E is for Emperor Qianlong*, the Qing dynasty emperor who commissioned a secret garden, the Qianlong Garden, to immerse himself in art pursuits post his 60 years of rule. Emperor Qianlong was the sixth emperor (1711 – 1799) of the Manchu led Qing Dynasty and the fourth Qing emperor to rule over China.
I joined the queue of tourists, art lovers, the curious and school trips for the interactive exhibition “A Lofty Retreat from the Red Dust: The Secret Garden of Emperor Qianlong” at The Hong Kong Museum of Art. The exhibition showcases Emperor Qianlong’s love of scholarship and the arts by featuring 93 relics from Beijing’s Palace Museum and 43 artifacts connected with the Garden that survived the intermediary years till the last emperor fled Beijing. Emperor Qianlong had issued an imperial edict reserving the garden on the western section of Ningshougong Palace (Tranquility and Longevity Palace) for use by ‘super sovereigns’ and the doors remained closed to outsiders. The Garden is now under renovation and will open for public viewing in a couple of years and till then the exhibition is our window to the enchanted Garden.
The Qianlong Garden, designed in the architectural style of Qing era had taken nearly ten years to be completed and looking at the murals one can understand why. The four sections of the Garden, the Leisurely Pursuits, Blessed Longevity, Enhancing Life for All and A Life of Art and Artistry showcase pavilions of Ancient Flower (Guhuaxuan), of Expecting Good Omen (Fuwangge), the Pavilion of Viewing Beautiful Scenery (Cuishanglou), the Hall of Wish Fulfillment (Suichutang), the Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service (Juanqinzhai), and the Well of Concubine Zhen along with a labyrinth of corridors connecting the courtyards and other structures. The Garden had housed some of the most extravagant interiors found in the imperial palace complex and some of the calligraphy, murals, furniture and paintings are on display illustrating the cultural significance of traditional Chinese royal gardens.
The multimedia presentations, the animation and computer programming offer an opportunity to understand and take part in the philosophical and religious beliefs of longevity and eternal bliss reflected in the design and artifacts of the Garden. Particularly fascinating are the Portraits of the Emperor while hunting deer, (the Emperor and the deer seem to be posing for the painter); the panel portraying the Emperor who ‘wants to be immortal’ by taking the place of the Buddha and the ‘18th century version of 3D-VR portrait of a royal family.
Few hours admiring the display and I agreed with the advice in Do’s and Don’ts for the ‘Garden’ Tour….’Bring eye drops in case the animation is so exciting that you forget to blink’. The real Qianlong Garden in Beijing, once it opens to the public, will be a place to curl in your nook.