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.

An American Boy in China (watch video)

Adventures of a third grader in Beijing for a year. All about having fun in China, the land and its geography, history and politics, and visiting China’s different regions and peoples. Do shadow puppetry, ride a camel in the Gobi, make dumplings on a farm, and cheer for the Guoan (World Peace) soccer team.

Minor Difficulties

Subway poster: Ex-Knick Steven Marbury leads the triumphant Beijing Ducks

Though as temporary Beijingers/ex-New Yorkers  we may hold our heads a little higher since ex-Knick Steven Marbury led his new team to victory in the Chinese Basketball Association finals a few weeks ago, life is still always just a little harder than usual:

1) Making week-end morning pancakes

Add a few extra steps. Like going online to convert 2.75 cups milk to 650 ml. And soaking the strawberries in a dilute of Betadine disinfectant, rinsing with (yes, overkill) bottled water we then filter and boil. I hope this works; the embassy doc recommends bleach solution instead.

If it sound mildly traumatized…it’s the latest food-safety scandal. This week’s was gelatin rendered from used shoe leather, containing poisonous chromium, found in Chinese jellies and [gelatin] medicine capsules. Making the pharmacy we brought in a suitcase look a little less paranoid.

British School Bears beat the Canadian School Thurs.; Kenny scored three 2-pointers.

2) Salad-as-birthday-dinner

Celebrating Ethan’s late-birthday, we let him order a salad!! The first raw, unpeeled vegetable in 8 months. We just broke down. Look how happy he looks! Current plan is an an all-salad lifestyle back in America. At least for 3 days.

3) The Birthday Party Invitation Supplement.

Instructions and maps are involved, in English, pinyin (transliteration), and Mandarin characters, because Beijing is so hard to navigate. So for Ethan’s party in a park (sadly, rained out today) we distribute this:

RITAN PARK 日坛公园  – Party location. Home to the Temple of the Sun.

6 Ritan Beilu, Chaoyangmenwai,朝阳门外日坛北路6

8561 6301

STONE BOAT CAFÉ  石舫  –    For 9 am drop off & 2pm pick-ups:

MAP: http://www.cityweekend.com.cn/beijing/listings/nightlife/bars/has/stone-boat-bar/

Southwest corner of Ritan Park, Lakeside, Beijing

朝阳区日坛公园里,湖边

Chāoyáng qū Rìtán gōngyuán lǐ, húbiānJianWai Street

Near: Guanghu lu & YaBao lu
+86 10 6501 9986

ANNIE’S RESTAURANT – Lunch spot, for 1 pm pick-ups:

MAP: http://www.cityweekend.com.cn/beijing/listings/dining/italian/has/ritan/

Ritan Park and Yabao Lu 日坛公园雅宝路

Unit 2-3-93, Ritan Highlife, (opposite north gate of Ritan Park), 39 Shenlu Jie, Chaoyang District

39 Shenlujie, Ritan High Life 2-3-93,   Vicinity: Ritan

Across from Ritan Park North Gate
日坛公园北门对面       8569-3031    www.annies.com.cn

…AND MOST IMPORTANTLY, MY CELL: 1881 0600 643

Beijing is about as good as it gets right now.

Flowering cherry trees, lilacs, wisteria, tulips – spring at the Forbidden City & Jingshan Park.

Sorry no posts….Report coming on Qingdao (of beer fame) & its well-cared-for eastern province of Shandong, home to more Party officials than any other province. Big report to come on The Great Sage Confucius, whose hometown was one huge lesson in filial piety. More soon on the calisthenics TV show we like to call, “Exercise With Happy Minorities.”

And on my students, who are writing what they know: Living in Foxcomm dorm as a line worker. Being the left-behind lonely child of a migrant worker. Seeing your best friend’s dad jailed for corruption. Astonishing. Have a lovely week-end!

