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Emperor's private treasures in US

NINETY never-before-exhibited treasures from the Qianlong Emperor's private "paradise" in the Forbidden City make their world debut in America. Rong Jiaojiao reports.

The Chinese saying "Heaven is high, and the emperor is far away" describes the carefree life enjoyed by ancient Chinese in remote areas. Yet, for the American public the Chinese emperor is no longer far away.

The exhibition "The Emperor's Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City" has made its world debut at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. It showcases 90 treasures of China's famous Qianlong Emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

None of them has been publicly exhibited, even in China.

"This is the first time that the Palace Museum has authorized such a large-scale and comprehensive traveling exhibition of original historic cultural heritage objects and interiors," Wang Yamin, deputy director of China's Palace Museum, which houses the treasures, told Xinhua news agency.

"We hope the exhibition will benefit a deeper mutual understanding between China and US," Wang said.

The exhibition opened last week and runs through January 9 at the Peabody, then moves to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City on February 3, 2011, and to the Milwaukee (Wisconsin) Art Museum on June 11.

After the tour, the objects will be reinstalled permanently in their original home in the Qianlong Garden of the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Chinese capital.

The 90 objects of ceremony and leisure, including murals, paintings, furniture, architectural and garden components and jades, reveal the contemplative life and refined vision of the Qianlong Emperor, one of Chinese history's most influential rulers.

"It is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the American public to see these extraordinary works of art and to have a sense of the Qianlong Emperor, who was unquestionably the most powerful and wealthy man in the world in the 18th century," Dan Monroe, executive director and CEO of the Peabody Museum, told Xinhua.

Reigning from 1736 to 1796, the Qianlong Emperor moved China to its imperial zenith in terms of territory, wealth, military strength and culture. Under his leadership, China's economy dwarfed those of England and France, and the emperor controlled vastly greater territory than his key contemporaries, America's George Washington and England's Elizabeth I.

Completed in 1776, the Qianlong Garden and its artworks represent one of many monuments to the emperor's power, wealth, and ingenuity. It is located in the northeast of China's renowned Forbidden City, which has 27 buildings and numerous artworks within its two-acre site.

The Qianlong Garden is a very private space that the emperor built for himself alone as a retreat where he could cultivate himself and not to think about politics. Even while he was alive, very few people went there.

Closed since China's last emperor left the Forbidden City in 1924, the garden is undergoing intensive restoration and conservation in preparation for opening to the public for the first time around 2019.

"We are so pleased to introduce the American public to meet the Chinese emperor in an entirely different way, yet in an intimate way," said Lynda Hartigan, chief curator of the Peabody.

Visitors will walk through the galleries the way the Qianlong Emperor would have strolled through his rooms and gardens. Around each corner are encounters with objects of surpassing beauty and exceptional craftsmanship.

Visitors will be able to try their hand at calligraphy, with a "touch station" that will guide their brush strokes.

"Chinese gardens are very different from Western gardens. They are complex, including buildings, rockery, and works of art. So the exhibition is designed to evoke, not to replicate, the feelings of strolling in the Qianlong Garden, and at the same time, to highlight the extraordinary works of art," said Nancy Berliner, exhibition curator and curator of Chinese art at the Peabody.

The Palace Museum is intimately associated with the Forbidden City, which dates back to 1420. The museum was established in 1925 on the foundation of a palace of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties and its collection of treasures.

It is a large, comprehensive national museum that embraces the palatial architectural complex, ancient art, and imperial court history.

The exhibition gives a multi-dimensional showcase of the Qianlong Emperor's artistic passion and personal sentiments. It is also a physical manifestation of the ideas - the Confucian culture and Buddhism - that prevailed in China for years.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is a rare imperial "fool the eye" mural painting, a 15-foot-wide work depicting women and children in a palace hall celebrating the Chinese Lunar New Year. The mural is one of only six such surviving 18th century works. Painted by Chinese court artists who had been trained by a European artist, the mural reflects a successful blending of European and Chinese traditions.

"The exhibition is in the spirit of internationalism, because it reflects the relationship of China and the West. It combines China's classic arts with Western arts and culture," said Lynda Hartigan, chief curator of the Peabody Museum.

The Peabody is the oldest museum in America. Dating back to the close of the 18th century, the museum's holdings in Chinese art and Asian export art represent some of US's first efforts to reach outward and establish mutually enriching, lasting exchanges with other nations.

Other objects of the exhibition range from the quietly personal to the flamboyantly crafted and hued. Calligraphy in the emperor's own hand conveys a sense of his refined thinking and brush technique. Panels carved in semiprecious gemstone or rendered in brilliantly pigmented cloisonne are as vibrant and pleasing as the day they were created.

These 90 objects also experienced quite an adventure from Beijing to US. They have been through the conservation process for over a year, which is part of the joint restoration work by the Palace Museum and the World Monuments Fund on the Qianlong Garden since 2001.

The restoration work combined traditional conservation methods with the latest technology including re-adhering porcelain tablets to lattice panels, in-painting losses on the Buddhist panel, and other measures.

The exhibition includes a film and other interactive elements highlighting the conservation process as well as the gifted artisans who restored the objects and architecture to their original condition.

"Art has no boundary and culture is such a wonderful way to bring China closer to the American public. We hope the exhibition will further cultivate ties between the two countries," said Monroe, the Peabody's executive director.


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