A sur­gi­cally ex­e­cuted mis­sion to re­store old glory

Closed-off sec­tion of Palace Mu­seum will re­open its doors just in time for a huge an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tion

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COVER STORY - By WANG KAIHAO

Let’s clear our minds now and get this straight: on Thurs­day the Hall of Men­tal Cul­ti­va­tion had been closed to the pub­lic for ex­actly 1,000 days — the of­fi­cial rea­son be­ing that it was be­ing re­paired — and we’re still count­ing.

But a cou­ple of weeks ago, any­one think­ing the hall, part of the Palace Mu­seum in Bei­jing, also known as the For­bid­den City, must surely re­open its doors again soon, re­ceived an ice-cold shower. That came grace of Shan Jix­i­ang, the mu­seum di­rec­tor, who jaun­tily in­formed as­sem­bled me­dia on Sept 3 that the re­pair work was in fact just about to be­gin.

So what on earth have those armies of re­pair per­son­nel been do­ing for the past two years and eight months?

To ex­plain it all, Shan took the med­i­cal route.

“It’s like doc­tors do­ing tests to get an ab­so­lutely ac­cu­rate di­ag­no­sis be­fore they treat a pa­tient,” he said. “If you first get a com­plete pic­ture of where things stand with the ar­chi­tec­ture it makes the restora­tion work it­self a lot eas­ier.”

Con­sid­er­ing the huge com­plex­ity of this op­er­a­tion it is easy to sym­pa­thize with Shan.

The Hall of Men­tal Cul­ti­va­tion is a key site in the mu­seum, China’s im­pe­rial palace from 1420 to 1911, and it cov­ers 2,540 square me­ters. It was first built dur­ing the late Ming Dy­nasty (1368-1644), and the last eight em­per­ors of the Qing Dy­nasty (1644-1911) used it as a liv­ing room.

More than 2,000 ex­quis­ite art pieces and daily-use royal ar­ti­facts were moved out of the hall, some be­ing ex­hib­ited in cities in­clud­ing Bei­jing, Hong Kong, Nan­jing and Ji­nan.

In-depth re­search of the tiles, the walls and ev­ery inch of the beams and col­umns, a process called “ar­chae­ol­ogy on the roof”, was done not only to ac­cu­rately spot dam­age done over the cen­turies, but also as the ba­sis of 33 aca­demic stud­ies.

“Ev­ery wall tells a story, and each of those sto­ries is wait­ing to be told,” Shan said. “For ex­am­ple, the build­ing has of­ten gone through re­pairs over the cen­turies, and numer­ous records have been made. We need to check whether the ves­tige of pre­vi­ous restora­tions matches the records.”

The lat­est re­search re­sults were dis­played in a tem­po­rary ex­hi­bi­tion in the mu­seum from Au­gust un­til early Septem­ber.

There are other rea­sons for the de­lay in restora­tion work be­gin­ning, too.

Un­til re­cently there were sim­ply not enough com­pe­tent peo­ple in this kind of restora­tion work whom the mu­seum could call on, but in late Au­gust 116 qual­i­fied re­stor­ers grad­u­ated from a pro­gram tai­lored to teach­ing the skills re­quired to do the restora­tion work in the For­bid­den City.

Of those 116, about 20 are likely even­tu­ally to be of­fered per­ma­nent jobs with the mu­seum.

“We are keen to en­sure that ev­ery­one who is work­ing closely with cul­tural her­itage is cer­ti­fied and has gone through the train­ing with us,” Shan said. “It’s im­por­tant when we are restor­ing this royal ar­chi­tec­ture stretch­ing from the Ming to the Qing Dy­nas­ties to strictly fol­low the proper pro­ce­dures.

The cer­ti­fied re­stor­ers are se­lected from en­gi­neer­ing teams nationwide through the­ory and prac­tice tests, and the suc­cess­ful can­di­dates re­ceive train­ing and tu­tor­ing on cul­tural her­itage from vet­eran re­stor­ers in the mu­seum and ex­perts from sev­eral other na­tional-level in­sti­tu­tions.

