Like the emperors of previous dynasties, the Qing rulers requested seals in a great variety of materials and sizes to be made for their use over the course of their reigns. Meticulously carved, not only do these seals represent the highest artistic standard of the day, they were also often used and appreciated by the emperors, and are thus considered to be highly important as imperial cultural relics. Even through the rise and fall of reigns, many imperial seals were preserved. Of the Qing Dynasty seals still extant today, one could confidently say that there are extremely few which date back to before the Shunzhi era (1628) and there are comparatively more which date later than the Kangxi era (1662). Nevertheless there are many seals that are unaccounted for. In order specifically to identify the collection of seals from each and every individual emperor and to know of their history and significance, one needs to rely on the Baosou.
Known as 'Baosou', the register of imperial seals is a bound catalogue of seal impressions taken from the emperor's full collection of seals and was made in order to document them for future generations. Before the Qing Dynasty, there were no records of imperial seals and it is believed that the concept of a Baosou was devised by the Qianlong Emperor and first made during his reign.
According to the Qianlong Emperor's memoir 'Xiayanji’, it is recorded: "There are three Xiayan Memoirs. One records the imperially used national treasures kept in the Jiaotandian ('The Hall of Union'), another records the collection of pearls kept in the Duanningdian ('The Hall of Solemnity'), and a third will record the seals collected in the Shouhuangdian ('The Hall of Imperial Longevity')... On the winter of the 46th year of the Qianlong period, in showing respect for the imperial ancestors, and the seals often used by the ancestors, I, the Emperor, had all the various seals used in the last ten years counted and had them made into a baosou. Simultaneously, I had prepared in advance empty volumes also of twenty-five layers, and had them stored up in the Shouhuangdian palace. Thus, these books successfully stored, will equip the future generations for use, that the laws and traditions might be observed though the generations." (Qing Gaozong yuzhi wen yu ji, vol. 1). From this essay, one can date the creation of the Baosou volumes to the 46th year of the Qianlong period (1781). At that time, although the Qianlong Emperor only had Baosou books made for the collection of seals of his grandfather, the Kangxi Emperor, father, the Yongzheng Emperor, and himself, he also ordered blank volumes to be made so that his future descendants would also have a record of their own seals. Thus the emperors from the Jiaqing period onwards preserved this tradition, and up to the end of the Qing Dynasty, each emperor commissioned their own Baosou. Presently, the Beijing Palace Museum has copies of the Baosou documenting the collection of seals from the Kangxi, Qianlong, Jiaqing, Daoguang, Xianfeng Emperors and the the Empress Dowager Cixi.
The covers of this Kangxi Baosou volume are mounted with a brocade of golden 'wan' characters on a brown ground, and the front cover is further cut with an open panel of deep blue ground which is inlaid with four archaistic dragons framing the two inlaid characters 'baosou'. The interior is bound with 'xuan' paper and accordion folded into the leaves of the book. Each page is impressed with a different number of seal marks according to the sizes of the seals. There are two to three impressions per page for large seals, six or nine for the smaller seals. Spread over twenty-seven pages, there is a total of one hundred and nineteen seals. Ordered by size, each page was divided perfectly with the seal impressions carefully lined and centred using small pin marks, which are still visible today. The eleventh seal mark entitled 'Duanning jianchang' was originally impressed on a separate sheet of paper and later attached to the volume, and the porcelain seals impressed on the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth leaves show signs of blurred redness as if the ink had run. These anomalies are also present in the copy of the Kangxi Baosou in the Beijing Palace Museum collection thus confirming that this volume was originally in the Qing court collection.
All the seal marks recorded in the Kangxi Baosou are impressions made from the original seals of the imperial collection. In addition, the marks are clear and the book is well preserved with its original mounting and brocade. Each Qing Dynasty emperor had three copies of their Baosou made. One copy was to be kept in the Gugong Palace, one in the imperial historical city, and the last would have been kept along with the original seals in the Bishu Shanzhuang ('Mountain Estate for Escaping the Heat') summer palace in Chengde. Today, there are two copies of the Kangxi Baosou left with only one in private hands. The other is kept in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing. To date, this present volume is the only known Baosou in private hands, and having it available for auction is an extremely rare occurrence.
The importance of this piece lies in three of its different characteristics.
Firstly, this volume is of crucial importance in identifying the seals of the Kangxi Emperor. We rely upon this document to record the numbers, the sizes, the inscriptions, the materials and the style of the finial of his seals. Unfortunately, because many of the Kangxi Emperor’s seals were scattered and lost in the turmoil of domestic unrest and foreign invasion during China's modern history, there is no way of verifying the recorded seals and it is very difficult to have a full understanding of the Kangxi Emperor’s collection of seals from just looking at the extant pieces themselves. The Kangxi Baosou, as the most comprehensive record of Kangxi seals, makes up for the lost information from the missing pieces and has become the universally acknowledged tool in authenticating the Kangxi Emperor's seals.
Secondly, the Kangxi Baosou is a crucial tool in authenticating his imperial calligraphies. The Kangxi Emperor was a highly cultured man and particularly enjoyed calligraphy and spent much of his spare time writing, thus leaving behind a large collection of calligraphic works which have now been bound into volumes or mounted as hanging and hand scrolls. Many have also been impressed with his personal seals. Like the seals themselves, many of these calligraphies were taken from the imperial palace during the disorder of war, and as these pieces slowly resurface many question their authenticity. One of the ways in which the piece can be authenticated is by matching the seal marks on the calligraphy with those on the Kangxi Baosou. If they match perfectly, it is an added indication that the piece is quite likely to be authentic thus increasing its value and importance.
Thirdly, this piece reveals the beliefs and thoughts of the Kangxi Emperor. When considering the importance of the content recorded in the Kangxi Baosou, most of the information lies within the deep implied meanings of the seal inscriptions. One must not overlook the fact that the seals record specific historical occurrences and reflect directly the ideology and philosophy of the Kangxi Emperor. Take for example the Jingtian qinmin ('Revere Heaven and serve thy people') seal (lot 3101) and the Wosi guren ('I think of the ancients') seal; both relate closely to the Kangxi Emperor's political affairs and embody the ideology behind his lifelong words and deeds. Another example is the Jiezhi zaide ('Beware of a watchful spirit') seal reflects the strong suffering within his heart, and the Qixun pingjian ('Pure health in the seventh decade') which divulges his desire for health in his latter years. Leafing through the Kangxi Baosou, one can truly understand the principles and the emotions of a generation of emperors.
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