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Retirement was not usually a concept of pressing concern to Chinese emperors. Succession and survival were normally quite enough to keep them occupied, and death—when it came—was often unexpected and frequently brutal. But Emperor Qianlong, who reigned from 1736 to 1795 CE, was unusual in his willingness to plan for his own future on a more than basic scale. The factors affecting his thinking about retirement seem to have been fourfold. Firstly, he would not reign longer than the sixty-one years on the throne that had been his celebrated grandfather Kangxi’s astonishing achievement, and was the longest single reign in the whole of Chinese history. Qianlong would be willing to abdicate rather than seem to challenge his grandfather’s honorific distinction.
Secondly, Qianlong, despite the glorious natural sites and far-flung estates that were his for the asking in virtually any part of his vast domain, would plan for at least some of his retirement time to be spent within Beijing’s Forbidden City itself, and in a modest location: an awkward sliver of gardens and old buildings bunched in the northeast corner of the walled palace grounds, on a plot of land just 525 feet long and 121 feet wide, which had previously been used to house elderly dowager empresses or female imperial relatives once their husbands had died.
Thirdly, Qianlong made it clear that the aura of his newly conceived imperial retirement home would be scholarly and religious, allowing ample time and facilities for reading, reflection, learned conversation, prayer, and occasional theatrical and musical diversions. Fourthly, the emperor emphasized that every item brought in to decorate the retirement complex must be made to the highest standards of craftsmanship, whether created in the Forbidden City’s manufacturing establishments—which were numerous and filled with able artisans eager to do the emperor’s bidding—or sent in as gifts from imperial appointees in the provinces or by the wealthy Chinese scholar-aesthetes and merchants whose elegant estates in the Yangzi River region Qianlong loved to visit on the imperial southern tours that were one of the signatures of his reign.
These highest standards would apply to all objects, regardless of cost, material, or function: to jades and inkstones; cloisonné and calligraphy; porcelain and ornamental tiles; lattice screens and window frames; ornamental rocks and flowering plants; paintings on glass and glazing on bricks; lacquered pillars and embroidered silk cushions; carpets and window shades; altar hangings and sutra cases; tables, day beds, and benches; incense burners and stools. And since Qianlong had always thought of himself as a potent family man whose concerns for his own elder relatives, children, and consorts could not be surpassed, the constant bustle of family life—with toddlers and growing children absorbed in their games and exploring their own little universes, yet bringing no…
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