Located towards the back of the Forbidden City, Qianqinggong (‘The Palace of Ultimate Purity’) was where Qing emperors rested and entertained, and a key venue for their policymaking. This palace was home for two important imperial seals: the Kangxi Emperor’s Jingtian qinmin (‘Revere Heaven and serve thy people’) seal, housed at Xinuange (‘West Warm Pavilion’), and the Qianlong Emperor’s Guxi tianzi zhibao (‘Treasure of the Son of Heaven at Seventy’) seal, housed at Dongnuange (‘East Warm Pavilion’). The Jingtian qinmin seal is none other than the one on offer in the current Sotheby’s auction.
Made from tanxiangmu with a finial in the shape of a mythical beast, the seal is 11 cm in height in its entirety, with a seal face measuring 10.15 cm on each side and a seal base measuring 4.2 cm in height. The four characters Jingtian qinmin (‘Revere Heaven and serve thy people') are carved in relief in jiudie (‘nine-layered’) seal script. The seal is clearly recorded in the Kangxi Emperor’s imperial seal catalogue Kangxi baosou, copies of which are in the Palace Museum and also on offer in the current sale (lot 3103), and exactly matches the corresponding record in dimension, weight, and seal text. The Jingtian qinmin seal is unusual among Qing imperial seals in its close connection to the emperor’s policies, as detailed below.
1. “Revere Heaven and Serve thy People” as the Kangxi Emperor’s major political agenda
Why did the Kangxi Emperor have a seal reading Jingtian qinmin, and why did he house it in one of his most important palaces? The answer lies in the Qing emperors’ principles of emperorship.
Over its long history, China developed a sophisticated philosophy of political mandate. The principles of imperial rule were the crystallisation of the basic Chinese understanding of nature and society, and shaped the political agendas of the emperors of the successive dynasties. After two millennia, these principles were condensed into the Qing emperors’ guiding principles of Jingtian; fazu; qinzheng; and aimin (‘Revere Heaven; Learn from the ancestors; Be diligent at politics; and Love thy people’).1 This articulation of emperorship and its ideal qualities represents the maturation of the Chinese philosophy of politics and particularly imperial rule, of which Jingtian qinmin was a crucial part. The emperor should “revere Heaven”, from which his political mandate was derived, to ensure its blessing and his legitimacy. To maintain the stability of his rule, he should be diligently devoted to his subjects, the foundation of the empire—to care for them, be sympathetic to their sufferings, and lessen their burdens.
As a motivated and sympathetic emperor, the Kangxi Emperor believed that Jingtian qinmin was a prerequisite for a wise rulership and adhered to it as the principle of his rule. He once said that a ruler “must revere Heaven and serve the people with his whole spirit and with every fibre of his being”, that “the way of being a ruler lies in love for the people. This is the constant principle of the emperors and the teaching of the ancestors.”2 He also said, “Ever since I ascended the throne, I have worked tirelessly, night and day, guided by my desire to revere Heaven and serve my people. I dare not have the slightest hesitation in this regard."3
The Kangxi Emperor was no doubt reverential towards Heaven. Whenever a major natural disaster occurred, he would reflect on his behaviour. He also strictly observed fasts and diligently fulfilled his ritual duties.
The Kangxi Emperor often expressed his devotion to his people, whom he considered the reason for the existence of imperial rule: “Heaven gave birth to the people and then established Emperorship, not simply to bestow exceptional status or fortune on the emperor, but also to entrust him with the responsibility of moral cultivation, so that nobody within the four seas and the nine continents would be deficient in it.”4 He believed that the emperor must respect his people and try his best to be benevolent towards them and yield to their demands. The people were the foundation of the country, and to be devoted to them was to be devoted to political rule. Much of the Kangxi Emperor’s prose and poetry was about his diligent care of his people: “Taking on the worries of the realm before everyone else, I lose track of food and drink—all this for the people.”7 Such descriptions were consistent with his behaviour, as evidenced by his frequent expressions of concern about harvests, plagues of insects, and droughts in his instructions to local officials.
For the Kangxi Emperor, there was no difference between revering Heaven and serving the people — Heaven’s will was the people’s will. He adhered to this principle throughout his reign. The present Jingtian qinmin seal is thus not at all accidental, but expresses the emperor’s strong beliefs.
