During his lifetime, the Qianlong Emperor had approximately 1,800 seals made for himself from various materials. Within this rich collection, the Daguantang bao (Treasure of the Great Observation Hall) jade seal stands out as especially significant: not only for its high artistic value but also for the large amount of historical and cultural information it conveys. Focusing on this seal, I will discuss the relationship between Qianlong’s southern tours and Daguantang, the Great Observation Hall, in Yangzhou.
In emulation of his grandfather, the Kangxi Emperor, who toured the Jiangnan region six times, Qianlong undertook six southern tours during his reign: in 1751, 1757, 1762, 1765, 1780, and finally 1784. On each of these tours Qianlong traveled along the Grand Canal to Yangzhou, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Jiangning (present-day Nanjing), and Taishan in Shandong. On the latter four tours he also visited Haining in Zhejiang. Wherever he went, he inspected the local water management and garrisons, bestowed gifts and honors on local officials and gentry, and conducted rituals at mausolea, as well as appreciating scenic sights along the way. These activities are all documented in detail in Qinding Nanxun Shengdian (‘The Imperial Edition of the Grand Record of the Southern Inspection Tours’) and the emperor himself also recorded them in his own poetry. The inscription of the seal in question, “Daguantang bao” or “Treasure of the Great Observation Hall,” refers to one of Qianlong’s travel palaces in Yangzhou. Because it was constructed in the garden of the famous Buddhist temple Tianning Monastery, Daguantang is also known as the Tianning Monastery Travel Palace. Tianning Monastery was the foremost of Yangzhou’s eight major Buddhist monasteries, which also included Chongning Monastery, Jianlong Monastery, Huien Monastery, Fazheng Monastery, Gaomin Monastery, Jinghui Monastery, and Fuyuan Monastery. On his very first southern tour Qianlong lodged at Tianning Monastery, which pleased him greatly and inspired the following poem:
Traveling in the spring breeze, I rest at Tianning.
Early on I see rolling hills in a pure blue-black.
As lake boats enter, emerald waves arise.
I watch as they turn the opposite shores into screen paintings.
Because Qianlong evidently loved this place, the local officials converted an ordinary building at Tianning Monastery into a luxurious travel palace in preparation for his second southern tour. According to Qinding Nanxun Shengdian,
Outside the Gongchen Gate of Yangzhou is the former mansion of Xie An, Grand Mentor of the Jin Dynasty. During the Yixi reign, Indian monks translated the Avatamsaka Sutra here. Chu Shudu received the mansion from Xie Yan and later gave it up and turned it into a monastery called Xie Sikong Monastery. Its name was changed to its current form during the Zhenghe reign of the Song. In the 21st year of the Qianlong reign, a travel palace of several buildings was respectfully constructed here. Afterwards, whenever His Imperial Majesty came on a southern tour, he lodged in this palace, organizing celebrations and bestowing gifts. The monastery’s prestige will never fade.
Li Dou’s Yangzhou huafang lu (‘A Record of the Yangzhou Pleasure Boats’), written during the Qianlong reign, describes this travel palace in further detail:
On the right of Tianning Monastery is the grand gate to the palace, and in front of the gate a multistory building. The floors are tiled with white marble. Stone balustrates line the premises. Paved paths lead to the grand gate, the secondary gate, a front hall, a bedroom; the right gate, a theatrical stage, a front hall, a “hanging pillars” gate, a bedroom; a west hall; an inner hall; the imperial garden. On the left and right of the gate are the side rooms and a dining room. On the two sides of the complex are guard rooms. On the back is the rear gate, which leads to Chongning Monastery. There are two imperially bestowed plaques, which read respectively “Daguantang” and “Jingyinxuan” (Pavilion of Quiet Recitations). There are six couplets in the palace: “Windows open into the pleasure of the mountains / Spring does not hinder feelings about things”; “Trees convey the warmth of dawn through lattice windows / Flowers enter the blinds on fragrant winds”; “Beautiful sunlight and gentle wind linger in spring / Floral fragrance and birdsongs summon creatures to life”; “Unhindered Nature engenders glorious life / Pines and bamboos sound heavenly harmonies”; “Shady shrubs are naturally cool / Flowers after rain are by themselves fragrant”; “With an open window one meets pleasurable tunes / Sitting quietly one receives the morning mountains.”
