New Exhibit Gives Object Lesson in China's Power

Treasures from an Emperor's garden cast glittering light on China at the peak of its power

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Courtesy of the Palace Museum, Beijing

You can say this for the Qianlong Emperor, who ruled China for 60 years in the 18th century: he was good with catchy names. At the Qianlong Garden, a personal retreat he designed and had built in the Forbidden City in Beijing, there's a Gate of Spreading Auspiciousness, a Hall of Fulfilling Original Wishes and a Building for Enjoying Lush Scenery. The Studio for Self-Restraint doesn't sound like much fun. But the Building of Extending Delight—who wouldn't want to get a look inside that one?

Now you can. In the mid-1920s, the garden was closed up and effectively abandoned. But a restoration project begun nine years ago by Beijing's Palace Museum and the World Monuments Fund is currently bringing the place back to life. While renovations continue, a selection of the precious contents of the garden and its pavilions has headed to the U.S. as part of "The Emperor's Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City," an exhibition currently at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. Nancy Berliner, the museum's curator of Chinese art, organized the show and is an adviser to the restoration project, which is expected to be completed in 2019. The Qianlong Emperor had a cadre of phenomenally skilled craftsmen at his command, the kind who could produce painted lacquer panels with an almost phosphorescent glow, superb carved furnishings and wall paintings of great charm. There are 90 of these treasures in the show, which remains at the Peabody Essex until Jan. 9, then travels to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Milwaukee Art Museum. That makes this the largest exhibition the Palace Museum has ever sent abroad, and when the garden reopens to the public, it's unlikely these objects will ever travel again. Meanwhile, they add up to a fascinating glimpse of one man's rich personal paradise, assembled when his empire was at the height of its power, wealth and ironclad self-regard—and on the threshold of a disastrous decline.

The exquisite contents of the Qianlong Garden were meant to be the accessories of a serene old age. A two-acre (0.8 hectare) compound of courtyards, greenery and more than a dozen pavilions, the garden is attached to the Palace of Tranquility and Longevity, a retreat built by the Emperor for his retirement. This explains why the garden also contains a Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service—the Emperor wanted it known that he'd been a busy man. Born with the Manchu name Hungli, he was the fourth emperor of the Qing (pronounced ching) dynasty, which was established by the Manchus after they swept down from the north in 1644. When he rose to the throne in 1736, the Qianlong Emperor was 25 years old. Over time he would prove to be a warrior king: his defeat of a Mongol uprising on the empire's western border led to the acquisition of territories that increased the empire's size by a third. But he would also be a philosopher king, one who wrote poetry and commissioned an anthology of 2,000 years' worth of Chinese texts, which eventually filled 36,000 volumes. Whether this made up for his habit of executing writers who offended him—and sometimes their entire families as well—is hard to say.

In the 18th century the Chinese still considered their empire the center of the universe. They had a point. In 1750, China's population was about 179 million, 30 million more than all of Europe. At the peak of his reign, the Qianlong Emperor presided over a realm of almost 4.6 million sq. mi. (12 million sq km), making it the largest empire in the world. When a British mission arrived at the Imperial Court in 1793 to press for increased trade, the aged Emperor sent George III the reply that he had no need of British manufactures—"we possess all things"—but that Britain was welcome like other nations to pay tribute to him as a vassal state.

All the same, the Emperor was curious about Western abilities and inventions. In the gardens northwest of the Forbidden City that are known to Westerners as the Old Summer Palace, he ordered the construction of a number of European-style stone buildings with Baroque touches. And his court artists included French and Italian Jesuits who brought Western methods of representation and the magic of perspective drawing to the wall paintings in the Qianlong Garden.

One of those paintings, in which two elegant women preside over a roomful of boisterous children, is a masterful exercise in illusionistic technique. It's a scene with sources in traditional baizi tu paintings—"picture of 100 sons"—which represented the wish for many male offspring to continue the family line. But the Qianlong painting's relatively deep recessional space is a sign that the Chinese artist who made it—scholars are uncertain who that was—had been schooled in perspective by the Europeans at court. To enhance the illusion, our view into the room is framed by border panels that bear miniature paintings, all of them done separately by noted court artists in their characteristic styles and signed. Likewise the other small paintings visible within the room. On the right, a woman gazes at her reflection in a lacquered panel, absorbed in an illusion while she inhabits a world of illusion herself.

To ensure that he would not occupy the imperial throne longer than his grandfather, China's longest-serving ruler, the Qianlong Emperor stepped down in 1795 in favor of his son. But even after his abdication, he remained the effective ruler of China until his death four years later at the age of 88. To the end, he could imagine that China would remain forever among the most powerful nations on earth. But in truth, his empire was declining, falling behind the West in technology and military power. Soon European nations, resentful of the obstacles China put up to foreign entry into its markets, would start pressing their case at gunpoint. By 1860, China had suffered two humiliating defeats in the Opium Wars, culminating in British and French troops looting and burning the Old Summer Palace.

Yet the Qianlong Garden survived the turmoils of Chinese history intact, perhaps because it was relatively small and tucked away. In 1911 the forces of Sun Yat-sen established the Chinese Republic, and the last Qing Emperor, the hapless Puyi, was forced to abdicate. He lingered for years in the Forbidden City. But after he was abruptly ejected in 1924, the garden was closed up. Even in the 1950s, when the exterior courtyards were opened briefly to the public, the interiors remained shut. For decades the pavilions quietly sagged, the wall paintings peeled, and the plantings ran wild. It became a Chinese version of Grey Gardens, with the difference that nobody lived there but ghosts.

Those conditions began to change when the Palace Museum and the World Monuments Fund, which assists historical-conservation projects, launched their effort to restore the garden to its former glory. The Qianlong Emperor, who loved beautiful things, especially his own, would have been pleased.

This article originally appeared in the October 11, 2010 issue of TIME.