Along with the Great Wall, the Forbidden City is the most iconic structure in all of China. The sprawling, 178-acre complex, officially known as the Palace Museum, was once home to the imperial Chinese court and is now one of the world’s largest open-air museums. But after nearly 90 years as Beijing’s most popular public attraction, the museum is facing accusations of poor management, with many observers and insiders calling for dramatic changes. Some of these are already underway, like the decision, effective since April, to adopt shorter visiting hours for easier upkeep. And Palace Museum director Shan Jixiang recently declared the premises smoke-free. Still, other adjustments may require addressing more deeply underlying issues, which do not seem easily tackled.
Take restoration. According to the Palace Museum’s own guidelines, any part of the Forbidden City that has been left untouched since 1911 is considered “historical,” and all conservation efforts must use the best available techniques. But for those ancient pavilions, latticed marbles, wooden doors, or lacquered beams that have been repaired after the 1911 cutoff date—in more or less fortunate restoration attempts—the historical classification no longer applies. (Despite the fact that the last emperor moved out in 1924.) The objects in question might not even be considered “cultural relics,” and any further intervention could be done in a much less rigorous fashion.
This has meant, particularly during the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, that the main areas of the Forbidden City—the ones most visitors are likely to see—were restored in ways that have appalled some experts. “They simply repainted the columns with contemporary acrylic paint similar in color to the red lacquer of imperial times,” says one Beijing insider, who prefers not to be named given the high sensitivity of everything connected to the Forbidden City. “A lot of ancient tiles disappeared and were simply substituted with contemporary ones. We know that there have been cases of ancient bricks and tiles being stolen and sold, but not much talk of this was permitted. The situation has not improved enough since then—even pieces of carved marble have disappeared.”
After a series of embarrassing scandals in the past couple of years, from the theft of $1.5 million worth of exhibited rare trinkets to the discovery of secret plans to open a private club on Palace Museum premises, information about the Forbidden City’s inner quarters is now harder to come by. “Which is why people who wish to say more about the Forbidden City are talking about the theft at the Summer Palace,” says the insider.
The Summer Palace, a secondary imperial residence located on the outskirts of Beijing, was in the news this year after a portion of a marble pillar had been discovered stolen. While officials at the Summer Palace were keen to keep the disappearance under wraps, last February a user of a Chinese microblogging platform posted a series of photos showing a gaping hole in one of the antique marble balustrades.
Soon after, the commercial media reported the story, and the whole scandal came out into the open. The missing artifact—a 20-inch-tall hunk of white marble weighing about 110 pounds—was part of 60 similar pillars delicately carved with dragon and cloud motifs, most likely produced in the 18th century, in the glory days of the Qing dynasty. A press release from the Summer Palace later acknowledged the disappearance, adding that the missing pillar would be “replaced with the same material soon” and that it was “probably carved in the late Qing dynasty,” in the 19th century, and not all that precious—once again irking conservationists and the public alike.
At the Forbidden City, one of the most hotly debated topics recently has pertained to access, with some outside curators talking about a secretive mentality among museum staff, which hampers research. In 2002, the New York–based World Monuments Fund engaged in its most ambitious international conservation effort to date, when it launched a joint project with the Palace Museum to restore the Qianlong Garden. Comprising 27 buildings and various courtyards built for the Qianlong Emperor, who reigned from 1735 to 1796, that site has remained largely unchanged since the early 1800s. The $25 million restoration is scheduled for completion in 2019, but sections of the Qianlong Garden were finished five years ago and are, theoretically, open to the public.
However, Palace Museum officials have made entry difficult by implementing a time-consuming screening process (one month minimum) for potential visitors to Juanqinzhai, the first of the Qianlong Garden pavilions to be fully restored. “We are beginning to work on this issue,” says Henry Ng, executive vice president of the World Monuments Fund.
Another dilemma involves the inherent fragility of the restored interiors. Juanqinzhai, or the Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service, is decorated with unusual materials and in an intricate style that showcases the Qianlong Emperor’s love for the highest technical skills, as well as his interest in the Western style of trompe l’oeil painting that visiting Jesuit missionaries brought to the Chinese court. Its rooms contain painted-silk panels, bamboo-thread marquetry, and jade inlay.
“Our goal is always to make the buildings fully accessible for learning,” Ng says, “but you need to balance this with how delicate the site is.”