In cen­turies gone by main­te­nance work on build­ings in the For­bid­den City al­most never stopped, Shan said.

“There were gen­er­a­tions of tal­ented re­stor­ers with a huge amount of ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Com­pre­hen­sive restora­tion of ma­jor struc­tures in the For­bid­den City be­gan in 2002 and is due to con­tinue un­til 2020, the 600th an­niver­sary of the former im­pe­rial palace’s found­ing. It is the largest scale ren­o­va­tion of ar­chi­tec­ture in the palace af­ter the monar­chy fell.

In 2008 ar­chi­tec­tural restora­tion tech­niques per­tain­ing to the mu­seum were listed as a na­tional-level in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage, but in it­self that dec­la­ra­tion can­not en­sure that restora­tion in the fu­ture will be up to scratch. Like a par­ent em­ploy­ing a child min­der, Shan is ex­tremely anx­ious to en­sure that any­one the mu­seum brings in to do the in­tri­cate, de­mand­ing restora­tion work pos­sesses the skills and has the char­ac­ter that de­serve his trust.

Li Yongge, 63, a car­pen­ter who has worked at the mu­seum since 1975, and who was one of the tu­tors on the re­cent train­ing pro­gram, said: “In the old days when re­stor­ers were trained the mas­ter-ap­pren­tice model was fol­lowed.

“Do­ing it that way you couldn’t train many peo­ple. Lead­ers in our in­dus­try are in their 60s and it has been very sad to see that in our craft no new blood has been com­ing through.”

How­ever, things seem to be chang­ing, Li says.

“I’m de­lighted to see that a lot of new tal­ent is fi­nally here, and I feel con­fi­dent about the train­ing these peo­ple will re­ceive from peo­ple like me.

“Ev­ery­one who works for the Palace Mu­seum will get an of­fi­cial cer­tifi­cate from now on. That is an honor for them and will en­cour­age them to do bet­ter with other restora­tion work.”

Skills com­pe­ti­tions were used to de­ter­mine who, among brick­lay­ers, car­pen­ters, painters, stone­ma­sons and oth­ers from 10 en­gi­neer­ing com­pa­nies, would do work in the Hall of Men­tal Cul­ti­va­tion. In the com­pe­ti­tions those taking part are re­quired to use old tools rather than new tech­nol­ogy, Li says.

“De­spite the 2020 deadline, we in­sist that the work on the pro­ject is of the high­est stan­dard,” Li said.

Ar­chi­tec­ture ex­perts will fol­low the whole process as su­per­vi­sors.

“This pro­ject will set an ex­am­ple for us be­cause we fill in the gaps in stud­ies, de­sign and field work,” said Liu Yang, deputy head of the ar­chae­ol­ogy depart­ment in the State Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Cul­tural Her­itage.

“It will even­tu­ally help form China’s own sys­tem­atic dis­ci­plines and cri­te­ria restor­ing cul­tural her­itage, which dif­fer from gen­eral con­struc­tion.”

Restora­tion of the Hall of Men­tal Cul­ti­va­tion will end no later than June of 2020, Shan says, and af­ter the 18-year com­pre­hen­sive ren­o­va­tion is com­pleted, all en­gi­neer­ing projects in the Palace Mu­seum will pause for six months.

“Then, on the For­bid­den City’s 600th an­niver­sary, vis­i­tors will be able to ap­pre­ci­ate what a won­der­ful place it is, and the fol­low­ing year an­other 15-year cy­cle of main­tain­ing the ar­chi­tec­ture will be­gin.”

JIANG DONG / CHINA DAILY

A “trea­sured box” is taken from roof of the Hall of the Men­tal Cul­ti­va­tion on Sept 3, mark­ing the be­gin­ning of ren­o­va­tion on this Qing em­per­ors’ res­i­dence.

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