Lot 1303
  • 1303

A PAIR OF VERY FINE WHITE JADE IMPERIAL 'DRAGON' SEALS QING DYNASTY, QIANLONG PERIOD

Estimate
5,000,000 - 7,000,000 HKD
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Description

one of square form, surmounted by a finely carved dragon, the small beast powerfully carved with eyes bulging and nostrils flaring above long curling whiskers, the scaly body tightly coiled crouching on its haunches with a 'flaming pearl' in between its front paws and encircled by cloud swirls, the scales and flowing mane finely incised with its long tail curled on its backside, the seal face finely and crisply carved with the characters Bazheng maonian zhi bao ('Treasure commemorating the Octogenarian Mindful of the Eight Signs'); the other of rectangular form, similarly carved with a crouching dragon, the seal face finely carved with the characters Xiang yong wufu ('By Heaven's Granting We Enjoy the Five Blessings'), the translucent white stone of a pure even tone

Provenance

Removed from the Shouhuangdian (Hall of Imperial Longevity), Beijing, 1900.
Private Collection, France.

Catalogue Note

Emperor Qianlong's Imperial Seals 'Bazheng mao nian zhi bao' and 'Xiang yong wufu'
Guo Fuxiang
Department of Palace History
The Palace Museum, Beijing

Two imperial seals, Bazheng mao nian zhi bao (Treasure Commemorating the  Octogenarian Mindful of the Eight Signs) (the square seal) and Xiangyong wufu (By Heaven's Granting, We Enjoy The Five Blessings) (the rectangular seal), were especially made by the Qianlong emperor in the fifty-fourth year of his reign [1789] to celebrate his own approaching eightieth birthday, and are recorded in the Qianlong baosou.

The fifty-fifth year of the Qianlong era [1790] was a most significant year for the Qianlong emperor.  Not only had he already been on the throne for fifty-five years, he also was about to have his eightieth birthday.  According to custom, whenever the number of years amounted to a multiple of five, such years were known as zhengshou (milestones of a long life), for which it was always required that an especially grand celebration take place.  For the Qianlong emperor, the fifty-fifth year in his reign also just happened to coincide with his eightieth birthday, a natural convergence of the numbers of Heaven and Earth and the result of the care and assistance shown by cerulean Heaven, so this certainly merited a special celebration on the grandest scale.  Therefore, a year earlier at mid-autumn the Emperor began planning activities to be associated with the celebration, which included determining where in the palace congratulations were to be received, and at what scale, what articles of tribute were to be presented from every part of the empire as well as from vassal states, and other matters.   The making of related imperial seals was undoubtedly considered an indispensable item in such plans.

The procedure for making such seals was already in place, since the precedent was established in 1720 when an imperial seal was made in commemoration of the Qianlong emperor's tenth birthday, during the fifty-ninth year in the Kangxi emperor's reign.  In response to the fact that the Kangxi emperor was fast approaching both the sixtieth year of his reign and his seventieth birthday, he decided to have small size imperial seals carved and ordered palace calligraphers to make drafts for the seal face inscription, but none of these proved up to his expectations.  Therefore, he composed one of his own in four characters: jie zhi zai de (Guard Against Covetousness),[1] which he had carved as the seal face for many such imperial seals.  During the forty-fifth year of Qianlong, when he turned seventy, he followed the Kangxi emperor's precedent and had imperial seals carved with inscriptions of Du Fu's [712-770] lines Guxi tianzi zhi bao (Treasure of the Son of Heaven At Age Seventy) and Youri zizi (Still Busy and Hard-working Every Day), which while commemorating his birthday also indicated how he dared not neglect government responsibilities.  And now another full ten years had past, and following precedent, it was inevitable that he had more related imperial seals carved.

In the case of his eightieth birthday, he let his eyes fall on the text of the Hongfan (Great Plan) chapter in the Shangshu (Venerated Documents, i. e., the Classic of History), where it is recorded that after King Wu had conquered the Shang he asked the Viscount of Ji to teach him the meaning of the Dao of Heaven.  The Viscount of Ji subsequently told him about the Great plan with its Nine Divisions.  Qianlong believed that the Nine Divisions of the Great Plan set out by the Viscount of Ji were "the wellspring of sovereign rule for ten thousand ages . . . .  not a one of which should fail to engage the whole mind and person of the ruler."  Moreover, the eighth of the nine divisions, "It Is For Admonition That We Have Signs From Heaven," seems to have been identical with the way Qianlong thought at the time.  Therefore, he made it the theme of the present "Bazheng" seal.  As for why he wanted to use "Bazheng mao nian zhi bao" as the text for the imperial seal face, the emperor explained it in his essay, "Record of the Treasure Commemorating the Octogenarian Mindful of the Eight Signs".
 
