US-China Cooperation: Restoring Qianlong’s Secret Garden

Thirty women, China’s best embroiderers, in Nanjing, worked for one year to embroider the richly brocaded upholstery. Papermakers, working with a traditional and especially tough pulp from the mulberry tree, recreated the paper strong enough to support the Italian trompe l’oeil ceiling painting, from their papermaking studio in rural Anhui. Bamboo craft masters, recruited after a national search, prepared inner skin bamboo carving and bamboo thread marquetry with their grandparents’ tools. During the Cultural Revolution, many of these craftsmen’s parents, or grandparents, had their tools smashed. Some buried them and they survived. Many tools had been handed down for generations.

They chosen to were repair the emperor’s secret garden, Juanqinzhai. (The book🙂

juanqinzhai book

I learned about the project from a lovely documentary, The Emperor’s Secret Garden (by Mandy Chang and Zhou Bing, 2010, BSkyB Masterpiece productions). The Qianlong Emperor, who ruled around the American Revolution, was the richest and most powerful man on earth. As a highly cultured man, Qianlong wrote calligraphy, and we actually saw his handiwork on auction in NY a few months ago:

At Sotheby's Chinese calligraphy auction, NYC, Spring 2014

My son and I pretending we could afford Sotheby’s Chinese calligraphy on auction, NYC, Spring 2014. A few of Qianlong’s panels were set to fetch half a million dollars.

Qianlong, already living in earth’s largest palace, having sucked (as emperors do) the continent’s wealth, commissioned a secret garden where he envisioned retreating for a fashionable, scholar-monk-style retirement: 27 buildings, grottos and rockeries, a garden, and interiors of textile, friezes and woodwork, silk brocade so delicate it’s transparent, woven on looms 2 storeys high; a level of craftsmanship that blows the mind. Somehow, the retreat was locked up, and discovered dusty and crumbling in the early 2000s. It had been undisturbed since the 1700s. As WMF explains, it sparked one of the most awe-inspiring international  restoration projects ever.

From the World Monuments Fund slideshow on the project: A painting of the garden complex itself, and of one mural, of the royal family:

the emperors garden painting

wood panel showing royal family

The work was part of Forbidden City’s first international collaboration — and China’s first large-scale interior conservation project. The effort became a lab, and a classroom for training a young generation of Chinese conservators. But first, restoring the emperor’s secret garden required searching for what had  nearly disappeared: highly skilled traditional craftsmen and women.

Together with architects, engineers, scientists, archaeologists and curators, conservators and conservation scientists, helped by the World Monuments Fund, the hideaway was restored. Cultural heritage was strengthened. Traditional craftspeople fired up their shops. And the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing created, through Jinqinzhai, China’s first degree program in interior conservation. Which means preservation according to international standards, can begin to take hold here.


To see, as we have, the scale of destruction (even to this day) of the treasures scattered across mainland China is to understand what a huge big deal it is. The project also forged new levels of cooperation and trust between U.S. and China preservationists, a positive part of this emerging, fraught relationship. I expect it won’t be the last: Large sections of the Forbidden City are still in disrepair.

Qianlong Emperor (reign 1735-1799)

Qianlong Emperor (reign 1735-1799)

If you’re in China, you can go and visit, though the rooms open only part of the time.

Heritage, Rangoon

from The Economist. Downtown Yangon's heritage, a unique architectural legacy & identity downtown in need of preservation after years of isolation, now threatened by rapid economic boom

from The Economist. Downtown Yangon’s architectural legacy & identity downtown need preservation after years of isolation, & threat now from boom times

I’d like to go to Burma. Soon. Thant Myint-U, Burmese hero-in-the-making, grandson of the former UN Secretary General, a handsome youngish Oxford-trained historian-turned-preservationist, spoke in NY a while back. He described the ongoing battle in Rangoon (Yangon) to save the city’s beautiful heart: uniquely Burmese colonial architecture. He founded the NGO Yangon Heritage Trust.

