Looking at the seals of the Qing emperors, one finds a pattern in the inscriptions that they select for their seals, namely, that the frequency with which a particular inscription appears on the seals of an emperor is closely related to that emperor’s thoughts, interests, likes, and experiences. In the case of hall seals, if the name of a hall appears repeatedly on seals used by an emperor, that hall has an out-of-the-ordinary connection with that emperor. The Qianlong Emperor and the Hall of Three Rarities is a case in point. The thirteen ‘Hall of Three Rarities’ seals that he had carved lead us to believe that this room was where this cultivated emperor let his fancy take flight from the cares and responsibilities of governing. The Hall of Sound Growth of the Successor (or simply Hall of Sound Growth, Yuqing Gong) served the same purpose for the Jiaqing Emperor, his son (fig. 1). After the Jiaqing Emperor ascended the throne, he had carved for him eight ‘Hall of Sound Growth’ seals, the most that he had carved for any hall. This fact indicates the special significance that this hall had for the emperor. The ‘Hall of Sound Growth seal’ being auctioned by Sotheby’s Hong Kong is one of these eight seals.
This seal was made from Han jade, has a printing surface that is 4.9 cm square, and is 4 cm tall. The upper portion of the body is chamfered inward, and the knob has the shape of a curved roof tile. The inscription consists of four incised seal characters: Yuqing Gong bao ('Hall of Sound Growth seal'). There is a clear description of this seal in Jiaqing baosou ('Catalogue of Jiaqing Seals'), presently held by the Palace Museum in Beijing. A comparison of the seal with the description shows that this seal matches the description in material of composition, shape, size, and style and layout of the seal characters. We can thus affirm that this seal is the actual seal used by the Jiaqing Emperor.
The Jiaqing Emperor, the owner of this seal, had the Manchu name Yongyan. He was the fifth Qing emperor after the Qing conquered China. During his twenty-four-year reign, China enjoyed the legacy of prosperity from the Kangxi period (r. 1662-1722) to the Qianlong period (r. 1736-1795), yet his reign also marked the beginning of the decline of the Qing court. Hence, in many areas China was lapsing into a complicated set of circumstances that is difficult to describe. Such complicated circumstances also appeared in the emperor’s connection with the Hall of Sound Growth.
The Hall of Sound Growth is located north of the Gate of Great Fortune (Jingyun Men) outside the eastern portion of the Forbidden City and southeast of the Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqing Gong). It was built in 1679 by the Kangxi Emperor to serve as the sleeping quarters for Crown Prince Yunreng. Later, because Yunreng was overbearing, arrogant, and unfilial, he was stripped of his title of crown prince, moved out of the Hall of Sound Growth, and confined somewhere else. The hall then became the abode of the emperor’s sons and grandsons. The Qianlong Emperor lived there for five years from age twelve, moving to the Palace of Double Glory (Chonghua Gong) only because he got married. During the Qianlong period (1736–1795), this hall became a common residence for young imperial sons and grandsons, and Yongyan too, who at the time was an imperial son, lived there with the emperor’s many other sons and his grandsons for a period of ten years. When he got married, he moved from the Hall of Sound Growth to one of the five courtyards east of the Palace of Heavenly Purity (Qianqing Gong), and later to the Hall of Herb Picking (Xiefang Dian). This was the Jiaqing Emperor’s first connection with the Hall of Sound Growth.
On 15th October 1795, when the Qianlong Emperor had been on the throne for sixty years, he summoned his sons and grandsons, the high-ranking nobility, and the important officers of the court. He then solemnly extracted the secret imperial decision of the crown prince, hidden behind the tablet ‘Zhengda guangming’ (just and honorable) of the Palace of Heavenly Purity, announced that Yongyan was the crown prince, and decided that next year the court would hold a grand formal ceremony for passing on the throne. The grand ceremony was held on 9th February 1796, the first day of the lunar calendar. Qianlong passed the imperial seal on to his son Yongyan, the new Jiaqing Emperor, concluding his sixty-year reign and becoming the only emperor emeritus in the Qing dynasty. By rights, the emperor emeritus, after retiring from the throne, should move to the Palace of Tranquility and Longevity (Ningshou Gong) and yield the Hall of Mental Cultivation (Yangxin Dian) to the new emperor, but because he had lived in the Hall of Mental Cultivation for sixty years, felt comfortable there, and found it convenient for summoning and meeting court officials, he remained there and had the Jiaqing Emperor move into the Hall of Sound Growth, which was renamed the Hall of Continued Virtue (Jide Tang). The Qianlong Emperor had Yongyan move from the Hall of Herb Picking to the Hall of Sound Growth on 18th December 1795, soon after Yongyan became crown prince, and he stayed there until the emperor emeritus passed away on 7th February 1799. Thus, the Jiaqing Emperor again lived in the Hall of Sound Growth, this time for more than three years. This was his second connection with the Hall of Sound Growth.
