Tuesday Studio: The Private Paradise of the Qianlong Emperor

Perhaps the most famous imperial garden in the Western imagination is that of the thirteenth-century Mongol emperor and founder of the Chinese Yuan dynasty, Khubilai Khan. Immortalized by the vivid and haunting poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge in “Kubla Khan,” Khan’s garden is an elaborate synthesis of natural and manmade elements. Coleridge writes:

So twice five miles of fertile ground

With walls and towers were girdled round:

And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,

Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;

And here were forests ancient as the hills,

Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

Written in the closing years of the eighteenth century, “Kubla Khan” describes a majestic and harrowing paradise, a place at the intersection of artifice and nature; imagination and reality; where the emperor can Emperor's Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City: Nancy Berlinerescape the hardships of daily political life and contemplate the beautiful and eternal. In The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City, Nancy Berliner explores the history, philosophy, and aesthetics of Chinese imperial gardens. A companion catalog to a new exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum, where Berliner is the curator of Chinese art, The Emperor’s Private Paradise focuses upon one imperial garden in particular: that of the Qianlong Emperor, who reigned from 1736-1796.

An accomplished warrior, studied philosopher, and eager poet, the Qianlong Emperor presided over an era of wealth and expansion, helping eighteenth-century China reach its imperial zenith. In 1771, at the age of sixty, the emperor began designing his imperial garden, which was initially a residence for his aging mother and subsequently his place of retirement. Completed in 1776, the garden consisted of twenty-seven buildings spread over two acres of land within the Palace of Tranquility and Longevity, a complex in the northeast quadrant of Beijing’s Forbidden City.

The exhibition itself features ninety objects from the imperial garden, which will be open to the public for the first time ever in 2019. The objects include murals, paintings, furniture, and architectural elements, encapsulating the unique aesthetics of the Qianlong garden in particular, as well as the moral and artistic significance of Chinese imperial gardens in general.

The East Asian art scholars contributing to the catalog and exhibition demonstrate the formal and aesthetic principles of imperial gardens, describing how they manifest themselves in the individual items on display. The Qianlong garden, as with Chinese imperial gardens in general, was designed as a place for contemplation, a respite from mundane, political concerns. The landscaped spaces utilized manmade and natural elements to “refresh the spirit,” slowly developing a sophisticated art form that incorporated “rocks, trees, paths and architecture, as well as literary and historical references and reflections on (the emperor’s) mortality, wisdom and values” for both creativity and reflection; a part of an historical and artistic tradition that linked the emperor both to his predecessors and to the natural environment around him. The Emperor’s Private Paradise will be on display at the Peabody Essex Museum until January 9, 2011.

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