2. Jingtian qinmin seals and the Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong Emperors
I have seen four Qing-dynasty imperial seals reading Jingtian qinmin. The first is the current lot. The second is made of white jade with a finial in the form of entwined dragons, with a seal face measuring 9.2 cm on each side. The carving is executed in the style of the Kangxi period: the dragons have narrow and energetically coiled bodies and fierce expressions. The sides of the seal are carved with the Qianlong Emperor’s Four-Character Poem on the Jingtian Qinmin Seal with a Preface, which are dated to “spring of the wuchen year of the Qianlong reign”, in other words, the 13th year of the Qianlong period (1748). This seal has been burnt; only half of it remains, and its body is cracked throughout. The third example, with a seal face measuring 9.65 cm on each side, is also made of white jade with a finial in the form of entwined dragons characteristic of the Qianlong period, and also carved with the aforementioned poem with a preface by the Qianlong Emperor. It is dated to “spring of the wuwu year of the Qianlong reign”, also the 63rd year of the Qianlong period (1798), which was officially the third year of the Jiaqing reign. Both white jade seals are in the collection of the Palace Museum in Beijing.
Direct references to Jingtian qinmin seals include the following:
Records of the Imperial Workshops dated to the 1st year of the Yongzheng reign (1723) relate that “on the 22nd day [of the first month], Prince Yi submitted […] a white jade seal with double dragons reading Wanji yuxia (‘Ten thousand duties and little remaining time’) and a tanxiangmu seal reading Jingtian qinmin. It was decreed that the text of Wanji yuxia on the white jade seal be erased and replaced with a rubbing of the text of Jingtian qinmin on the sandalwood seal… On the 1st day of the 3rd month, a white jade seal with double dragons reading Jingtian qinmin was copied and submitted by Prince Yi together with a brocade box with an ivory cover. On the 25th day of the 7th month, Head Eunuch Su Peisheng brought the original sandalwood Jingtian qinmin seal and placed it in Dabaoxiang (‘Grand Seal Repository’).”8 These entries are crucial because they indicate clearly the material of Kangxi Emperor’s Jingtian qinmin seal and its relationship to the Yongzheng-era copy, a white jade seal with a double-dragon finial.
The second reference is the aforementioned Four-Character Poem on the Jingtian Qinmin Seal with a Preface by the Qianlong Emperor. Reflecting upon the Qianlong Emperor’s understanding of “reverence for Heaven and devotion to the people, the preface states, “My father had a box made to house the many seals my grandfather used for his calligraphy, except for this very seal, as he wished to use it for his own calligraphy. I have followed his footsteps to store his seals, and yet leaving the same one for my own regular use. This one seal has been used by three generations and has yielded an unlimited amount of blessings on the realm. Why have I had its text carved again? It is because of its important meaning.”9 The Qianlong Emperor evidently believed that the white jade version was the one that his grandfather and father used.
An entry in the records of the Imperial Workshops dated to the 2nd month of the 14th year of the Qianlong reign (1749) relates that “On the 29th day of the 9th month of the 12th year, the eunuch Hu Yingrui came to say that the eunuch Hu Shijie submitted a celadon jade Jingtian qinmin seal. It was decreed that Zhu Cai inscribe on the seal’s four sides [the Qianlong Emperor’s Four-Character Poem on the Jingtian Qinmin Seal with a Preface]. On the 7th day of the 11th month, Head Eunuch Wendan submitted a white jade Jingtian qinmin seal. It was decreed that Zhu Cai inscribe on the seal’s four sides [the Qianlong Emperor’s Four-Character Poem on the Jingtian Qinmin Seal with a Preface].”10 This indicates that the Qianlong Emperor’s poems were written in the 12th year of his reign (1747) and that he ordered the famous court seal carver Zhu Cai to engrave the second Jingtian qinmin seal.
The three extant Jingtian qinmin seals and corresponding historical documents provide a clear picture. Contrary to the Qianlong Emperor’s indication that the same Jingtian qinmin seal was passed down from his grandfather and father, there were in fact three such seals, created respectively in the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong reigns. The latter were both copies of the Kangxi Emperor’s.
The Kangxi Emperor created the tanxiangmu version and had it housed in Xinuange in Qianqinggong.
The Yongzheng Emperor, in the first year of his reign (1723), ordered that the Kangxi Emperor’s white jade Wanji yuxia seal, with a finial in the form of entwined dragons be effaced and inscribed with Jingtian qinmin. This copy was placed in Xinuange, and the original tanxiangmu version was moved to the box that housed the Kangxi Emperor’s imperial seals. As the Qianlong Emperor catalogued and organised his father’s seals after ascending the throne, he kept the white jade version in Xinuange. In 1748, the Qianlong Emperor composed his Four-Character Poem on the Jingtian Qinmin Seal with a Preface to expound on the importance of “reverence for Heaven and devotion to the subjects”, and in the following year had the text inscribed on the white jade seal.
