Lot 1301
  • 1301


15,000,000 - 20,000,000 HKD
bidding is closed



of small circular form, superbly carved in low relief with the triagram qian between a pair of confronting qilong, the sides deftly incised with a poem ending with the date Qianlong Bingchen chun yubi (corresponding to 1796), the seal face deeply and crisply carved with the characters tai shang huang di ('Treasure of the Emperor Emeritus') in zhuanshu, the stone of a translucent fine white colour with an area of russet skin on the top skillfully utilised to enhance the carving


Removed from the Shouhuangdian (Hall of Imperial Longevity), Beijing, 1900.
Collection of General de Gercey (1872-1939), France. 

General de Gercey was only 28 years old when he went to Beijing in 1900 with the French navy as part of the Eight Nation Alliance sent to put down the Boxer Rebellion.  Later he received the Navy Cross for his valour during the First World War. 

Catalogue Note

Tai shang huang di, Treasure of the Emperor Emeritus
Guo Fuxiang
Department of Palace History
The Palace Museum, Beijing

The Qianlong Emperor had the longest reign period in Chinese history and also enjoyed one of the longest life spans. He inherited the dynasty from his ancestors, and built on the prosperity and power, creating a dynasty of great splendor during his reign. For his legacy he had objects made to reflect the different stages and the major events and turning points in his life. A few years ago, I published a book titled The Treasure Seals of Emperors and Empresses of the Ming and Qing Dynasties which was an exclusive study of the treasure seals of Emperors and Empresses. In the book I summarized the characteristics of Qianlong's seals, one of which is that his seals were made to record meritorious events. During Qianlong's reign seals were carved to commemorate special state events and family happenings. These seals were then re-carved in great numbers. If we lined up these seals according to the year they were made, we can clearly see all the major state events and family happenings of his reign.

The important circular seal carved with the "Treasure of the Emperor Emeritus", presented in this sale, is a work of great significance. This seal is made of a circular white jade that has a russet skin. The seal is carved with the trigram qian between a pair of confronting qilong in low relief. The face of the seal is deeply carved in zhuanshu with the four characters tai shang huang di "Treasure of the Emperor Emeritus." Qianlong's poem titled "Treasure of the Emperor Emeritus' is carved on the side of the seal. The white jade used for making this seal is of a fine lustrous colour. The carving of the poem is naturalistic and refined and closely follows the emperor's writing style. The seal is recorded in the Collection of Qianlong's Treasures. Considering the quality of the jade, its size and the carving, it is evident that the present seal is the seal recorded and is the genuine Qianlong treasure seal.

In order to understand and appreciate this seal, we have to know the history of the Emperor Emeritus "tai shang huang". Emeritus means 'the most supreme', a term of extreme respect; and together with the word "huang" means that 'its virtue is more supreme than the emperor'. Therefore, the four characters together refer to someone 'whose virtue is even more supreme than the emperor'. The term "tai shang huang" first appeared during the Qin Dynasty. According to the records of Shi Ji by Si Ma Quan, after the first Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, united the six kingdoms, he gave his deceased father, Zhuang Xiang, the title "tai shang huang". The Shi Ji also records that after Liu Bang of the Han Dynasty became the emperor, he showed extreme respect towards his father, Liu Tai Gong. According to legends, one day, his father's housekeeper said the follows to his father:

"Heaven does not have two suns, neither should the earth have two kings. Although the present emperor is your son, nevertheless, he is the head of the country. Although you are the father of the emperor, you are his subject. How can the emperor kowtow to his subject? If this continues, your prestigious position will not last long.''

When Liu Bang visited his father, Liu Tai Gong went to greet him outside the front door with a sweep in his hand. He humbly led his son into the house. Seeing this, Liu Bang was very surprised and asked why his father was acting so humble. Liu Tai Gong said, "You are the emperor of the people, I am your subject, how should law and regulation be changed because of me!" Thus Liu Bang issued an imperial decree to honour Liu Tai Gong as the "tai shang huang". Liu Tai Gong was the first person in the Chinese history to become an honored "tai shang huang" despite not being an emperor himself.

