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Interview with Li Yin July 2, 2008


Li Yin (center) and colleagues (Photo by Liu Bowen)

What is it like to work on the original hand-painted, silk-backed murals in the Lodge of Retirement at the Qianlong Garden?

It takes a lot of skill to restore traditional materials. The work is very complex. There are many details, so you need a lot of abilities. You must be devoted to the nation's history.

But do you enjoy it?

Very much.

The Lodge of Retirement in the Qianlong Garden, located in the northeast district of the Forbidden City, is scheduled to open to the public in November 2008. Li Yin, along with Chinese colleagues and an international team from the World Monuments Fund, has been working to restore the building's late-18th-century interiors, which feature hand-painted, silk-baked, European-style murals and intricate woodwork inlaid with jade and other precious materials. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller) [image]
The Lodge of Retirement's silk-backed murals are being restored in a conservation studio, located in a staff area in the northwest district of the Forbidden City. The murals that were affixed to the ceiling feature wisteria, which can be seen on these two panels that are in different stages of conservation. They were so expertly painted that when in situ, they create a three-dimensional effect—the bunches of purple flowers and vines seem to drop straight down, an optical illusion that greatly pleased the emperor. He also enjoyed personal theater performances in the room. (Photo by Liu Bowen) [image]

How do you feel knowing that the work will be completed next year [now projected for late 2008]?

I feel very happy and proud. Every time I finish a painting, I feel I have accomplished something.

[image] The paintings conservation studio at the Forbidden City features specially designed tables that are large enough to fit the delicate silk-backed murals. The team has re-created a small-scale version of the room where the murals originally hung (rear left) for inspiration and reference as they work. (Photo by Liu Bowen)
[image] On the ceiling of the re-created room where the murals once hung, a yellow tack indicates where the emperor would have sat. His vantage point was the best place in the room to take in the three-dimensional effect of the paintings. (Photo by Liu Bowen)

What first interested you in this work?

Back then, people like me were assigned to this place to work. It's not like you decided what you wanted to do and you could just go ahead and do it. You did what you were told to do. So this was the job that was given to me. When I first started this job, I didn't know why I had to do it. But through working, I grew to like it. My interest for it was cultivated along the way. Then the meaning of restoration of this type of building became clear to me.

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The Qianlong Garden was intended to resemble a miniature version of the Forbidden City so many architectural elements are the same as in the imperial palace—just smaller. This colorful pavilion lies in a rock garden that is only wide enough for one person to walk through at a time. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller) Fires were common throughout the Forbidden City, where most of the architecture was made of wood. Large urns, such as the one in the foreground of this photo at the Qianlong Garden, were always filled with water placed throughout the imperial palace as a precaution. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)

Do many young people want to study conservation today?

This occupation does not need too many people, so there are only two or three colleges—not universities, colleges—that have this kind of preservation department. Only Jinlin University has this kind of department. Students have three years of classes.

How does the government feel today about restoration projects like the Qianlong Garden?

The government pays a lot of attention to protecting ancient buildings and structures, rather than protecting paintings, simply because there are not enough resources. The old historical sites were being destroyed so fast that the government realized if they didn't do something now, these sites wouldn't be there to face future generations.

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The Qianlong emperor furnished the lavish retirement complex with the only finest objects, such as this solid jade bowl decorated with swirling fish. (Photos by Eti Bonn-Muller)
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Parts of the Qianlong Garden will open to the public in November 2008. (Photos by Liu Bowen)

Why is there more interest in historical preservation now?

Because the public awareness is raised…because there is more governmental involvement. In the past, no one paid attention to this area.

When did things start to change and why?

It's hard to say exactly when it started. It was a slow, gradual evolution. One can tell from the regulations issued by the government, which can be traced back to the 1980s. That was an indication—since then, people began to be aware of the issue of heritage protection. Especially now, whenever people find anything underground at a construction site, they know they must stop and report the discovery to the Cultural Protection Administrative Bureau.


This wall in the Qianlong Garden was made of naturally colored stones obtained from the countryside. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)

Detail of the pavilion's richly decorated roof (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)

Do people today feel differently, in general, about their past than they did 30 years ago, when you first started working in this field?

Today, the entire public is aware of the importance of heritage protection. That's very clear. A small case in point, in the past, people liked to sign their names on a wall when they visited [the Forbidden City]; but now, the general public is very annoyed when seeing anyone doing it. And from the government's point of view, the concern is not just about protection, but how to promote historical education, cultivate love for our country, and work on the business side of it to develop tourism.

There are many angles to protecting our heritage. For example, one angle is the general person's education level went up and second, the government, or the local government, will protect our heritage because they want to earn money and develop tourism. So everyone now thinks it's very important to protect our heritage.

© 2008 by the Archaeological Institute of America