful assembly. At the left, several children are glimpsed just beyond a moon gate, picking branches of plum blossoms—a much-beloved flower in China that blooms in late winter and symbolizes purity and the coming of spring (see Fig. 3). In the room other children place flowers in a vase, another plays with incense next to a brazier, and two others heat water for tea on a portable stove. The favorite child is certainly the one dressed in his New Year’s Day finery, including a hat decorated with a gold Buddha, while palace women attired in fine silk-embroidered robes and exquisitely jeweled headpieces entertain him with a rattle.

Like the rooms of the Qianlong garden, the room within the mural is luxuriously appointed with beautiful furnishings, architectural elements, and paintings. Though the perspective technique employed to create the work was European in origin, the paintings that fill the walls and panels of the room are all in the traditional Chinese style. The mural’s designer invited the finest artists in the imperial atelier to contribute the paintings within the scene. Each artist who produced a work on the partition panels in the mural signed his name, adding the character chen—used only when painting for an emperor—and placing his red seal below his name. One of the best-known artists in the atelier, Yao Wenhan, was invited to create the New Year’s painting hanging on the back wall, and a high governmental official made the celebratory calligraphic couplets that flank it.

The room within the mural, with its wallpaper, furniture, decorated partitions, paintings, textiles, and an altar table covered with ornamental antiques and objets d’art, offers a charmingly animated vision of how rooms of the Qianlong Garden may have appeared when the emperor last passed through them more than two hundred years ago.

A selection of the furnishings, wall decorations, and architectural and garden elements that remained in place in the Qianlong Garden until they were removed for conservation in 2007 will be displayed in public for the first time anywhere in a monumental traveling exhibition, The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City, which opens at the Peabody Essex Museum on September 14. The exhibition was created in partnership with the Palace Museum and in cooperation with the World Monuments Fund.

NANCY BERLINER is the curator of Chinese art at the Peabody Essex Museum.