Hidden Palace Restored in Forbidden City

Chinese embroidery and intricate wood carvings mark a rich chapter in history.

Nov. 13, 2008 — -- Millions of people come to the Forbidden City every year, but what they don't realize is that much of it still actually is forbidden and off-limits from public view.

More than 230 years ago, Emperor Qianlong, a Renaissance man who ruled during the heyday of China's last dynasty, built a magnificent palace in the northeast corner of the Forbidden City.

The palace's delicate double-sided embroidery and intricate wood carvings marked one of the most successful chapters of Chinese history. But the palace deteriorated and its glory was hidden from the outside world.

Preservationists with the New York-based World Monuments Fund took on the conservation project in 2001, when the palace rooms were in ruins.

"The building was basically untouched for 80 years," said Henry Ng, executive vice president of the World Monuments Fund.

"It was like walking into a tomb," said John Stubbs, vice president of field projects at the World Monuments Fund. "The wallpaper was peeling off the wall. The silk was deteriorating. So, we got here just in time."

Qianlong built the palace during a period when China was an important global trading partner with the United States.

Inside the palace, the wall art shows sings of European influence, which is unusual. In Chinese dynastic times, the artists rarely borrowed from other cultures.

"It's really very much an expression of one man's vision, and [he was] partly the most powerful and richest man of his time," Ng said.

Qianlong loved fine things. He had the walls and ceilings covered in silk tapestry and jade inlaid in rare wood, and he had his own stage made.

The emperor used to sit in a large yellow chair adorned with flower embroidery to enjoy performances. He used it as a winter residence, but decorated it to remind him of summer. He commissioned the palace with gardens, planning for his retirement.

It took seven painstaking years and $3 million to restore all 27 rooms to their former glory.

The renovations bring never-before-seen artwork and gardens to the public. The palace's opening also marks an unprecedented partnership between the United States and China.