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On 30 September 2019, the Palace Museum and Chengdu Museum opened the jointly organized exhibition “Approaching the Chonghua Palace” in Chengdu Museum at Tianfu Square in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. The exhibition presents eighty-eight pieces (or sets, with a total of a hundred individual pieces) of art related to the Palace of Many Splendors (Chonghua gong) in the Forbidden City. Works on view include paintings, embroidery, thrones with decorative screens, gold and silver objects, ceramics, lacquers, enamels, and time pieces. The galleries are laid out according to the actual arrangement of the palatial courtyards of the Palace of Many Splendors area in the Forbidden City with four featured spaces: Hall of Esteem (Chongjing dian), Palace of Many Splendors, Hall of Halcyon Clouds (Cuiyun guan), and Studio of Cleansing Fragrance (Shufang zhai). While affording visitors a three-dimensional view of the imperial domicile, the exhibition gives insights into the daily life and spiritual world of the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736–1795).
Located to the west of the Pavilion of One Thousand Autumns (Qianqiu ting) and the Imperial Garden (Yu huayuan), the Palace of Many Splendors (Chonghua gong) is a large palatial courtyard with three rows of structures (a design called sanjin) in which the imperial son Hongli resided before acceding the dragon throne as the Qianlong Emperor. During the prince’s residence, the title of the courtyard had not yet been promoted to the degree of “palace” (gong) and was designated the second of the Five Abodes of the Heavenly West (Qianxi wusuo), where imperial sons and grandsons resided. In 1727 (the fifth year of the Yongzheng reign, 1723–1735), the then seventeen-year-old Hongli moved into the abode and married his first wife Lady Fuca (1712–1748). In 1733 (eleventh year of Yongzheng), Hongli was appointed as the Prince of Bao (with a rank called heshuo qinwang, prince of the blood of the first degree), and his residence was called the Hall of Jubilant Uprightness (Leshan tang, later renamed the Hall of Esteem). Occupying the courtyard for a total of eight years, Hongli vacated the space when he became emperor and moved into the Hall of Mental Cultivation (Yangxin dian).
After the Qianlong Emperor began his reign, his previous residence was no longer made available for imperial sons or grandsons in order to prevent delusions of grandeur and inappropriate intentions for greater status. The courtyard title was changed from “abode” (suo) to “palace” (gong) with “Many Splendors” (chonghua) selected as a suitable descriptor from the account of Emperor Shun—whose given name was Chonghua—in “The Book of Yu” in The Classic of History (Shang shu, also known as The Book of Documents). In the account, Shun is praised as “…profound, wise, accomplished, and intelligent. He was mild and courteous, and truly sincere. The report of his mysterious virtue was heard on high…” (translated by James Legge) Comparing the Qianlong Emperor to Shun as a ruler with pure governance and virtue, the grand secretaries Ortai (1677–1745) and Zhang Tingyu (1672–1755) proposed the title, which would prove to hold deep significance in the emperor’s mind. He wrote in Record of the Palace of Many Splendors (Chonghua gong ji) about the seriousness of the title and how he worked sedulously for the good of his subjects.
After the establishment of the Palace Museum, the administration decided against opening the area of the Palace of Many Splendors to the public due to the narrow space of the courtyard. Following the founding of the People’s Republic of China, its structures were renovated and used to entertain important guests. Consequently, the outside world has had mere hints of the courtyard’s appearance through pictures and videos. The Palace Museum’s VR reconstruction of the period décor has allowed additional glimpses into the historic area. Beginning in 2018, the courtyard has been subject to a large-scale restoration, which required the removal of all its cultural artifacts. The curators at the Museum have taken this opportunity to introduce the Palace of Many Splendors to the world. In September 2018, the exhibition “From the Forbidden City: Imperial Apartments of Qianlong” opened at the Acropolis Museum in Athens, Greece. Having received a warm welcome by the Greek public, the exhibition is remembered fondly as “the Qianlong Emperor moving into the Acropolis.” Following the related exhibition “Son of Heaven in the Heyday: Exhibition of the Qianlong Emperor in the Qing Dynasty” at the West Lake Gallery in the Zhejiang Provincial Museum, the exhibition in Chengdu is a rare chance for visitors in China to experience the secluded courtyard; in fact, it is the first domestic exhibition with the exclusive “Palace of Many Splendors” theme. During the week-long National Day vacation at the beginning of October, Chengdu Museum welcomed 180,000 visitors in an unprecedented bustle of tourism.
Translated and edited by Adam J. Ensign and Zhuang Ying