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Re-established Happiness

In China, a heritage site rises from the ashes

Courtesy China Heritage Fund

OLD WAYS: Craftsmen used traditional tools and techniques to rebuild the garden.

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By Kevin Cool

In 1735, a 24-year-old prince named Hongli became emperor of China, continuing the succession of rulers whose 300-year reign composed the Qing Dynasty. Five years after ascending the throne, Hongli—who adopted the name Qianlong as emperor—commissioned an intimate garden retreat in the northwest corner of the Forbidden City.

The Garden of the Palace of Established Happiness featured nine structures of varying sizes among a network of shaded walkways. It played host to Tibetan monks, courtiers and the emperor himself, who briefly used it as his primary residence. Later, it supplied respite and relaxation for seven generations of Qing rulers.

In 1923, 11 years after China’s last emperor abdicated following the Chinese revolution, the garden and its buildings burned to the ground. The spot remained a blighted collection of stone foundations and creeping weeds for 77 years.

Happy Harun remembers the exact moment eight years ago when she got involved in bringing the garden back to life. She was waiting for a car on a Shanghai street corner with her boss, Ronnie Chan, chairman of Hang Lung Group, a Hong Kong-based development company. “There had been some discussion about reconstructing the garden, but neither of us had any concept of the scale of the project. And Ronnie said, ‘Why don’t you take care of this?’ I didn’t have the first clue about what I was getting into,” says Harun, ’81, MS ’85.

This fall, the reconstructed garden, also known as Jianfu Palace Garden, will reopen as a reception center for visiting dignitaries and a showcase of Chinese architecture. It will be a triumph for the China Heritage Fund, a nonprofit foundation chaired by Chan; for the Palace Museum (the Chinese government’s official name for the Forbidden City) and for Harun, a former earth sciences major who oversaw the project.

Harun, whose graduate degree is in petroleum geology, was an unlikely candidate to lead the restoration of a Chinese antiquity. She had no experience in construction, knew the Forbidden City only as a tourist and didn’t speak the language. “I was born and raised in Hong Kong so my Chinese is Cantonese. My Mandarin was from the movies,” she recalls, laughing.

Harun had been Chan’s executive assis­tant for almost 10 years, working for Hang Lung’s charitable arm. The China Heritage Fund was targeting historic sites and approached the Palace Museum with a plan to rebuild Jianfu Garden from the ground up. Museum officials, who had never worked with an outside organization on a restoration, assented somewhat cautiously, and construction began in 2000.

Since then, Harun has directed the work of more than 100 stonemasons, carpenters and painters who have rebuilt Qianlong’s garden sanctuary using traditional tools and techniques. “Not that I knew what those techniques were,” she concedes. “But I didn’t need to be an expert to know that the tiles should all come from the same batch and be the same color.”

Ferrying back and forth between Palace Museum officials, her bosses at Hang Lung, and foremen and workers on the job site, Harun coaxed, cajoled, inspired, motivated, supervised and lobbied. And she brought people and attention to the project. In September 2004, Harun organized a special ceremony to give VIPS a sneak peek. More than 200 people came from as far away as London and New York.

Mostly, she sweated the details. “I’m such a process person that I just assume the finished product will be good if the process is good. How did I write my thesis at Stanford? One step at a time. How do I make a BLT sandwich? If I do each step properly, it’s going to be a great sandwich.”

This approach was especially important because of the craft required to rebuild Qing Dynasty structures the way a crew in Qianlong’s time would have done it. “Yes, you could pour concrete for the floor, and in some of the offices in the Forbidden City that has been done. But this isn’t an office. We paid more attention intellectually to the authenticity of the process,” Harun notes.

For example, treating and painting a single timber in the main structure, the Pavilion of Prolonged Spring, took weeks. The building was made with red pine, the same wood harvested from northwest China for the original construction. Pieces of bamboo were squeezed into cracks and imperfections on each beam to prevent expansion and contraction. Then the wood was wrapped several times in hemp cloth to protect against moisture, and plastered with fine particle ash, called hui, to provide texture. Finally it was sanded and painted, using stencils recreated to match the original design.

While she doesn’t give herself much credit, Harun sees value in what she brought to the project. “We’re in a position to influ­ence management practices here. The Chi­nese authorities, especially those asso­ci­ated with the Palace Museum, tend to be very conservative and afraid to fail. I told them, ‘We can view this as an experiment. If it doesn’t work, blame it on us.’”

Combining Eastern and Western principles is a challenge, she says. “It puts me in an unusual position. I can see the Chinese side and the Western side, and they’re both right. My job is to find that balance.”

She points to differences in perspective about what constitutes valuable work. Whereas craftsmen in the West might derive satisfaction from developing their own style, the Chinese workers were pleased by their ability to translate an earlier version with great precision. A Western attitude might consider this “copying” and undervalue it, Harun notes. The Chinese bring no ego to the work. “The lack of creativity is a point of pride,” she says.

Harun also sees ways Western practices can help. In earlier restorations in the Palace Museum, “the craftspeople weren’t really pushed to do their best work. And you can see why—they are viewed as manual laborers, not artisans, and their craft is not respected the way it should be. The work lacked consistency. All of the buildings have the same design—the dragons on the roofs are all looking west. But if you look closely, they’re different. There wasn’t much attention to those details.”

When confronted by higher standards of quality control, the workers responded the way Harun had hoped—they began to take more pride in their involvement, and more ownership of the project itself. It was one of the best outcomes of the job, she says. “The garden is a monument to the ingenuity and skill of these craftsmen. It’s their story.”

With the opening of the garden set for October 20, Harun is now concentrating on the buildings’ interiors. The main pavilions will house reception areas and museum exhibitions. As yet, there are no plans to open it to the general public.

Her next job is already under way. She will oversee the reconstruction of the Hall of Rectitude, an adjacent building that burned in the 1923 fire. She expects it will take three years to complete.

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