The beautiful jade well, the shimmering staircases, the latticed windows and matching eaves, and the marble and foundation stones were all crafted to perfection. After His Majesty’s passage, all the doors are blocked with wood scaffolding, and visitors dare not enter. The rear gate is next to Chongning Monastery, and there is a large space between them that is normally occupied by florists. During the southern tours, it was occupied by various ministers. [...] The left side gate connects to the west passageway of Tianning Monastery and serves as a convenient exit. The right side gate connects to the imperial garden, which was formerly the site of the Zhishang village of Tianning Monastery’s west garden. A pavilion was erected here and adorned with scholars’ rocks. An iron pagoda measuring over ten feet tall was built here in the style of Zhengjue Monastery [...] This was later enlisted into the imperial court. [...] The imperial library is located within the Imperial Garden, whose main hall is called the Great Observation Hall. The library is next to the Great Observation Hall and was bestowed a complete edition of Tushu jicheng and the name Wenhuige (Pavilion of Literary Confluence), as well as a plaque readingdongbi liuhui (flowing light on the eastern wall).
Although the Tianning Monastery Travel Palace was an expansion of pre-existing buildings in the monastery garden, its construction still created some trouble for Qianlong, as he relates in the first poem inscribed on the Daguantang bao Jade Seal:
Courtesy of the National Palace
Six Rhyming Couplets on the Great Observation Hall
In the palace, at the side of the Tianning Monastery
Is a panel above the door, inscribed “Great Observation”
I have come to assist in righteousness and order,
To establish learning, but no roaming and lingering.
I make a display to show the meaning of the nine songs,
Not to seek personal satisfaction for myself.
But to enhance the palace, should be of shame not delight.
Although there is no cost to the common people
Is it right to rely on the wealth of merchants?
I know I cannot match the inspection tours of Shun
And how difficult it is to maintain the virtue of Yu.
This was written in third lunar month of the 27th year of the Qianlong reign, during his third southern tour. Qianlong was concerned because the Yangzhou officials had spent an enormous amount of resources to renovate the travel palace, opening debate in society and among some court officials. To maintain the image of an enlightened ruler, Qianlong also inquired into the matter. He even specifically annotated this poem: “Last year in the capital, I heard that there had been quite a few changes and additions made to travel palace in Yangzhou and summoned the Salt Commissioner Gao Heng to the capital to discuss this with him personally. He said that the work, having been completed, could not be changed or abandoned. Now that I have come to stay here, I truly find the changes too extravagant and am displeased with them.”
Many different reasons have been proposed for Qianlong’s southern tours. The official explanation was that Qianlong wanted to inspect the state of water management in the south and to learn about and improve the people’s livelihood. However, each tour involved an enormous expenditure in human and material resources, inevitably inviting criticism both inside and outside the court. Therefore at every step Qianlong had to appear as a frugal and approachable ruler. Historical documents suggest that the emperor genuinely found excessive splendor disagreeable. In his edicts to the provincial prefects around the country, he emphasized that they should not waste public funds on spectacles.
The second inscription on the seal was composed two years later, during the fourth southern tour. It reuses the first poem’s rhyme scheme and is almost identical to it in content.
Repeating the rhymes of an earlier poem on the Great Observation Hall
My southern tour again stopped here, not for indulgence and entertainment.
The exhibition again is of essential teaching; although happy, I dare not take pleasure trips.
Where do these feelings come from? Shameful and ill at ease.
I take it as a warning, a deterrent from personal pleasure.
I may renounce idleness, for it tangles and tires the spirit.
I look up at the stars above, but the constellations are hard to see.
