Thursday, November 13, 2008

Studio of Exhaustion From Diligent Service

The Qianlong Emperor’s Studio of Exhaustion From Diligent Service (or Juanqinzhai) is an 18th-century jewel box tucked away in the northeast quadrant of the Forbidden City. While it's on my list of things to see in my life, the reason I want to see it is not because of its historical importance, or furnishings, or authenticity. (The room shown above is the theater.)

No, I want to see it because of the name. How can you resist seeing something called The Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service?

This inner room receives its light from the illumination through the double-sided embroidery panels in the screens. A worker peers down at the photographers from the balcony.

The emperor built it for retreat from a tiring life of ruling masses of Chinese citizens. It basically consists of a foyer-type space, with bedroom. There's a secret door that lead to his theater (part of the stage is shown above) where he was treated to theater-for-one as there was only one chair. I suppose that is a parallel to our wide-screen televisions and comfy recliners.

I can think of many places that may qualify in our twentieth century life.
First, the laundry area/room. It's a good place to go to escape. No one follows you there. You can stand in one-ness with the ohm and hum of the washing machine and the dryer, folding Mt. Laundry. The phone's not there, nor is the computer. Just ohm. Just hum. And an occasional clank.

The bedroom. This has to be the ultimate studio of exhaustion from some kind of service, even it the service is only of the cook-and-clean-and-grade-and-bring-home-the-bacon kind of service. In our twentieth century bedrooms, we have multiple pillows (a chore both evening and morning to un-decorate and re-decorate the bed) and comfortable mattresses.

When we went to Shanghai, I sat down on the bed when we arrived, expecting that western "bounce" that comes from sitting on a mattress with springs. No bounce. If felt like I'd perched on the edge of the coffee table, with a thud. We asked for a different mattress. Same thing--really really hard.

The manager came up, for we were there just after 9/11 and were "honored American guests" at his hotel. I asked for another bedspread and he had one brought up, all the while conversing with us in some sort of English. That means that we understood the words to be from the English language, but really couldn't understand a thing he said--the syntax was so interestingly arranged. We'd try, smile, cock our heads towards him as if that would help, and keep smiling.

When the extra comforter arrived, I peeled back the sheets, lay out the bedspread underneath the mattress pad and then made the bed again (actually the two maids there re-made the bed). I asked him to explain our request that they were to keep that there the entire week for the honored American Guests. They bowed, smiled and backed out of the room. I can only imagine what they told their families over the dinner table.

I think this is one of the best spaces in Juanqinzhai. A single throne, with wise sayings (I assume) on the wall, where he would greet people. Then he would probably make them all go away in order to enjoy the paintings in this Studio. He brought in a Jesuit priest from Italy in order to paint scenes of nature during summer; thick masses of wisteria blossoms dangle from the theater's ceilings, as apparently he enjoyed the outdoors.

I could think of many Studios for our tired 20th century dwellers: the car as I drive home from lunch from Chad, no radio and just the satisfying sounds of the road noise as I'm alone with my thoughts. Your place may be in front of your sewing machine, piecing together a quilt, or in the recliner, reading a book. Everyone's is different, but another common place is the backyard.

We were at a friend's home the other night and they had a portable fireplace. We gathered around and watched the sparks fly off into the night, the wood crackling. I've, on occasion, gone out to our backyard as we're lucky enough to have a genuine wisteria vine overhead with fragrant blossoms in the spring. Another friend, a double major in music and physics, believed that when man went outside into nature, all the harmonic intervals and vibrations were in sync--as opposed to trying to line up our karma with man-made items such as plastic and nylon and polyester. She believed we felt better just by being outside. Perhaps.

So, if you'll excuse me, I'd like to push back from this man-made computer, pick up my latest book (Acedia and Me, by Kathleen Norris) and try to get my harmonics back into natural vibration by escaping to My Studio of Exhaustion from Diligent Service.

If you go here, you'll get a video of NBC's tour of the space. You do have to endure an interview with Matt Lauer first, then it gets interesting.


Jessica said...

This post made me laugh. Yes, I have gotten stuck in the laundry room watching the clothes spin round and round (the real reason I spend extra cash for a front loader). My mother's dryer was a nice warm massage chair. My studio of exhaustion from diligent service would probably be the living room, though. I really like the comfy chairs.

Christine said...


Cynthia said...

Fascinating. I'm glad it wasn't restored yet when we were there. Now, another reason to return. Thanks!