Research has shown that the Yongzheng Emperor had approximately 253 seals made for him during his lifetime, but an inventory of them made during the early reign of his son and successor Qianlong records only 204 imperial seals belonging to Yongzheng.1 The vast majority of these remain in the Forbidden City as part of the collection of the Palace Museum in Beijing. Whether finely or boldly executed, elegant or plain, these seals are refreshing for the modern viewer. Because extremely few of Yongzheng’s imperial seals are in private hands, the appearance of one in public is always of major significance and promises to yield important information about the emperor’s personality and deeds. Recently consigned to Sotheby’s Hong Kong, the imperial white jade ‘Yongzheng Yubi Zhi Bao’ seal is a work that reflects the basic the basic characteristics of Yongzheng’s imperial seals and embodies the emperor’s aesthetic taste and interests.
Made from white jade, this seal features nine chi, or hornless dragons, and a seal text reading Yongzheng yubi zhi bao (‘Treasure in the imperial hand of the Yongzheng Emperor’) divided into three columns of two characters each. This seal is recorded in Baosou, a catalogue of imperial seals in the collection of the Guimet Museum in Paris. The Qing emperors used a wide range of seals. Based on the seal texts alone, they can be divided into the categories of seals denoting rank, title, or reign title; palace seals; collector’s seals; and auspicious and poetic seals. Despite their different inherent characteristics, these seals are alike valuable in reflecting the emperor’s thinking and interests. Seals denoting rank, title, or reign title and collector’s seals are particularly favoured by collectors because of their unambiguous original ownership. The present ‘Yongzheng yubi zhi bao’ seal, a title seal from the early reign of the Yongzheng Emperor, is one such example. Here I will discuss my views on this work based on its own characteristics, as well as contextual documents.
First, the creation of this seal is documented clearly and in detail in the Imperial Workshops Handiwork Edicts of the Hall of Mental Cultivation in the Forbidden City.
The Imperial Workshops of the Hall of Mental Cultivation, officially under the management of the Imperial Household Department, were responsible for producing the various craft objects in the court and especially for the emperor’s use. They consisted of many different specialist workshops and were staffed by many virtuosic craftsmen. The vast majority of the Qing emperors’ seals were produced by them. Especially from the Yongzheng reign onwards, the court carefully supervised the production of objects for imperial use, which were thus documented in great detail. Most relevant for the production of the present Yongzheng seal is the Imperial Workshops’ Gezuo chengzuo huoji qingdang [Records of the edicts of the various handiwork workshops], a comprehensive document of such procedures as seal text carving, jade carving, mounting, wood preparation, box production, and in-setting. These records are crucially important to our understanding of the production of imperial seals after Yongzheng’s ascendance to the throne.
According to a 1725 entry in the Edicts of the Imperial Household Department’s jade workshops, “On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, Su Peisheng, Head Eunuch of the Mouqin Palace, submitted one white jade seal with nine hornless dragons, of width 1.9 cun, height 2.3 cun; one white jade seal of width 1.7 cun and thickness 3.7 cun, with a reposed dragon of height 0.9 cun. The imperial decree was conveyed that the text Yongzheng yubi zhi bao be carved and that a sample in seal script be presented beforehand; that an embroidered box be made to contain the white jade seal with a reposed dragon and the original box be retained to house the white jade seal with nine hornless dragons, but with the addition of embroidered linings and an ivory plaque. Thus it was decreed. On the 20th day of this month, a sample text in jade seal script and two sample texts in bronzeware seal script were obtained and presented for review by Su Peisheng, Lead Eunuch of the Mouqin Palace. The imperial decree was received that both seals be carved with text according to the sample in jade seal script. Thus it was decreed. On the 14th day of the eighth month, one white jade seal with nine hornless dragons was carved with the text ‘Yongzheng yubi zhi bao’ and placed in the original box, which was affixed with new embroidered linings and a new ivory plaque, and handed to Lead Eunuch Su Peisheng to present [to the court]. On the 23rd day of the eighth month, a white jade seal with a reposed dragon was carved with the text Yongzheng yubi zhi bao, and a red satin embroidered box was created for it and affixed with an ivory plaque, and [the ensemble] was handed to the eunuch Li Tongzhong for presentation.”2
The above entry confirms that the lot on offer is none other than the “white jade seal with nine chilong” specified in the Qing court’s Handiwork Edicts. First, the lot on offer is identical to the recorded object in seal text and script; both feature the six characters Yongzheng yubi zhi bao in jade seal script. Second, the two are consistent in dimensions. The lot on offer measures 6.1 cm across its seal face and is 7.5 cm in height, consistent with the recorded dimensions of “1.9 cun in width and 2.3 cun in height.” According to the standards issued by the Qing Ministry of Revenue, a chi [12 cun] was identical to 32 cm., which means that the recorded width and height translate to 6.08 cm and 7.36 cm, which are consistent with the measured dimensions with a negligible difference. Thirdly, the recorded object and the lot on offer are identical in format, material, and decorative programme.