By the time of his fifth southern tour, 15 more years had passed. In his old age, Qianlong’s thinking changed. Unlike the simple self-criticisms of the earlier years, here he strongly expressed an ideology of imperial largesse and a sense of paternalistic concern over all his subjects. At the same time, he was also very pleased with his own cultural refinement. All this is reflected in the two other poems inscribed on the seal:
On the Great Observation Hall
The images in the Great Observation Hall illustrate the meaning of heaven.
Establishing teaching and its meaning is at the heart of everything.
It is essential to comfort the people, and carry out policies.
It is not for personal pleasure that I travel around.
When my heart meets the gods, we forget past and present.
The world becomes my home, from where I come and go.
Amidst all the official business, I find a rare moment of peace
And enjoy the relief as my inkbrush twists out a poem.
Again on the Great Observation Hall
Crossing the river to the north on this little boat,
To stay for two days in the palace, having meditation.
The flowers in the south are still in bloom,
The shadows of trees in the summer courtyard grow darker.
To see the people, to see myself, I must observe my heart
And say that the morning sun is bright and waters will flow
One after another, I write poems on my study wall
Privately acknowledging it is a habit I cannot give up.
Qianlong composed both of these poems in 1780, the 45th year of his reign, and annotated them as follows: “In one of my recent poems is the line, ‘To see the people, to see myself.’ I mean that whether the people’s hearts are with or against me, whether their mood is benign or malignant, whether their life is orderly or disorderly, I should regard my own behavior as the cause. This is what is meant by ‘the ruler and the people are one body.’ See my previous annotation for details.” “I understand that the nine and the five are the signs of the ruler and that the ruler and the people are originally one body. Whether the people are orderly or disorderly is fundamentally connected to the ruler’s own success and failure, fortune and misfortune. It is never the case that the people lose their livelihood and the ruler rests peacefully in his. For details, see my pervious annotation on the ‘Daguantang’ poems.”
Based on the Daguantang bao seal’s characteristics of facture and the emperor’s poetic compositions inscribed on it, we can date its time of production to not long after Qianlong’s fifth southern tour. Perhaps it was created by the local jade crafts masters of Yangzhou. The seal face is in a powerful and fluid seal script, and the poetic inscriptions are in a tidy regular script, with elegantly attenuated strokes and filled with pure gold. Due to the paucity of surviving impressions of this seal, the seal itself was probably kept at the Great Observation Hall in the Tianning Monastery Travel Palace.
Qianlong’s fifth southern tour was both the most important and the longest in duration. Two major events occurred during this tour: first, the ministers who had remained in the capital to handle governmental affairs, sent an express message to Qianlong reporting the birth of his first-born great–great-grandson. The second major event was the completion of the imperial library Wenhuige (Pavilion of Literary Confluence) in the Great Observation Hall.
After becoming rulers of China, the Manchus fashioned themselves as the legitimate inheritors of Chinese culture and engaged in a series of cultural programs to this political end. The Kangxi and Yongzheng emperors commissioned the compilation of Gujin tushu jicheng (‘Collection of Books Ancient and Modern’). One of Qianlong’s major endeavors was ordering the compilation of the Siku quanshu (‘Complete Library in Four Sections’), which began in 1773 and took nine years. Directed by the famous scholar Ji Yun as Chief Compiler, the project involved over 3,600 scholars, as well as 3,800 copyists. The Siku quanshu was divided into the four sections of Classics, History, Philosophy, and Belles-Lettres and 44 categories, encompassing 3,503 individual titles and 79,337 volumes. It was the grandest collection of texts in Chinese history.
Qianlong also ordered the construction of seven imperial libraries: Wenyuange in the Forbidden City, Wenyuange in the Old Summer Palace, Wensuge in present-day Shenyang Palace, and Wenjinge in the Summer Palace in Rehe, collectively known as the “Four Northern Pavilions”; Wenzongge in Jinshan Monastery in Zhenjiang, Wenhuige in the Great Observation Hall in Yangzhou, Wenlange in the Shengen Monastery travel palace near West Lake in Hangzhou, collectively known as the “Three Southern Pavilions.” In 1784, when Siku quanshu project reached completion, seven copies of it were made, and each of the libraries received one.
