Exhibitions/ The Emperor's Private Paradise

The Emperor's Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City

February 1–May 1, 2011
Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

Exhibition Overview

This loan exhibition organized by the Peabody Essex Museum presents some ninety paintings, decorative works, architectural elements, and religious works created for an elaborate two-acre private retreat built deep within the Forbidden City in 1771 as the retirement residence of one of China's most extravagant monarchs—the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736–95)—who presided over China's last dynasty, the Qing, at the zenith of its power and wealth. No expense was spared to make this complex as sumptuous and comfortable as possible. The costliest materials, including rare woods, semiprecious stones, cloisonné, gilt bronze, porcelain, and lacquer were employed to ornament every surface of this world. In the end the emperor declined to retire here and the space remained a virtual time capsule relatively untouched since imperial times.


The exhibition was organized by the Peabody Essex Museum in partnership with the Palace Museum and in cooperation with World Monuments Fund and has been made possible through generous support from the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group and American Express. Additional support was provided by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, The Freeman Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and ECHO (Education through Cultural & Historical Organizations).

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Exhibition Objects

Beijing has been the seat of political power in China for more than seven centuries, since Khubilai Khan established the "Great Capital" (Dadu) of the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) there in 1274. Although little of Khubilai's palace survives, the present Forbidden City—the symbolic center of imperial authority—was begun by the Yongle Emperor (r. 1406–24), the third ruler of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644); was largely rebuilt and reworked during the ensuing Manchu Qing dynasty (1644–1911); and, since 1925, has been restored and maintained as the Palace Museum.

Symmetrically laid out along a central north-south axis and named the "Purple Forbidden City" after the Purple Luminous constellation (which has Polaris, the North Star, at its center), the complex symbolizes the ritual centrality of the emperor as the ruler of a balanced, stable, and hierarchically ordered world.

The principal audience and residential halls are all arranged along the central axis, which is more than a half-mile long. A similar array of axially aligned buildings, the Tranquility and Longevity Palace, was constructed for the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736–95) in the northeast corner of the Forbidden City in anticipation of his eventual retirement. It is there that a two-acre plot of asymmetrical pavilions, rockeries, and plantings was created as the luxurious garden retreat that is the subject of this exhibition.

The Qianlong Garden is one of the most densely built spaces in the Forbidden City: twenty-seven buildings and pavilions, five rockeries (complete with grottoes and tunnels), a series of pathways, and scores of elaborate plantings are fit into a two-acre plot subdivided into four courtyards. The close proximity and intimate scale of the many structures reflect the fact that the garden was designed for use primarily in the winter months, when more spacious halls would have been difficult to heat. In warmer weather the emperor was most often in residence at one of his summer palaces outside Beijing.

Traditionally, Chinese gentlemen—foremost among them the Qianlong Emperor—were highly trained in both calligraphy and poetry. Indeed, among the more than forty thousand poems written by the emperor, many express his striving for further personal refinement. Calligraphy and poetry were integral elements in all Chinese gardens, and throughout the Qianlong Garden, plaques bearing the emperor's calligraphy announce the name of each structure. Inside the buildings, additional poems and calligraphies can be seen pasted on the walls and inset into architectural components.

Because of the fundamental importance of calligraphy, poetry, and painting in the lives of cultivated Chinese men in the 1700s, the tools for pursuing these activities were highly valued. Known as the Four Essentials of a Scholar's Study, they included a brush, an ink stick, paper, and an inkstone. Precious materials and complex techniques were used to create refined objects for the calligrapher's desk.

The exhibition features a number of such Qianlong-era accoutrements of the scholar's desk from the Palace Museum's collection that, while not all found in the garden's halls, would have been appropriate for use there.

Buddhism, which came to China from India about two thousand years ago, is based on the fundamental tenet that life is suffering. However, Buddhists believe that by practicing a variety of rituals and following a code of ethical behavior, one can reach a state of enlightened nirvana, thus escaping from the endless cycle of rebirth. The Shakyamuni Buddha, who lived in India about 500 B.C., first expounded these concepts based on Indian beliefs.

A devout Buddhist, the Qianlong Emperor performed a daily regimen of ritual practices, and at least five structures and rooms within the Qianlong Garden were specifically devoted to Buddhist worship, including the Supreme Chamber for Cultivating Harmony (Yanghe Jingshe). In a poem, the emperor noted that another such space, the Building for Enjoying Lush Scenery (Cuishanglou), was so dedicated because it was so beautifully located among rockeries.

The Three Friends Bower (Sanyouxuan), an intimate building in the third courtyard of the Qianlong Garden, is named for the Three Friends of Winter—pine, bamboo, and blossoming plum. All its architectural elements and furnishings follow a unified decorative scheme inspired by the three plants. Because pine and bamboo remain green throughout the winter and the plum is among the first trees to blossom in the spring, often while snow is still on the ground, the Three Friends of Winter have become symbols of renewal, longevity, moral purity, and survival in the face of adversity.

Looking forward to residing in his retirement palace, the emperor wrote, "After four springs and autumns I will live here. Then I will enjoy a lofty leisure and be happy in this place forever."

The traditional "floating-cup pavilion," which follows an ancient building type, features a curving waterway along which cups of wine balanced on leaves were set adrift. The wine was consumed by guests as part of a ritual purification ceremony held on the third day of the third lunar month. The Preface to the Orchid Pavilion, written by Wang Xizhi (303–361), is the most famous account of one such gathering, which took place in 353. These pavilions, including this one from the Qianlong Garden, were created so that the scene described by Wang could be reenacted and his memory invoked.

By placing the Purification Ceremony Pavilion (Xishangting) prominently near the garden's entrance, the erudite Qianlong Emperor declared his proud embrace of the literati lifestyle epitomized by the Chinese cultural icon Wang Xizhi. In 1792, toward the end of his reign, the emperor wrote:

There are rocks and cliffs, there are clusters of bamboo.
In the pavilion of the "floating goblet," there is a stone-stream slab.
In the future when I am about to copy the rubbing of Wang,
I will look to the old times for a vision for the present.

In the 1770s, while the Qianlong Garden was being built, Europeans and other interested trading partners introduced foreign technologies and art forms to China. Mechanical clocks, glass, mirrors, trompe-l'oeil murals, differently colored glazes and paint, enamels, and even Japanese-style lacquer all appealed to the Qianlong Emperor's cosmopolitan aesthetic interests. He thus incorporated foreign styles and materials into the garden's interiors, using them to express traditional Chinese ideals or to facilitate further self-cultivation. For instance, he noted that he enjoyed gazing through glass windows at the rockeries in the garden, imagining himself living in a mountain abode. A number of spaces in the garden were outfitted with exotic furnishings imported from or inspired by non-Chinese sources.