Chinese Santa

We know Santa Claus is 中国 (Chinese). We met him in a hotel, hunting for food in the Olympic Park ghost town. (I blew a week’s food budget on bar snacks. At least Santa gave out dessert). We were in the area for a big charity concert at the Indoor National Stadium celebrating Chinese-American educational exchange, with Black Eyed Peas Will i am and ap.l.de.app — didn’t know he was Filippino. Also soul singer John Legend, Chinese pop stars Coco Lee (who intriguingly stood in for Fergie) and pop chanteusse Shunze. It benefitted APSA, Americans Promoting Study Abroad.

And because America cares about minority rights noncontroversially, Chinese ethnic/folk minority artist Sa DingDing opened. A stunning Mongolian who sings in Tibetan and Sanskrit while banging huge drums and whirling like a dervish — I loved her.

Fulbrighters got tix, to treat our students. Between acts, videos about young Americans who’d studied in China — all African-Americans from either projects or poorest rural America, transformed by the experience. Clearly Obama/Hillary’s “100,000 Strong” initiative, to send that many Americans to learn in China, means to take a new sort of student overseas.

Along with Motorola, Jackie Chan sponsored, but didn’t show.

Another cultural celebrations: my school’s journalism department awards ceremony. My incredible student Yilei performed a 20th century composition on violin. We love him, on and off the stage. With his roommate Vince, the boys’ tutor.

A few other Chinese cultural moments this week, now that the boys are done & I”m playing hookey a bit. Dancers on a winter’s day, with live musicians, in Beihai Park in the heart of Imperial Beijing. The Party is the new emperor and the Party elite’s ultra-exclusive housing, beside the Forbidden City, is the new palace, my kids reminded me, but I also need to remind them: remember China in recent years lifted 600 million people out of poverty.

Dancing at a Beihai Park pavillion on lake

The same winter’s day, taich’i practitioners nearby; Ethan tried joining. He knows a couple dozen characers now and using them, read enough of a restaurant receipt to figure out what was missing from our order. I almost fell over.

This picture is in every Beijing tourist’s photo album; the large white Tibetan temple in the middle of Behai Park’s lake is covered in ceramic Buddhas. I hope more American exchange students, and teachers, of all races, come here and get to take this picture.

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Rescued by the CCP

Big in Changchun!

I was crying in public (2nd time), sick, at an airline counter with a feverish kid. Needing to leave a frigid northern city, & they F -ed up our reservation. No one spoke English. SOS call to student and the line was busy. No plane seats for us, sick kid or no.

Suddenly, concerned and gentle eyes. Square face, black v-neck sweater, a guardian angel of a G-man in his 50s–and somehow I knew he was, from the first instant, but how??! the 6 guys identically dressed behind him with similar briefcases?? what do Party bigs carry??–loomed above us at the counter: “Is there some way I can help you?” he asks, in perfect kindest English.

More tears, soothing v-neck interventions, a lucky flight delay (smog in Beijing) and $600 later (refunded today), we were saved. Homeward bound.

Talking at the departure gate, the boys’ old-style People’s Liberation Army winter hats (the current weird China-tourist-souvenir fad) spur him to recall that those were the hats they wore when he was 11 in 1966, the year the Cultural Revolution began. (I feel vaguely panicked at the semiotics, the potential ideological echo, the kids may be broadcasting wearing these hats.)

His father was a poor farmer, “so I was a poor farmer.” I shush the boys to listen, hoping for a long recollection, but the G-man’s not a talker. All he’ll say is the universities were closed. “When they opened them again, I took the test and entered university.” He’d rather talk about America — New Jersey! He’s been to 25 U.S. states. His sister lives in South Carolina. How do the boys pursue their education here? he asks. Why was I in Changchun? (Motor City, home to China’s automotive plants, and several gigantic universities.)

“You’re a businessman?” the kids say.

“What makes you think so?” he answers, bemused. “I’m a servant of the public. I’m with the government.”

And not that a t-shirt would show, because we’re layered up, as if for skiing. But Kenny recognizes, in a whisper to me, it’s a good thing he’s not wearing his kitschy-wry-making-fun-of-Mao t-shirt that I have, against his opposition, banned within China as inappropriate.

