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Exclusive: Inside Beijing’s Forbidden City

On his pre-Olympic tour of Beijing, TODAY's Matt Lauer was granted unprecedented access to the newly restored emperor's inner sanctum in the Forbidden City. Here, an exclusive peek into China's past.
/ Source: TODAY

When historic preservationist Henry Ng first opened the doors to some of the most intimate spaces of one of China’s greatest emperors six years ago, it was as if he was looking at a forgotten chapter of the country’s rich imperial history. But what had once been the jewel of the Forbidden City was in shambles — full of faded embroideries, peeling paintings and chipped woodwork buried beneath inches of dust that had been collecting for eight decades.

“Your heart goes out because it’s in such disrepair,” Ng said. “But you also know what’s possible and that you could bring it back, so you’re excited about the opportunity. You know the end result can be something spectacular.”

The fact that this building — known as Juan’qin’zhai, or Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service — has been almost completely restored to its original state is nothing short of “miraculous,” Ng said as he gave TODAY’s Matt Lauer the exclusive first look at the emperor’s inner sanctum. When the Studio opens in November, it will mark the first time the public has ever had access to the Qianlong Garden, and offers a taste of what is to come when all 27 buildings of the garden are restored by 2018.

“This will open up a whole new period of study for interior decoration in the Qing dynasty,” said Ng, noting that the garden includes the five most important surviving interiors of China’s imperial era, including the Studio.

The two-acre complex, tucked within the 180 acres of the Forbidden City, was commissioned by Qianlong, the fifth emperor of the Qing dynasty, and constructed between 1771 and 1776. Qianlong vowed he would retire after 60 years of rule so as not to govern longer than his grandfather, Kangxi, China’s longest-reigning emperor. Qianlong conceived of a city within the Forbidden City — complete with spaces for ceremony, living and entertainment — to live out his final years. True to his word, Qianlong abdicated the throne in favor of his son in 1796. After Qianlong’s death in 1799, the garden was used by every emperor until 1924, when Puyi, the last emperor, was forced out of the Forbidden City.

“You almost felt like Puyi left his things and just went out the door,” Ng said.

Matt overlooking the Forbidden City.
Matt overlooking the Forbidden City.

Ng is the executive vice president of the World Monuments Fund, a New York-based nonprofit restoring the Qianlong Garden in conjunction with the Palace Museum, which has been overseeing the Forbidden City — the world's largest palace complex — since 1924. Ng said the Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service, a space Qianlong used for leisure and entertainment, was chosen as the starting point of the multimillion-dollar renovation because it is the most complicated and ornate interior in the complex, as well as the greatest conservation challenge. The lessons learned from reviving the silks, woodwork, double-sided embroideries and a massive ceiling mural are key to the next 10 years of the project.

The mural on the ceiling of the emperor’s private theater is the feature that most interests art historian Nancy Berliner, curator of Chinese Art at the Peabody and Essex Museum and a consultant on the restoration.

“I was blown away when I first saw it. When you look at a great piece of art and see the brushstroke of a master, you can understand the standard of what everything else is based on.”

The Western influence of depth and perspective in the wisteria-covered bamboo latticework of the painting is unique to the Forbidden City as well as China, and illustrates Qianlong's commitment to developing a multicultural society, Berliner said.

“He had an ability to really push his artists and artisans to go beyond what they did before, so that artists that had been trained in Chinese painting, he pushed them to learn about European perspective and volume to create something new.”

In addition to learning more about one of the most powerful rulers in China’s history, the team continues to gain insight into Qianlong, the man. Just recently they discovered a wooden carving behind a door of the theater. It was a poem about longevity written by Qianlong in the 60th year of his reign.

“One starts to get a real sense of the person, that he wasn’t just an emperor, that he was reacting to things. And you get a sense of him being in this space,” Berliner said. “More even now that’s it’s restored, you really get a sense of what he was like when he walked into this room.”

Both Berliner and Ng say they feel like "above-ground archaeologists," and it is with almost childlike enthusiasm that they look forward to the secrets they will uncover about Qianlong and his descendants as they continue to peel back the centuries, one building at a time.

“Nancy [Berliner] said this the other day: ‘I wish the Qianlong emperor was alive to see this now. He could probably recognize it,’ ” Ng said. “I think this is a huge accomplishment. It’s almost a miracle.”