The Jesuit Theater of Memory in China


  • Hui Zou


During the late 18th century, European Jesuits built a “Western garden” for Emperor Qianlong. The garden was located within Qianlong’s Garden of Perfect Brightness (Yuanmingyuan) complex in the northwestern suburb of Beijing. The destination of the Western garden was an open-air theater designed with the technique of illusory perspective (trompe l’oeil). This Baroque-like garden was part of a garden residence for Qianlong’s retirement for which he also built a palace garden, the so-called Qianlong Garden, in the Forbidden City. The terminus of this palace garden was a secret interior theater designed by the Jesuit painters’ Chinese students with the technique of illusory perspective. The landscape theme of both theaters is reminiscent of Renaissance theories of theater design, especially Sabastiano Serlio’s satiric stage. Qianlong’s follie-like theaters were both hidden within the most remote corners of the typically Chinese garden context and provided vivid perspectival views of depicted landscapes. These trompe l’oeil mountains, clouds, and rustic order of buildings not only demonstrated Qianlong’s entangled cosmic view between the real and fictional, East and West, but also symbolized different yet interactive cultural and religious meanings respectively for the emperor and Jesuits. The link between the satirical and pastoral in Qianlong’s theaters helps reveal the ethos which was opened up by theatricality of illusory perspective and fully engaged by the emperor and the Jesuits. The comparison between pictorial perspectives and literary metaphors in Qianlong’s mind mirrors the Jesuits’ art of memory in China, which resonates with the theater of memory in Renaissance tradition.