Therefore, we can attribute the production of the seal to the jade craftsmen of the Imperial Workshops and date it precisely to the period between the 20th day of the seventh month and the 14th day of the eighth month of the third year of the Yongzheng reign.
Furthermore, the white jade used for this seal is extremely rare among all of Yongzheng’s imperial seals. Only four other known examples are extant.
As discussed above, an early-Qianlong period inventory records 204 imperial seals belonging to Yongzheng. These seals were made a narrow range of materials; five were made from jade, two from ivory, and six of porcelain, and the rest were all made from stone. According to court records, Yongzheng’s five jade imperial seals were: a white jade double-dragon seal reading Jingtian qinmin; a white jade double-dragon seal reading Yongzheng yubi zhi bao; a white jade ‘triple-happiness’ seal reading Yongzheng yuzhi zhi bao; a white jade seal with nine chilong reading Yongzheng yubi zhi bao; and a white jade seal with a reposed dragon reading Yongzheng yubi zhi bao.3 The lot on offer is the fourth of these. Its preciousness is underscored by the beauty of its white jade material, which has a warm translucency and uniformly white colour and flawless texture.
Furthermore, the well-preserved container of this seal is itself an invaluable document of how Yongzheng’s imperial seals were housed.
According to the records cited above, the box that contained this seal was created by adding embroidered linings and an ivory plaque to its original container. This suggests that the nine hornless dragons on the seal stone and the original container were most likely created during the Kangxi reign. The recorded modifications done to the container in the third year of the Yongzheng reign include lining its exterior with incense-coloured embroidery with a coiled dragon pattern, lining its interior with red satin, and adding an ivory plaque on the top cover. These are all consistent with the current condition of the lot on offer. Certain details of the container reveal the sophisticated taste and craftsmanship of the Yongzheng imperial workshops, particularly the ivory plaque. The title and text of the seal is inscribed in regular script in the middle of the plaque and filled with ink. Grooves run along three edges of the plaque, allowing it to be slid into and affixed to the container. The top cover of the plaque is painstaking carved with dragon patterns. All these features are typical of containers of Yongzheng imperial seals.
The creation process of this seal and its container reveal characteristics of the Yongzheng Emperor’s personality and aesthetic taste.
Yongzheng was a legendary figure in Chinese history. Following Kangxi and anticipating Qianlong, his thirteen-year reign played an important role in forging the Golden Age of the High Qing. Recent research has demonstrated the Yongzheng Emperor’s highly sophisticated and idiosyncratic views on art and aesthetics. They are reflected in the elegance and high craftsmanship of imperial objects created under his reign, which had been unprecedented in the Qing Dynasty. This had much to do with Yongzheng’s personal investment and participation in the production of court objects, which naturally included his own imperial seals. The records cited above demonstrate that Yongzheng had very specific and remarkably detailed requirements on the production of imperial seals. It is no exaggeration to say that he was himself at once a designer, director, and recipient of the imperial seals.
In 2011, Sotheby’s Hong Kong auctioned a white jade imperial seal with a reposed dragon reading Yongzheng yubi zhi bao. Its text was based on the same design was the text of the present seal and carved by the same craftsman, as demonstrated by the high degree of similarity between the two. The two seals make a worthwhile comparison. Having survived three centuries of historical vicissitudes, the present white Yongzheng yubi zhi bao imperial seal with nine hornless dragons is an artifact of tremendous historical and aesthetic value.
1 Guo Fuxiang, ‘On Imperial Seals of Emperor Yongzheng’, The First International Symposium Organized by the Palace Museum Across the Strait – The Complexities and Challenges of Rulership: Emperor Yongzheng and His Accomplishments in His Time, Taipei, 2010, pp. 73-88.
2 The First Historical Archives of China, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, eds., Qinggong neiwufu zaobanchu dang’an zonghui [General collection of archival records from the Qing imperial household department workshop], Beijing, 2005, vol. 1, p. 605.
3 See footnote 1.
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