Garden of Perfect Enlightenment


Culture and International Relations in the 18th Century



Emperor Qianlong spent half of the year living in the Garden of Perfect Enlightenment. The rest of the time was spent in the Summer Palace in northeast China and in various nearby villas. On a typical day, he would wake up around 5 a.m., have breakfast, and prepare to hold court at sunrise. After working on state affairs until about 11 a.m., he would have lunch. Then, he could relax and pursue his many private interests during the afternoon. He would frequently visit pavilions in the garden, including the European Pavilions. He had dinner around 6 or 7 p.m. Because of his early schedule, he did not usually stay up very late.

Many special occasions called for various celebrations to be held. Festivals, birthdays, religious holidays, or the reception of important visitors were times when he could suspend his normal routine and enjoy all various types of entertainment. Generally, he would hold these events in the Chinese section of the Garden of Perfect Enlightenment, but, on very special occasions, activities also might be held in the European Pavilions. For example, during the Lantern Festival held on the fifteenth day of the first lunar month (the Chinese traditionally used the lunar, not the solar calendar, so this often occurred in late February), people all over China displayed lanterns of all kinds and shapes. The illuminated lanterns created an especially dazzling scene at night, which had very much impressed Father Jean-Denis Attiret, who wrote:

It is in these [artfully-wrought lanterns], and in the great variety which the Chinese show in their buildings, that I admire the fruitfulness of their invention; and am almost tempted to own, that we are quite poor and barren in comparison of them.

One of the sections of the European Pavilions included a labyrinth with a raised pavilion located in the center for the emperor.

Reconstruction of the Labyrinth in the European Pavilions.
Photo courtesy of Marty Powers.

From here, the emperor could look down and see anyone trying to find a way out of the maze. It is recorded that, during the Lantern Festival, Emperor Qianlong liked to sit in this pavilion and watch the palace ladies holding colorful lanterns as they moved around trying to find their way out. He found it enjoying and amusing to observe all their confusion! Because labyrinths were often included as a part of European garden design practice and because the European aristocracy were fond of this type of game, it is possible that Emperor Qianlong was, in fact, role playing in European guise, just as European aristocracy of that period would stroll about in their Chinese pavilions (this labyrinth and the emperor’s pavilion have been recently rebuilt on the original site and you can walk through it today, as in the photo above). Another activity that took place was musical performances. The very first pavilion that was built was called Harmony of Surprise and Delight, which had a splendid fountain and was designed to accommodate orchestras. Here, the emperor could not only watch the waterworks but also listen to various types of Chinese music. When he had important visitors from such places as Mongolia, he would invite them into the garden and order the playing of Mongolian music to entertain his guests.


module3-Social Function1

Emperor Qianlong enjoying the scenery at one of the European Pavilions, the View Beyond the World.


The emperor is seated on a portable throne and wears an imperial Chinese robe. To his left are palace servants, one of whom holds a canopy. To his right is one of his wives wearing European dress attended by her servant-girl (he had two empresses and more than forty imperial concubines). This painting is the only surviving one that shows the emperor by one of the European Pavilions. It combines both Chinese and European perspectives. Can you distinguish them?

Answer: The architecture, like Yi Lantai’s engraving, uses linear perspective but with more than one focal point. The emperor, moreover, is seated off-center and is looking sideways at a pine tree, as if he is a figure in a Chinese painting.


Back to top