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Recap: The Forbidden City at 600: The Secret Life of the Qianlong Emperor, 12.2.20

Recap: The Forbidden City at 600: The Secret Life of the Qianlong Emperor, 12.2.20  

The Forbidden City at 600 is an online series celebrating the architecture, history, design, and secrets of Beijing’s iconic Forbidden City complex, now known as The Palace Museum.


In the second episode, we explored the 64 years of Qianlong’s rule during the 1700s during which China’s population more than doubled, its territory increased by one-third, its cities flourished, and its manufactures – tea, silk, porcelain – became principal items of international commerce. Panelists, listed below, delved into the private life of one of China’s most illustrious rulers – a notorious builder, and prolific patron of the arts, who presided over one of the last golden ages of China’s Imperial Empire.

Nancy Berliner (NB), PhD, historian of Chinese art and architecture, is the Wu Teng Senior Curator of Chinese Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston;

Mark Elliott (ME), Vice Provost of International Affairs at Harvard University and the Mark Schwartz Professor of Chinese and Inner Asian History in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations and in the Department of History in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences;

Henry Tzu Ng (HN), conservationist, served for 15 years as the Executive Vice President of World Monuments Fund (WMF) and created its Institutional Initiatives program that expanded WMF’s mission in emerging geographic and programmatic areas of interest.

Full Video of The Forbidden City at 600: Secret Life of the Qianlong Emperor

Quotes From the Conversation

ME: The Emperor was powerful but he was not all-powerful. Qianlong was born in 1711 and he received the title of “Precious Prince,” so people knew when he was a teenager that he might end up as Emperor. In 1735, he father died very suddenly and at the age of 25, Qianlong became the sixth Emperor of the Qing Dynasty.

One of the most commonly referred superlatives about him is that he ruled longer than any other imperial ruler. He officially ruled 60 years because, after he abdicated the throne, he continued to exercise a lot of power for 4 years. He led a full life of many, many interests.

We actually have this outfit which you can see sometimes at the Palace Museum. He liked to be portrayed as a scholar.

He was also a very religious man and he had his own guru, who was a boyhood friend. He also had a Tibetan-style temple built in The Forbidden City.

NB: I am going to take you to a place called the Qianlong Garden, it is a place [as he put it] “to cultivate his mind and refine his emotions.” This is where he went to feel himself as a person, to be in these dark rockeries and be surrounded by stone and no glitter or man-made edifices.

Look at this- there are no straight lines in the rockery. Nothing to remind him of [his role].

I am going to tell you about ways this Emperor spent his private time. He was a literati, he had spiritual pursuits, and it seems to me, a great sense of humor, and he planned to entertain himself in these spaces.

This is a different view that most in the Forbidden City [when you open the doors to the garden]. In China, rocks were meant to substitute for mountains. Mountains were the ideal location for a cultivated person to be; it was where the immortals lived and where people went to meditate. In China, it was where people wanted to escape.

This is right in the first courtyard, to say “I am a literati and I respect calligraphy.”

There is calligraphy all over these 26 structures, including one where the walls are carved copies of Qianlong poems.

There are many references to Buddhism in [The Qianlong Garden].

This is a theater for one, where the Emperor would be entertained. The entire walls and ceilings are painted in a trompe l’oeil style. There are plenty of examples of this style in the Qianlong Garden. [See the] exquisitely painted details.

On the Conservation of The Forbidden City:

HN: [There were two reasons there was so much needed restoration of The Forbidden City complex] Qianlong made a decree that after his death, the place should not change. The second reason was that there was poverty- basically [The Forbidden City] was mothballed. What it left for us was an extraordinary collection of material culture and objects that had never been seen by conservators of Chinese colleagues.

NB: There were so many things that we discovered as we were poking around. The use of glass and mirrors…the glass was imported from Europe. But the Qianlong Emperor must have gotten so excited about these mirrors because in one of his bedrooms, there are two mirrors meant to look like standing screens but one of them was a secret door to open it and go through. So, it was literally through the looking glass. In the garden, he wanted to be surrounded by things that delighted him.

ME: Think about this, John Kennedy was elected President in 1963. If he was Qianlong, he would still be ruling. When he abdicated – and he did so, so he wouldn’t out serve his Grandfather- he never really let go. He was supposed to live in this compound that he spent a lifetime designing, but what he really loved was the creating, the making, of it.

On Qianlong’s relationship with women:

HN: Apart from all the ritual of the Emperor, he had to be somewhat of an incredible romantic. The way he treated his mother, and watched operas with her in The Forbidden City, and he was writing poems to his wife 40 and 50 years after his death. He had a great affection for his daughter, and he thought she should have been Empress. I was touched that all these women from all generations…they all meant something to him.

On Qianlong’s legacy

ME: We mentioned Qianlong’s reputation today in court dramas and the brandname- things are being named for him- and artwork during his reign has increased dramatically. Twenty to thirty years ago, he did not have his current cachet. His claim to fame was that he dismissed the British ambassador. This was seen as him not seeing what was coming in terms of the technological innovations of the industrial age. When he did not go along with what the British hoped, like expanded and improved terms of trade…40 years later we had The Opium War. …The complaint is that Qianlong should have seen that coming. Most people continue to think that that mistake cost China dearly.

DE: Why should we care about this arcane stuff?

ME: Why does history matter? There is the innate fascination of different places and times…the past is always a foreign country. It also gives you a perspective on where we are today. We are now looking at a China that is newly powerful and asserting itself on the world stage that we haven’t seen since the 1700s. We can learn how it looks when China is a powerful country. I would say that the time between the Opium Wars of 1839 to the turn of the 21st Century, that is an aberration in Chinese history because for most of its history it has had the biggest economy in the world. That will be true again. We need to figure out how to live together- we have done it before and we will do it again.

HN: This provides the framework for one out of every 5 people in the world. You cannot understand how they look at the world without understanding their history.

ME: We get to see a common humanity here in an intimate space like the Qianlong Garden.

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