In the 2nd year of the Jiaqing reign (1797), there was an outbreak of fire in Qianqinggong, and the Yongzheng Emperor’s white jade copy was severely damaged. In view of its importance, the Qianlong Emperor had a copy of it created in the same material and with the same inscriptions, but here the finial is in the style of the Qianlong period, and the emperor’s poems are dated to the 3rd year of the Jiaqing reign. The Qianlong Emperor’s copy was housed in Xinuange like the two previous versions until the end of the Qing Dynasty.
Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong, the three emperors at the height of Qing dynasty power and influence, each created a Jingtian qinmin seal. What was important for them was not the seals themselves, but rather the significance of “revering Heaven and serving the people.” This was not only the Kangxi Emperor’s motto but also the principle by which the Yongzheng and Qianlong Emperors ruled. As the Qianlong Emperor suggested, the seal’s values lies not in its material or craftsmanship, but in its profound meaning. As the first of the Qing emperors’ three Jingtian qinmin seals, the tanxiangmu seal on offer has immense historical and cultural value.
3. The material, carving, and impressions of the Kangxi Emperor’s Jingtian qinmin seal
The Kangxi Emperor’s Jingtian qinmin seal is remarkable for its material and carving. Tanxiangmu served as the material of Qing imperial seals mostly during the reigns of the Kangxi Emperor and Empress Dowager Cixi. Kangxi-era tanxiangmu seals range from over 10 cm to several centimetres in width, and are exclusively made from a single block of tanxiangmu. Their finials tend to be in the form of mythical animals with plump bodies, robust limbs, small and oblong heads, pig-like snouts and noses, small eyes gazing horizontally forward, and horned, detailed with several turfs of curly hair on the back of the neck. These carvings tend to be rendered plainly, with simple and fluid contours. By contrast, large tanxiangmu seals of the Cixi era tend to comprise bases and finials created separately and attached together, and their finials tend to be in the form of entwined dragons. The current lot is typical and representative of tanxiangmu imperial seals of the Kangxi period.
The Kangxi baosou in the Palace Museum in Beijing records that the Jingtian qinmin seal “could be used freely on large-scale calligraphy by the emperor.” In reality, its use seems to have followed a stricter pattern. No impressions of the seal from the Kangxi reign have been found to date, but two works bearing Jingtian qinmin impressions from the Yongzheng and Qianlong periods suggest how the Kangxi Emperor may have used his seal. The first work is Giuseppe Castiglione’s 1727 painting of Auspicious Grain, which bears an inscription by the Yongzheng Emperor on moral cultivation and devotion to his people followed by a seal impression of Jingtian qinmin. The second work is Ten Praises by the Song painter Zhang Xian, which depicts an elegant gathering of literati during a peaceful age. The painting has a calligraphic frontispiece by the Qianlong Emperor, above which is a seal impression of Jingtian qinmin. Both works are thematically related to peace and prosperity under the rule of a good emperor.
From the above, it is clear that for the Kangxi Emperor, the tanxiangmu Jingtian qinmin seal was a supremely important object. It testifies to the close correspondence between the Kangxi Emperor’s philosophical ideals and his deeds as emperor, as well as his compassion towards his subjects. More importantly, the seal was regarded highly by the Yongzheng and Qianlong Emperors, who both created copies of it in white jade; the Qianlong Emperor even made his copy the very first entry of Baosou. As the only example of a seal text used by three successive Qing emperors, the tanxiangmu Jingtian qinmin seal is of immense historical, cultural, and artistic value.
1 Chang Jianhua, Qingdai de guojia yu shehui yanjiu, Beijing, 2006, pp. 1-70.
2 Qing Shenzu shilu, vol. 234, 9th month of the 47th year of the Kangxi reign.
3 Qing Shenzu shilu, vol. 10, entry on “Jingtian,” 11th month of the 36th year of the Kangxi reign.
4 [Qing] Zhang Qin, ed., Kangxi zhengyao, vol. 1. Beijing, 1994.
5 [Qing] Xuanye [the Kangxi Emperor], Yuzhiwen ji, vol. 43.
6 [Qing] Xuanye [the Kangxi Emperor], Yuzhiwen ji, vol. 19.
7 [Qing] Xuanye [the Kangxi Emperor], Yuzhiwen ji, vol. 43.
8 China First Archive and the Art Museum of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, ed., Qinggong Neiwufu Zaobanchu dang’an zonghui, vol. 1, p. 93, entry dated to the first month of the first year of the Yongzheng reign on “Yuzuo.” Beijing: Renmin chuban she, 2005.
9 [Qing] Hongli [the Qianlong Emperor], Yuzhishi erji, vol. 1.
10 China First Archive and the Art Museum of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, ed., Qinggong Neiwufu Zaobanchu dang’an zonghui, vol. 16, p. 584, entry dated to the 2nd month of the 14th year of the Qianlong reign on "Ruyiguan." Beijing, 2005.
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