This seal is carved from soapstone with an auspicious animal finial. The seal is 6.9 cm in height, with a square seal face measuring 5.9 cm across each side. The seal face consists of the three characters “Yuanjianzhai” ('The Studio of Profound Discernment') at the centre, with images of a dragon and a tiger on the right and left, and the qian and kun trigrams on the top and bottom. All are carved in relief. This seal is clearly recorded in the two-volume imperial seal catalogue Kangxi Baosou, copies of which are held at the Palace Museum in Beijing and also on offer in the current sale (lot 3103). The Baosou record and the Yuanjianzhai seal are completely consistent in weight and composition, proving the latter to be a genuine imperial seal. To understand the historical value of this seal, it is necessary to delve into the literary and cultural activities of the Kangxi court.
1. The Yuanjianzhai and Kangxi-era cultural projects and literary activities
During the Qing period, imperial gardens were concentrated in the northwestern suburbs of Beijing. Through continuous construction between the Kangxi and Qianlong periods, the “Three Mountains and Five Gardens” gradually took shape: Xiangshan, Yuquanshan, and Wanshoushan, and Changchunyuan, Jingmingyuan, Jingyiyuan, Yuanmingyuan, and Qingyiyuan. Located in northwest Beijing, Changchunyuan was the first imperial garden built for the purpose of “attending to politics away from noise.” Between 1687, when the Kangxi Emperor first stayed at Changchunyuan, and 1722, when he died from illness at the Qingxizhai in Changchunyuan, the Kangxi Emperor went to Changchunyuan to live and work every year. Located on the east shore of Changchunyuan’s central lake, Yuanjianzhai was an important venue for his activities. This building is not very well attested in historical documents, but as the most important studio in the Kangxi Emperor’s garden it must have been intimately related to his cultural pursuits.
First, Yuanjianzhai was the namesake of the many imperially-commissioned anthologies, compilations, and publications undertaken during the Kangxi Emperor’s reign.
These include Yuanjianzhai yuzuan Zhuzi quanshu ['The Yuanjianzhai Imperially Compiled Complete Collection of Master Zhu'], Yuanjian leihan, Yuanjianzhai fatie, Yuanjianzhai mugu baolei, and Guwen yuanjian. The first was the result of the Kangxi Emperor's singular devotion to the Neo-Confucian philosophy of Zhu Xi, whom the emperor regarded as having “synthesised the lost teachings of thousands of years and having established the singular school of thought that illuminated a million forms of ignorance.”1 Having passed through countless compilers and editors, Zhu Xi’s surviving works were inevitably fraught with inaccuracies, and Zhu himself evolved intellectually between his early and late years. Coupled with previous Neo-Confucian scholars’ relative laxness regarding authenticity, this had led to misunderstandings and obfuscations of Zhu’s thought. As a result, in 1713, the Kangxi Emperor ordered Li Guangdi and other scholars to edit Zhu Xi’s writings and recorded sayings, remove questionable attributions, and reorganise his essential teachings into a book. The resultant Yuanjianzhai yuzuan Zhuzi quanshu was issued throughout the empire and cemented Zhu Xi’s authoritative status in the Chinese intellectual world. Yuanjian leihan was an encyclopedia edited by the renowned officials Zhang Ying and Wang Shizhen and others on the order of the Kangxi Emperor, at a time of relative political stability and when the Qing government wanted to develop good relations with Han Chinese intellectuals through cultural projects. The encyclopedia thus reflected the political and cultural environment of the Kangxi period and the emperor’s attitude towards higher learning. Guwen yuanjian was a compilation of ancient prose essays selected by the Kangxi Emperor himself and edited by Xu Qianxue and others. This project likewise had a pedagogical purpose, as the Kangxi Emperor believed that literature was a medium of moral thought and a means to cultivate the polity. He wanted the compilation not only to “exhaustively distinguish the orthodoxies and heterodoxies of literature” but also to familiarise his subjects with the role and teaching of the sage-ruler. These various literary and editorial projects named after Yuanjianzhai were a crucial part of the cultural prosperity of the Kangxi period, and brought the studio renown among Chinese intellectuals.2
Yuanjianzhai was also an important venue for the emperor’s calligraphic practice.