During the three years that the Jiaqing Emperor lived in the Hall of Sound Growth, every day he had to go from this hall to the Hall of Mental Cultivation to meet the emperor emeritus. “Every day, he had to wait on his meals; with reverence, he had to inquire whether he slept well.” Thus did he have to learn the art of governing from the emperor emeritus. During his three years in the Hall of Sound Growth, he was constrained above and below: above, the emperor emeritus restrained him; below, powerful court officials set up impediments to accomplishing his aims. Especially when he was with the emperor emeritus, the Jiaqing Emperor was reduced to servitude. A Korean official once said, “[The Jiaqing Emperor] sits with the emperor emeritus. When the emperor emeritus smiles, he too smiles; when the emperor emeritus laughs, he too laughs. . . . At banquets, he sits at the emperor emeritus’s side, always looking at the emperor emeritus’s reactions and never once turning around to join in conversation.” He thus was emperor in name only. This new emperor seemed like a student learning his lessons. The Jiaqing Emperor thus had his drive and ambition worn down by such instruction, and this inevitably affected how he managed the reins of government when he later personally governed.
In 1799, when the Jiaqing Emperor personally assumed the reins of government, he moved into the Hall of Mental Cultivation. At the same time, he decided that the Hall of Sound Growth would no longer serve as the residence for the emperor’s sons. Rather, he followed the precedent of the Qianlong Emperor, who made the Palace of Double Glory, where he resided as a youth, his site for relaxing. Likewise, the Jiaqing Emperor reserved the Hall of Sound Growth for himself, to return to in free moments whenever he was so inclined. This measure also helped to maintain the secrecy surrounding the selection of the crown prince. As the Jiaqing Emperor himself said, “I have been especially fortunate to live there [the Hall of Sound Growth] from 1795 to 1799. Now that I live in the Hall of Mental Cultivation, if it were decided that the imperial sons would live in the Hall of Sound Growth, that would cause speculation on who is in and who is out, to the great torment of the imperial sons. Hence, I am reserving the Hall of Sound Growth as a place to which I can repair in free moments.” The emperor thus changed the function of the hall since when it was first built, housing the emperor’s sons, and aggregated it to himself. This was the Jiaqing Emperor’s third connection with the Hall of Sound Growth.
We see from the above that the Hall of Sound Growth had great significance for the Jiaqing Emperor. Hence, it is quite understandable that he would use the name of this hall, which gave him so many memories, to make numerous ‘Hall of Sound Growth’ seals. The emperor made most of these hall seals soon after he ascended the throne and again soon after he personally took control of governing, that is, when he began living in the Hall of Sound Growth and when he changed the function of the hall.
This ‘Hall of Sound Growth Seal’ was made from ordinary Han jade. The jade is colored grey with light brown mixed in and clearly seeped into the crevices. This jade conforms well with Qing-court standards of Han jade. The simple, unornamented seal knob is quite unpretentious. There are a number of similar seals among the Jiaqing seals presently held by the Beijing Palace Museum. One can compare these seals as published in Ming Qing dihou baoxi [Seals of the Emperors and Empresses of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, 1996]. The design of the seal characters butts up against the missing corner of the printing surface, producing a natural, harmonious aesthetic. The inscription was skillfully carved and fluently executed, and thus repays close appreciation. Out of this appreciation of a Jiaqing seal, I believe, comes a deeper understanding of the Jiaqing Emperor’s temperament.
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