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of square form with shallow sides, surmounted by an exquisitely carved crouching dragon in openwork, the mythical beast with bulging eyes, clenched teeth, and powerful claws, standing foursquare with an arched back forming the knop with curling tail swished back along its spine, the square seal face crisply carved in the positive with six characters reading Yongzheng yubi zhi bao (' Treasure in the Imperial Hand of the Yongzheng Emperor'), the translucent stone of a milky white tone with natural inclusions
The White Jade Yongzheng Yubi Zhibao Seal
Researcher, The Palace Museum, Department of Palace History, Beijing
The Yongzheng emperor (r. 1723–1735) was one of the more fascinating emperors in Chinese history. His twelve-year reign played a large role in building on the Kangxi legacy to create a prosperous China. His outstanding talent, strong personality, phenomenal political career, and conflict-ridden thought have left a strong impression, and have provided much grist for the mill of scholars interested in researching the emperor himself and his age. Recent research has shown that the Yongzheng emperor had a discerning aesthetic sense for works of art, as well as exquisite and unique tastes, and that he demanded elegant and fine manufacture in implements for personal use, with the result that the objets d'art associated with the Yongzheng emperor rank among the best in quality when compared with objects of all other Qing emperors. This also holds true for the seals used by the Yongzheng emperor. According to my research, the emperor had about 253 imperial seals manufactured, but records of Yongzheng seals compiled early in the Qianlong period (1736–1795) indicate that only 204 of these seals then remained.1 The great majority of these seals are held by the Beijing Palace Museum. Whether fine or rough, elegant or simple, they are all pleasing to the senses. Similarly, the Yongzheng yubi zhibao seal to be sold at auction by Sotheby's Hong Kong, reflects these basic characteristics of the seals used by the emperor and displays his standards of aesthetic quality and his aesthetic interests.
This seal has a body of white jade, a knob fashioned in the shape of a crouching dragon, and a seal face engraved with the six raised seal characters Yongzheng yubi zhibao ('Treasure in the Imperial Hand of the Yongzheng Emperor'), arranged in three columns of two characters each. The present seal is recorded in the Yongzheng bao sou ('Collection of Yongzheng Seals'), held by the Musée Guimet in Paris. We know that the emperors of the Qing dynasty had a wide range of seals of many types. Just in terms of the meaning of seal impressions, we can broadly divide Qing imperial seals into those giving titles, names, reign periods; those giving building names (often where court business was conducted); those showing appreciation or ownership of artworks; and those with memorable lines of poetry. Though such seals were of different types and presented different characteristics, they have one feature in common, namely, that they reveal the thought and interests of the Qing emperors. This is especially true of seals giving titles, names and reign periods, which have clear origins. For this reason, the seals of this type attract particular attention from collectors. This white jade Yongzheng yubi zhibao was a title, name, and reign-period seal produced during Yongzheng's early period. Here I will bring together the actual seal and its descriptions in the literature, and I will present what I know about the seal.
First, there is a clear record of the manufacture of this seal in the Archives of the Zaobanchu (Office of Manufacture) in the Yangxin Hall of the Qing Palace. The Yangxin Hall Office of Manufacture was the court agency responsible for the manufacture of implements for imperial use. Due to bureaucracy, it fell under the Imperial Household Department. Because the Office of Manufacture was responsible for all types of handiwork manufacture for the Inner Court and especially for the emperor, under it were many workshops employing a large number of master artisans. The great majority of imperial seals were made by such artisans in the workshops of the Office of Manufacture. After Yongzheng ascended the throne, he paid especially close attention to the management and oversight of imperially commissioned handiwork, and workshop records for imperially commissioned work in his reign are especially detailed. The records most closely related to the manufacture of Yongzheng seals are the final cleared accounts of completed projects of the workshops of the Office of Manufacture. These accounts include dozens of files of relatively completely preserved records on the manufacture of Yongzheng seals, including project descriptions and records from the character-carving workshop, jade workshop, mounting workshop, wood shop, box-making workshop, and inlay workshop. And they provide important information for understanding the manufacture of imperial seals during Yongzheng's reign. According to an entry in a work-order file of the jade workshop of the Office of Manufacture, 'On 22nd August 1725, the head eunuch of the Maoqin Hall, Su Peisheng, handed over a nine-hornless-dragon, white-jade seal measuring 1 cun 9 fen [6.1 cm] square at the base and 2 cun 3 fen [7.4 cm] high and a crouching-dragon, white-jade seal measuring 1 cun 7 fen [5.4 cm] square at the base and 3 fen 7 li [1.2 cm] thick at the base, with the crouching dragon being 9 fen [2.9 cm] high. [1 cun= 3.2 cm] He then transmitted the imperial command: "Begin carving the Yongzheng yubi zhibao. First layout the seal characters. Then present it for inspection. For the crouching dragon, white jade seal, make a brocade box to contain the seal. For the nine-hornless-dragon, white jade seal, use the old case, glue on a brocade surface, and on the top affix an ivory ornament." 