By the Kangxi Emperor’s own account, he spent most of his leisure studying. “When I am away from the court and retire to my study, I have many books piling on my desk. I enjoy reading, and often marking down my comments on the pages, trying to analyse and examine historic events. In my leisure time, I write poems and prose in the classical style, also practise calligraphy to express the pleasure I find in these arts. Many a time I indulge in the studies so much that I did not notice the day has passed.”3 Reading, writing and calligraphy are the main activities in Kangxi’s leisure time. “When I took leave from ruling, I did nothing but read and practise calligraphy, whether it was hot or cold.”4 This account marks the importance of calligraphy in the Emperor’s spare time. Although he was not a calligraphy expert, his devotion to calligraphy was serious to the point of obsession. He often copied the works of classical masters like Mi Fu and Zhao Mengfu, and had a profound and insightful understanding of them. He was quite proud of his own calligraphy, which he had compiled and reproduced in rubbing form as Yuanjianzhai fatie ('Calligraphic Model Books of Yuanjianzhai'). He did not use many seals associated with his palaces, and among these few, four were associated with Yuanjianzhai, indicating the studio’s importance in his calligraphic practice. He also had a seal reading Yuanjian huihao ('Wielding a brush at Yuanjianzhai'), a vivid evocation of the emperor’s calligraphic and painting practices at Yuanjianzhai.
Furthermore, Yuanjianzhai was an important venue for the Kangxi Emperor's research into Western science and art.
The Kangxi Emperor's deep interest in Western science is well-known. He established Suanxueguan ('Academy of Mathematics')—the first national science academy in Chinese history—in Changchunyuan and invited experts to translate and compile mathematical treatises there. Historical records suggest, however, that before the founding of Suanxueguan, Yuanjianzhai was where scientific research under the Kangxi Emperor's patronage took place. It was at Yuanjianzhai that the emperor received the court mathematician Chen Houyao in 1711, allowing the latter to examine various instruments for measurement and calculation, particularly Fangyicun, a cubic device comprising 30 different materials that estimated the weight balance between objects.5 This indicates that many imperial scientific instruments were on display at Yuanjianzhai. Other documents indicate that Yuanjianzhai housed also Western musical instruments, which the emperor himself recorded to have played.6 In short, Yuanjianzhai had an equally important role in Qing scientific learning as Yangxingdian in the Forbidden City.
From the above, it is clear that Yuanjianzhai was of crucial importance in the cultural, literary, and scientific activities that took place in the Kangxi Emperor's court. It is hardly surprising that the emperor had imperial seals mentioning Yuanjianzhai, the preferred site for his calligraphic practice.
2. Symbolism of power on the Yuanjianzhai seal
The face of the Yuanjianzhai seal includes not only the three titular characters but also figures of a dragon and a tiger and the qian and kun trigrams. This combination of writing and imagery is rare and remarkable—among all of the Kangxi Emperor's imperial seals, only one other set of six or seven seals reading Tiyuan zhuren share this composition. The dragon and tiger on the Yuanjianzhai seal are dynamic, robust, and vivid. They are clearly designed by the same craftsman who had a deep knowledge of seal-carving and could combine the various elements in an ingenious and harmonious manner.
The figures on the seal are evidently derived from the divine animals representing the four cardinal directions in ancient China—Blue Dragon, White Tiger, Red Bird, and a tortoise known as the Dark Warrior. The mythology of the divine animals had a long history in China and combined ancient beliefs about directions, the five phases, and cosmology. The divine animals were invoked as guardians of the four directions, and were often divided into two groups with distinct functions, as clearly indicated by the following inscription often found on Han-dynasty bronze mirrors: “Dragon on the left and Tiger on the right cast away misfortune; Red Bird and the Dark Warrior control yin and yang.” Blue Dragon and White Tiger are joined closely by their apotropaic function, whereas the Bird and the Dark Warrior are somewhat more loosely related.7 The latter two may be substituted by qian and kun of the Eight Trigrams respectively representing yang and yin forces, as is the case of the composition of the Yuanjianzhai seal.
Clearly, the importance of the seal is not limited to this. The Eight Trigrams are rich in meaning, and qian and kun represent not only yang and yin but also heaven and earth, as well as the origins of all phenomena of the natural and human worlds. The Kangxi Emperor's modification of the combination of the four divine animals is highly suggestive. It was no doubt a well-considered choice, given that among his many imperial seals this design is found on only two types—those associated with his personal sobriquet Tiyuan zhuren and Yuanjianzhai. Perhaps he wanted to evoke his status of the unsurpassed ruler between heaven and earth.