The copy of the Siku quanshu housed in the Pavilion of Literary Confluence in the Great Observation Hall meant a lot to Qianlong, who personally composed couplets for both the hall and the imperial library, inquired into the book cases used in the latter, and wrote several poems celebrating it.
bowuyuan eds. Qingdai di hou xiyin pu, 2013, vol. 6, juan 2
Pavilion of Literary Confluence
The Ancestor Emperors valued the teachings of the Classics
Created a grand compilation of books,
Distributed it far and wide
And housed them in this lofty pavilion.
I intended to follow my family instructions
And my efforts were supported by many.
[The building] is worthy of the Siku
Which will forever be kept under its layered roofs.
Pavilion of Literary Confluence, reusing rhymes of the Gengzi year
The towering pavilion in the Tianning mansion
Has long housed a grand collection of books.
With boundless profundity of its teaching and inspiration
The building is based on the existing ground but a reconstruction.
From the West Capital the Seven Summaries have come to Jiangsu
Beyond the East Wall the ! ve stars hang high on the edge of the sky
After [the books] have been copied they should be sent here.
The God Wenchang will eternally illuminate these layered roofs.
Again on the Pavilion of Literary Confluence
Books in ten thousand volumes collected into sections
And bestowed into a high pavilion to be stored amid clouds.
The heart’s fancy engenders a pure leisure.
A compelling ancient fragrance summons the pure arts.
Ashamed not to have been able to realize them in action
I take refuge in the simplicity of mental diligence
In this misty spring in Yangzhou
None should say I did not sponsor this collection of texts.
Qianlong also wrote, “This pavilion was erected in the gengzi year  and was also based on Master Fan’s Tianyige (a famous library in Ningbo). A complete edition of Gujin tushu jicheng was given to it, and later I ordered that it would house the Siku. By autumn of the renyin year , copies of the Siku quanshu had been timely distributed among the four pavilions of Wenyuan, Wenyuan, Wensu, and Wenjin. I knew that in Jiangsu and Zhejiang, where literary culture flourished the most, many scholars would wish to read the books in the collection. So I allowed them to be distributed broadly in order to honor culture. I decreed that Wenhuige, Wenzongge at Jinshan in Zhenjiang, and Wenlange at Shengen Monastery in Hangzhou each housed one copy of the Siku quanshu to enable scholars to study them personally. I then spent millions of taels of silver in court funds to hire copyists to copy the entire collection in three sets and sent the copies to said pavilions in order to showcase the richness of our nation’s literary heritage.”
As an economic and cultural center in the Jiangnan region, Yangzhou had a strong cultural foundation and was a place where literati and artists gathered. In fact, many of the texts included in the Siku quanshu were provided to the court by Yangzhou literati. Qianlong’s decision to house a set of the Siku quanshu in Yangzhou did not only express his admiration for Chinese culture but also symbolized the Qing court’s authority over southern culture. This political calculus aside, Qianlong was probably personally attracted to Yangzhou. His daily poetic compositions during his southern tours were suffused with adoration of the Jiangnan landscape. The surviving Qing court documents in Yangzhou record details like the furniture and furnishings of the Great Observation Hall palace and the dishes in Qianlong’s meals. Yangzhou cuisine entered the repertoire of the Qing court kitchen. However, after concluding his sixth southern tour, Qianlong decided not to visit Yangzhou again, and his happy memories of the place would be locked away in the unoccupied pavilion along with his Daguantang bao seal. Even more tragic was that some six decades later, in 1854, the Taiping rebellion swept through southern China and its army captured Yangzhou and destroyed the Great Observation Hall and the Pavilion of Literary Confluence. The thousands of books in the library were burnt to ashes, and the jade seal of the travel palace was lost. A prosperous and culturally refined city was reduced to ruins.
There must once have been many artifacts of the Qianlong Emperor’s southern tours, but very few of them remain. Holding the Daguantang baoseal in our hands, observing the traces of cinnabar seal paste on it, and reading the imperial poetic compositions inscribed on its four sides, one cannot help but sigh as a forgotten history comes alive.