Students arriving for one lecture

It was my first lecture tour that took us to Changchun, up in Jilin province where it’s 10 degrees F, near Korea, and they eat this delicious soup made with meat and sour fermented cabbage. I experienced my 15 minutes of fame, as students rushed the stage for photos, and to cop my PowerPoints off the PC. When I gave prizes to a few volunteers who helped during a writing exercise–journalism textbooks donated at home, shipped here by Fulbright–others in the audience swarmed, fought to handle & admire them. English books aren’t only costly, they’re almost impossible to find.

Our (kind, generous) hosts, professors of media, were surprised to learn we don’t have (aside from CSPAN, I suppose–I tried to explain that!!) an official, state media. Surprised at how deep the newspaper crisis is, as China’s print readership (like India’s) is still growing, with new readers rising in waves of rising income, education & literacy.

Student questions: “What do you think of our lack of youth freedom?” “How can I get real information for my stories?” “Do you believe in advertorials masquerading as news?” (not quite in those words)

Our host, professor Bao


Pu Yi, the last emperor, born in unimaginable continent-sucking wealth in the Forbidden City, lived here, too, in his 30s and 40. After the Japanese invasion during WW2, Changchun was a war-time capital of Japan’s Manchukuo state. Pu Yi lived here much lower on the foodchain, as a Japanese ‘puppet’ ruler.

The last emperor


After Hiroshima & Nagasaki, Pu Yi tried fleeing to Russia, but was captured & imprisoned.

Pu Yi's prison uniform


Quite a book-end to the Imperial dynasties’ glories. The Chinese eventually pardonned his treason; he ended his life as a Beijing gardener, happy, at least in a few pictures. Here’s his bike.

Things in movies that take place in China


By Kenny
So you know in the new “Karate Kid,” after seeing it in China I saw it in a different way. Beijing is a lot different. The scene where he went out with his girlfriend for fun is physically not posible.

So if you remember the part where Dre and his girlfreind had maybe an hour to play hookey from school, they go from their school in the hutong (the old part of Beijing which is in the center of the city) all the way out to the Bird’s Nest on the 4th Ring Road, which is practically on the outskirts of Beijing. Then they went to Jingshan Park which is in the center by the Forbidden City and they had to climb up to the main temple to look out onto the Forbidden City and then back to the school in the hutong.

If I were to do that in a taxi it would take up to 2 hours because the taxi to the Bird’s Nest takes, on a good nontraffic day, half an hour. The walk takes 15 mins then to take another taxi to the Forbidden City to go to Jingshan Park and climb up the hill takes 5-10 mins then come down and take a taxi to the school in the hutong. On the subway there would be a lot of tranferring and the line that takes you by the Fobidden City is very crowded. It would take just as long, if not longer.

And another thing that Hollywood got wrong, so you know when Dre & Mr. Han go for the day to the kungfu temple on a mountain, by train? To get to the closest town to that mountain, in Hubei province, they would have had to take a 20-hour train ride. (Then climbing the mountain would take a while.) In the movie they are home by dark. They filmed at Wudang Shan, the temple where taichi was born. The place where kung fu was born, that’s in another province called Henan (not to get mixed up with Hainan…or Hunan).

On to another movie, “Kungfu Panda.” So if you’re wondering why Master Oogway is called Oogway: in Chinese, oogway means turtle. Master Chifu’s name, Chifu, means master in Chinese. Tailung, the bad guy, means great dragon.

I’d like to see some more Chinese action movies in America, like “Shanghai Nights.”

The People’s Favorite International Sport

By Kenny Coplan
The people’s favorite international sport is the NBA. I asked a few people what their favorite NBA teams were and they said: the LA Lakers, the Celtics, and the Heat. I am honestly not suprised why they picked those teams because they are 3 of the 4 best teams, but of course the Knicks are better then them all. And when Chinese commentaters talk about players they call them by their surname like Anthony, Bryant, James, and Rondo.
In Bejing you see a lot of basketball courts. The funniest courts I saw was the Forbidden Basketball Court. I call it this because in a part of the Forbidden City, you suddenly see a basketball court. Which I later learned was used by the security guards, military men, or something.