With a thought toward how to help celebrate the first decade that begins with my eightieth year I had a number of seals engraved so I could use them to make impressions at the end of my pieces of calligraphy.  The best of all was the one that expressed the thought of the 'Eight Signs' from the 'Great Plan.'  Moreover, I had long had the wish that when I became eighty-five and my Qianlong reign had lasted all of sixty years I should relinquish power...The Quli (I. e., the Yili  [Book of Etiquette and Ceremonial]) states: 'To be eighty is called a venerable elder,' which means that when one grows old, one's mental powers decline.  Here I am at eighty, but having the good fortune that springs from Heaven's help, my body is still healthy and strong.   Not for one day should the heavy burden of work manifest itself in the decline of my mental powers, so I cannot help but exert myself to the utmost.

One can thus say that the carving of the "Bazheng" seal not only commemorates his eightieth birthday, it also serves as an admonition to himself. 

During the next several months, the "Bazheng" theme was a constant topic of conversation between Qianlong and his ministers, intimately linked with the emperor's eightieth birthday and was the focus of attention everywhere, even to the extent that a grand banquet held during the first lunar month in the Chonghua gong (Palace of Multiple Flourescence). The emperor, his court ministers as well as scholars from the Hanlin Academy had as the topic for the composition of couplets the phrase "Bazheng mao nian zhi bao"

Because I shall be exactly eighty years of age during the next year, I had a "Bazheng" seal carved, which was already completed during the second month of winter [17 December 1789-14 January 1790], and on the auspicious day that marks Lichun (Beginning of Spring) [3 February 1790] I started to use it to affix seals.

Last year during the month in which the Winter Solstice occurred [11th month 5th day = 21 December 1789], since with the beginning of the next year this would be the year in which I would become eighty years of age, I had the idea again to have an imperial seal carved so I could use it to affix seals.  Fittingly, nothing could have been better to use for commemoration than the 'Eight Phases of Life' mentioned in the 'Great Plan.'   So I ordered that a Hetian jade stone be selected and engraved with 'Bazheng mao nian zhi bao.'  Thanks to the beneficence of heaven, I am as healthy and strong as ever, so I can tend assiduously to the affairs of state and take care of the common folk.  Thus I dare not for a single day neglect to exert myself to the utmost."

From this we know that the earliest "Bazheng" seal was carved during the winter of the fifty-fourth year of Qianlong and that the material was Hetian jade, and that it was first used to affix seals at the beginning of spring of the following year.  But we need to note that the jade seal inscribed with "Bazheng" is not the only principal treasure, for in addition, Qianlong  also selected two other treasure seal inscriptions to inscribe on a fubao (auxiliary treasure) seal and on an yinshou (introductory) seal [used on frontpieces of calligraphy or paintings], which matched the principal treasure and with it formed a set.  The auxiliary treasure seal had ziqiang buxi (Never Cease to Strengthen Oneself) inscribed on it, and the introductory seal had xiangyong wufu (By Heaven's Granting, We Enjoy The Five Blessings) inscribed on it.  

The reason Qianlong wanted to select these two treasure inscriptions to match the one on which "Bazheng" was inscribed was because he wanted to make it known that before he relinquished power, he did not dare indulge in the least sloth, that he would be ever mindful of the common folk all over the empire, that he would diligently seek to govern well, and that he would be attentive to all government affairs.  During the fifty-fourth year of Qianlong after the emperor formulated these inscriptions for the three treasures, he initiated the large-scale production of them. 

From this archive entry in the Qing Palace Neiwufu zaobanchu huoji dang (Imperial Household Department Workshop Crafts Archives) we know that it was only at this time that as many as eight treasure sets of "Bazheng" seals were made.  Moreover, the project time was limited only to a very short period of two months, so we can imagine how pressed for time Qianlong was.  It is obvious that these sets were being made especially for his eightieth birthday celebration, and they had to be completed on time.  The present pair of seals come from one of these eight sets.  The two treasured imperial seals were made by the most artistically powerful Suzhou artisans.  Although the project time was very short and hastened to completion with such urgency, the carving is still exact in every detail, accurate to meet the highest standards, and demonstrates the carvers' skillful artistry and superb standards of technical excellence.  From these two imperial seals we come to appreciate and understand Qianlong's consistent behavior as well as the true state of his mind during his later years, which perhaps, is even more important than the treasured imperial seals themselves.
[1] Lunyu zhushu  (Commentaries and Sub-Commentaries On the Analects) (Shisanjing zhushu ([Shanghai: Guji chubanshe, 1997] ed.), 16:2522a: "There are three things the noble man guards against. . . .  When he is old and his physical powers have waned, he guards against covetousness."

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