A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
In the past, the Palace Museum has been criticized for over-restoring parts of the Forbidden City, but I hear that things are changing for the better. How is restoration work done today?
In the Ci Ning Gong Garden, for example, where the concubines used to live, the color of the original [yellow-glazed terracotta] roof tiles had faded, so they were sent to a factory to be colorized. When the construction work on the rest of the building is finished, they will be placed back. All the tiles are the originals as they are of really high quality so we still use them. We also make brand-new ones, if necessary, when the originals are broken. But if the originals can be reused, we keep them.
Do you also reuse wooden elements?
When the wood has rotted, it cannot be used again. But we select and reuse the pieces that are still good enough.
We use new wood, but work in the old style. To clean [prepare] the wood requires a lot of skill. The work is very complex. First, we cover it with some oil and paint, and then some ash. Then we apply the color. The construction technique is also special. No nails are used. We are working in the old style. With this construction, very long and wide drawings can be placed on the wall.
We are also re-creating all the signs that once hung in the buildings. Our calligrapher, Mr. Miao, works in the style of Emperor Qianlong. He uses Manchu and Chinese Han [Mandarin Chinese] characters. There were originally nine signs that hung outside the buildings, too.
Once the construction work is finished, is there anything special you will need to do to preserve the buildings?
Since the roofs and the walls are made of blocks set in mud, trees grow out of them. This has always been a problem. To destroy the plants and trees used to be a very important event for the emperor. Every year, the emperor sent a lot of eunuchs to take out the weeds on the roofs and walls. Every year.