'On 27th August, we came up with one design of "jade chopstick" seal characters [long strokes of even thickness] and one design of bronze seal characters [the characters used on Chinese bronzes], which we gave to the head eunuch Su Peisheng to present for inspection. We received the imperial command that both seals should be carved with the design of jade-chopstick seal characters. On 29th September, we finished carving the crouching dragon, white jade Yongzheng yubi zhibao and also finished the box with a brocade surface and a red lining of damask silk. We gave these to the eunuch Li Tongzhong to carry away.'2 If we compare the crouching dragon, white jade seal mentioned in this work-order passage with the Yongzheng yubi zhibao seal to be auctioned, we find that they agree in three essential respects: First, they both have the six-character inscription Yongzheng yubi zhi bao ('Treasure in the Imperial Hand of the Emperor') in jade-chopstick seal characters. Second, both are made of white jade and have knobs of crouching dragons. Records of imperial seals made after Yongzheng ascended the throne have survived relatively intact. According to these records, the emperor made five jade imperial seals: a white jade seal with a double-dragon knob and an inscription that reads 'Respect heaven and diligently serve the people,'; a white jade seal with a double-dragon knob and an inscription that reads Yongzheng yubi zhibao; a white jade seal with a triple-happiness (sanxi) knob and an inscription that reads: Seal of manufacture by the Yongzheng emperor; a white jade seal with a nine-hornless-dragon knob and an inscription that reads Yongzheng yubi zhibao; and a white jade seal with a crouching-dragon knob and an inscription that reads Yongzheng yubi zhibao seal.3 There is only one seal with a knob of a crouching dragon. Thus, in this matter as well, the present seal up for auction matches the crouching dragon, white jade seal mentioned in the work-order record. Third, the size measurements match. Measuring the Yongzheng yubi zhibao to be auctioned, we find that it has a seal face 5.5 centimeters square, a printing base 1.15 centimeters high, and a crouching-dragon knob 2.8 centimeters high. The white jade, crouching dragon Yongzheng yubi zhibao seal mentioned in the work-order record has a base of 1 cun 7 fen square, a base thickness of 3 fen 7 li, and a crouching dragon knob 9 fen high. The standard construction-chi measuring stick issued by the Qing Ministry of Revenue is 32 centimeters. Since 1 chi = 10 cun = 100 fen = 1,000 li, we can convert the measurements of the crouching dragon Yongzheng yubi zhibao seal of the work-order record as having a base of 5.44 centimeters square, a base thickness of 1.18 centimeters, and a sitting-dragon knob 2.88 centimeters high. If we allow for measurement discrepancies, we can see that the present seal and the description closely match. In light of the comparisons above, we can affirm that the crouching dragon, white jade Yongzheng yubi zhibao seal mentioned in the work-order materials is without doubt the Yongzheng yubi zhibao seal to be auctioned by Sotheby's Hong Kong. Hence we know that the inscription of this seal was carved by a jade artisan in the jade workshop of the Office of Manufacture from 17th August to 29th September, 1725, and that the Yongzheng emperor personally selected the jade-chopstick seal-character inscription design. After the seal was carved, a sumptuous box was made with a brocade exterior and a red lining of damask silk, and an ivory ornament with the seal inscription was affixed on top of the case. The Yongzheng emperor typically stored his seals in such an opulent fashion. Unfortunately, the original case for this seal no longer exists; all that remains is the seal itself.
The present seal ranks extremely high in quality among the Yongzheng emperor's imperial seals. As mentioned above, the Qianlong emperor, in the beginning of his reign, organized the Yongzheng emperor's seals and found that there were 204 Yongzheng seals. These 204 seals were not made of many different materials. Materials used included stone, jade, ivory, and porcelain. Of the total, five Yongzheng seals were made of jade, two of ivory, six of porcelain, and the rest were made of stone. In terms of quality, the white jade used for this Yongzheng yubi zhibao seal is thoroughly warm and lustrous, evenly clean dense white all over, pure without spots, and hence extremely rare.
Again, the crouching dragon knob of this seal is 2.8 centimeters high, and the printing base is 1.1 centimeter high. Thus the printing base is only one-third of the knob in height, which gives it a thin appearance. This shape is rare among Qing seals with dragon knobs. A close look at the workmanship and shape of the crouching-dragon knob reveals very fine carving and polishing to good effect, with few traces of the polishing wheel. The dragon's back is arched up and lacks scales. Its body is surrounded by flames. The thin yet strong neck supports a head looking slightly downward. The eyes protrude, the mouth is long, and the nose rises up somewhat. Its strong stout legs support its body. Arching its back, it strikes an imposing countenance. The style of this dragon knob is typical of the Yuan dynasty or early Ming dynasty. Clearly, the Yongzheng emperor took a seal handed down from the Yuan or early Ming period and had it recarved.
Finally, I should mention that the great majority of Yongzheng imperial seals are held in the collections of museums. Only a few are held in private collections. In fact, the present seal is the only Yongzheng imperial seal that I have seen held in a private collection.
1. Guo Fuxiang, "Yongzhengdi baoxi de xiangguan wenti" (Issues Associated with Yongzheng Imperial Seals), in Liang'an Gugong diyijie xueshu yantaohui: Wei jun nan, Yongzheng qi ren, qi shi, ji qi shidai lunwen ji (The First Scholarly Conference of the Two Palace Museums: Difficulties for the Scholar, Essays on Yongzheng, the Man, His Affairs, and His Age), edited by Li Tianming (Taipei: Guoli Gugong Bowuyuan, 2010), pp. 73–88.
2. Zhongguo Diyi Lishi Dang'anguan (China No. 1 Historical Archive) and Xianggang Zhongwen Daxue Wenwuguan (Museum of the Chinese University of Hong Kong), eds., Qinggong Neiwufu Zaobanchu dang'an zonghui (General Archive Collection of the Office of Manufacture of the Qing Palace Imperial Household Department) (Beijing: Renmin Chubanshe, 2005), vol. 1, p. 605.
3. Guo Fuxiang, "Yongzhengdi baoxi de xiangguan wenti."
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