In the 1700s, Yangon was the king’s port. The earliest known map, from before the  British annexation in the 1800s, shows Rangoon highly cosmopolitan: home to a globe’s worth of houses of worship: Armenian churches, Roman Catholic Cathedrals, Baptist and Methodist churches, over a dozen Sunni and Shia mosques, Hindu, Parsi and Sikh temples, Jewish synagogues, and of course Buddhist shrines. Jews made up  1/20 of the population. Solomon’s Mineral Water Depot appeared in his slide show.

Colonial conquest: the British extending / defending the occupation of India. I’m not clear on how much of this was voluntary and how much was forcible relocation/slavery but Rangoon soon became Indian-majority. BP annexed Burma Oil. There’s much history to Yangon…Pablo Neruda lived there. Home of Tiger Balm. From 1948-1962, a short-lived democracy; Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, assassinated in 1947, was central to that period in history, before the military coup. Fast forward to the junta’s last days…the city was overtaken, Thant said, by a cheap-building boom in the 1990s that began destroying the 4,000 buildings with historical value. In the city center, dozens of wooden mansions and stone banks, often crumbling or full of  poor families – or owned, all these years, by the Army. None had been renovated in 70 years, leading to dangerous conditions for the many families crammed into them. A chintzy glass-mirrored tower now sits beside a block-long favorite turn-of-the-century department store. The city-center architecture that matters are in some cases European buildings, Chinese, and some uniquely Burmese.

Today, with market liberalized, a car boom is underway, and road expansion is helping drive the destruction, to accommodate cars. narrowing sidewalks are destroying a vibrant street life. These are Jane Jacobs-type issues, Beijing issues where the battle was mostly lost decades ago.

Japan bears a bit of blame, as it’s helped update infrastructure (sewage, transport) and as its multinationals & banks have stepped in, preservation was on no one’s agenda.

Today YHT is involve din advocacy at the highest levels with the president & top ministers, surveying and inventorying, leading tours, actual building restoration, and city planning, including training Burmese in preservation and planning, overseas. They have managed by force of will and lobbying to stop further demolition, saving a few dozen buildings. They’re trying to save the view of the great ancient pagodas, green space, and the waterfront. Standing in their way: developers who bribe. Small homeowners who are poor, who could sell for $50 million to developers…and why shouldn’t they, really? One lynchpin will be arranging land swaps elsewhere, if a preservation zone is established, or letting them move back in after restoration. That’s the so-called ‘human fabric’ that’s slowly gone missing, displaced as Beijing’s surviving hutong became uber-gentrified.

Rangoon also has fragmented & contested building ownership. Lack of development guidelines. The government’s own multi-billion dollar real estate portfolio of crumbling, empty structures is a lot to dispose of. There’s even a lack of craftspeople in the old building trades for repairs.

pagoda view rangoon

YHT is tackling all this with a total budget of $200,000 a year. To learn more, visit the website of the Trust: From them: “Yangon boasts one of the most spectacular and diverse urban landscapes… The city retains one of the most complete ensembles of colonial architecture in the world and is endowed with splendid parks and lakes. Long the centre of Myanmar’s political, economic and cultural life, Yangon has played a critical role in the country’s history.  It was in Yangon that the Myanmar people first become ‘modern’ and interacted with the world and it was through this process of exchange that Yangon’s history became internationally linked to the history. Visitors from Mahatma Gandhi to Graham Greene travelled to Yangon alongside an array of historical figures, from the last emperor of India, Bahadur Shah Zafar, to the Chilean poet and Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda. These layers of history are still evident in the architectural legacies of the city.

Today, Yangon’s built heritage is at risk from decades of neglect and, more pressingly, a new wave of intense pressure for rapid urban development. An immediate need exists for a comprehensive urban plan that integrates Yangon’s existing urban fabric with the needs of a rapidly developing city. Century-old buildings in the downtown area are being demolished with alarming speed. As new structures rise without a regulatory vision, intact architectural blocks and iconic views of the Shwedagon Pagoda are being lost. It was to address this growing concern that Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT) was founded in March 2012 by Dr Thant Myint-U and a group of like-minded architects, business people, historians, and others dedicated to preserving the city’s unique architectural legacy.”