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NY Group to Rehabilitate Beijing's Historic Qianlong Garden

The New York-based World Monument Fund is undertaking its most comprehensive project ever - the conservation of the Qianlong Garden in Beijing's Forbidden City, the world's largest historic city.

Public access to the almost one-hectare Qianlong Garden has been forbidden since it was abandoned in 1914, leaving it largely intact. Consequently, archeologists, historians and art experts are thrilled at the opportunity to rehabilitate and reveal what they expect will be a treasure trove of Chinese architectural and cultural history.

John Stubbs, the World Monument Fund's vice president, says the Garden contains exceptional architectural detailing, fine interior finishes and rare furniture.

"In general, the Garden is rectangular, and contains four courtyards. And, each courtyard is a reference and metaphor to the four corners of China," he said. "So, you have landscape detailing that reflects south Chinese gardens and western Chinese gardens. The 24 buildings that comprise the Gardens are all separate designs that are special in and of themselves, each one of [them] contains really special artistic finishes, including wall murals."

The opulent Garden complex was built for the retirement of Emperor Qianlong, who ruled China from 1736 until 1795, a time when a prosperous China was extensively engaged with the West.

"He happened to have exquisite taste. He was a great supporter of the arts, and a connoisseur in every sense of the word, a poet. He is known to have composed 4,000 poems. This was built literally with the best talent that could be obtained at the time, which is saying something in 18th Century China, where there were extremely wonderful arts and crafts traditions," Stubbs said. "The detailing of these buildings and interiors is just beyond belief."

The World Monument Fund and Beijing's Palace Museum, better known as the Forbidden City, will spend more than $15 million to conserve the Garden over the next 10 years. Stubbs says it is the Fund's most comprehensive project ever, involving everything from structural repairs to heating and humidity issues, to landscaping projects, to conserving decorative arts. The Fund will bring in top technical experts from all over the world to work on the project. But, Stubbs says, there is little need to import skilled arts and craft experts.

"We saw in our early set up of the project that there is absolutely no need to bring in talent who could restore murals or fine marquetry work, or jade carving, or embroidery," he said. "That is all there in China today. We were wondering about it, but we have come to realize that the talent is still there, even some of these almost lost traditional crafts."

Jin Hongkui, the deputy director of the Palace Museum, agrees. He says, through cooperation and communication, modern technology and China's traditional crafts can be mutually beneficial.

Modern technology has its limits, according to Zhang Zhihong, a painter working on the restoration project. She says the equipment offered is helpful in testing data. But traditional Chinese paintings must be repaired using traditional Chinese methods.

The project will not be completed and opened to the public until 2016. But, John Stubbs says, one part of the project, the Qianlong Retirement Lodge, is expected to open in time for the 2008 Summer Olympics.

"It is symbolic of a renaissance of the Forbidden City in general, which I guess is symbolic of a renaissance of China itself," he said.

Stubbs says Chinese experts and academics are so excited about working on the project that some do not even want to be paid for their work. They say it is the project of a lifetime.