The significance of the "tai shang huang" was later changed and become associated with the handing over of the imperial throne. Qianlong became a "tai shang huang" after he abdicated his throne. Hence, this was a major turning point in his life and to commemorate this he ordered the making of this seal. 

According to records, when Qianlong became the emperor he promised to rule the nation for sixty years, after which he would choose his successor and abdicate the throne. He kept his promise and in the year of his sixtieth reign, on the third day of the ninth month, at the age of 85, he gathered his sons and grand-sons, ministers and officials, and declared that he was handing over his throne to the 15th prince, Jia Yong Yan, and named the year after that as the first year of the Jiaqing reign. An order was issued in which Qianlong declared that he would go to Taihe Dian (Hall of Great Peace) and personally hand over the treasure seal. He also declared himself "tai shang huang." Thus Qianlong completed his 60 years as the Emperor and became the last "tai shang huang" in Chinese history.

In his preparation to become the "tai shang huang", on the 28th day of the ninth month, Qianlong issued the following edict: "After I resign, the number one jade treasure with the character xi should be used and engraved with the characters tai shang huang di.''

The seal mentioned in this edict is the largest amongst the "tai shang huang di" seals and can be found in the Palace Museum collection. Under Qianlong's instructions, the carvers working in the Palace made several "tai shang huang di" seals, amongst which one of them is the present seal.

According to the Collection of Qianlong's Treasures, over twenty "tai shang huang di" seals were made. The majority of these seals are still kept in the Palace Museum. The present seal is unusual for its circular form. The majority of seals are square or rectangular in shape, and this is the only circular seal.

This circular seal was possibly the last seal made in this series. The material of this seal is of the highest quality and is reminiscent of archaic jade. Qianlong often mentioned it as the "White Han Jade". Both the carving and the jade are after Han jade seals. The shape of this seal reminds me of another circular-form Qianlong seal, carved with the four characters "gu xi tian zi" (Heavenly Son of rare seventy). According to archival records, this seal was partially made from using archaic jade.

The trigram "qian" carved on this seal is also special to the Qianlong emperor. This ba gua pattern can be found engraved on many of Qianlong's seals as well as on other important objects. The side of the seal is carved with Qianlong's poem of "The Emperor Emeritus". Qianlong wrote this poem especially for this seal and it reflects his true feelings at the time. The poem was written in the first year of Jiaqing's reign (equivalent to 1796A.D.) when Qianlong became the 'Emperor Emeritus'. The poem can be translated as follows:

Treasure of the Emperor Emeritus
Since ancient times, fathers of ruling emperors have been addressed
With grand titles and exemplary epithets - this I say is not right.
Though these last six decades have been cause for great congratulation and rejoicing,
I'm ashamed I've had no leisure to add my own antithetical couplets to them.
Throughout my life I've asked myself how virtue might be achieved.
So that my guidelines be spoken of forever - resulting, I pray, in great prosperity.
With window bright and desktop clear, I read the "Western Inscription".
Just now as the moments come when I cherish all the time I have left

The last two lines of the poem reveal Qianlong's thoughts. In his study, where the window let in light and the desktop was cleared, he examined the famous scroll of Xi Ming (Western Inscription) by the great Song philosopher Zhang Dai. Qianlong's poem has been carved on many of the "tai shang huang di" seals and therefore its significance is understandable and needs no further explanation.

Being one of the most important seals of Qianlong's life as "the Emperor Emeritus", this circular seal was often used on books and paintings kept in the Neiwufu.  For example, it can be found on Han Huang's Painting of the Five Cows and on Wang Xianzhi's Mid-Autumn Calligraphy, which are both kept in the Palace Museum. It can also be found on Tang Yin's Painting on Tea Drinking. The present seal was often used together with the seal of 'gu xi tian zi'. It is possible that the two seals were made as a pair.