Throughout the Qing Dynasty, Kangxi was the only emperor to have used imperial seals with the design combining the heaven and earth trigrams and the dragon and tiger. The only other known Qing imperial seal similarly conceived is an oval seal used by the Kangxi Emperor's son Yinzhen, the future Yongzheng Emperor, when he was still a prince and associated with his studio Qianzhai. Instead of the qian and kun trigrams, the latter seal features kun above and gen below, thus softening the symbolism of supreme authority in Kangxi’s design. This change likely had to do with Yinzhen’s status as a prince, and indicates the profound political meaning that the Yuanjianzhai seal had for Kangxi.
3. The Yuanjianzhai seal and Kangxi-era soapstone carving
Soapstone carving flourished into a major artistic discipline with many practitioners during the early Qing period, when literati and emperors alike paid particular attention to it. The strong literati presence and culture in Fujian, where soapstone was quarried, elevated the status of soapstone carving to a high level of sophistication from the beginning.
The early-Qing scholar Mao Qiling relates the contemporary passion for soapstone: “At the end of the Chongzhen reign of the Ming dynasty, the official Xie Zaihang declared that soapstone was beautiful and worthy of being crafted… In the wushen year of the Kangxi reign, master Chen Yueshan of Minxian suddenly mined some stone in the mountain and harvested many fine specimens, which he sold for a fortune in the capital… Ever since Prince Kang recovered Min [Fujian], everyone from generals and governors to itinerant officials all went in search for soapstone.”8 This large-scale mining provided the material foundation for the art and craft of soapstone carving. Master artists like Yang Xuan, Zhou Bin, Wang Yusheng, Wei Kaitong, Dong Cangmen, and Xu Xu were all renowned for their work with soapstone, and Yang Xuan and Zhou Bin in particular were known for carving seals with buttons. Yang distilled the essence of jade and bronze seals into a distinctive style, while Zhou exploited the characteristics of soapstone to create bold designs.
The Kangxi period was also the first golden age for soapstone carving at the Qing court. As soapstone became increasingly sought after and sent to the court as tribute, it became raw material for court art. The concentration of talent and resources in the imperial workshops, the emperor’s personal interest and supervision, and the synergistic developments in ivory and wood carving all contributed to the rapid artistic and technical development of soapstone carving, as evidenced by extant soapstone imperial seals used by the Kangxi and Yongzheng emperors.9
The present Yuanjianzhai seal is made from red and white soapstone, which was typical of the Kangxi period. The auspicious animal on the finial is energetic and vivid, with robust musculature and finely articulated flowing hair. Its luxuriousness and perfect fusion of material and technique bespeak the sophistication of the imperial craftsmen, and are consistent with Kangxi-era seals with finials in the Palace Museum collection.
In summary, the present Yuanjianzhai seal is an embodiment of a rich and textured history. As the Kangxi Emperor’s garden studio, Yuanjianzhai was intimately related to the literary and cultural activities that he undertook. It was the site of his reading and calligraphic practice and the origin of his few imperial seals associated with palaces. In both the design of its seal face and the carving of its knop, the Yuanjianzhai seal reflects Kangxi’s thought and the artistic milieu of his reign and is an exceedingly fine specimen of his imperial seals.
1 Zhang Qin [Qing Dynasty], ed., Kangxi zhengyao, vol. 16, Beijing, 1994.
2 The famous Qing-dynasty fiction writer Pu Songling wrote an essay by imperial order on Guwen yuanjian, explaining that the compilation was “named after His Majesty's Studio [that is, Yuanjianzhai].”
3 Zhang Qin [Qing Dynasty], ed., Kangxi zhengyao, vol. 1, Beijing, 1994.
4 Yinzhen [Qing Dynasty], ed., Shengzu Renhuangdi shengxun, vol. 5.
5 Han Qi, 'The Calendrical Calculations of Chen Houyao, Mathematician at Mengyangzhai: New Research Based on Chenshi jiacheng,' History of Natural Science, 33:3, 2014, pp. 298-306.
6 Gao Shiqi [Qing Dynasty], Pengshan miji, in Lidai riji congchao, vol. 18, Beijing, 2006.
7 Niu Tianwei, 'The Iconography of the “Four Gods” of the Han Dynasty,' Journal of the Nanyang Institute of Technology, 5:2, March 2013.
8 Mao Qiling [Qing Dynasty], Hou Guanshi lu.
9 Guo Fuxiang, 'Imperial Seals and the Art of Shoushan Stone Carving in the Early Qing Period,' Ming Qing luncong, vol. 4, Beijing, 2003.
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