A SUPERB IMPERIAL SOAPSTONE SEAL QING DYNASTY, YONGZHENG PERIOD
Private Collection, France.
Qianlong Emperor's 'Si Shi Jia Xing Yu Ren Tong' Seal
Department of Palace History
The Palace Museum, Beijing
The present seal belonged to the Qianlong emperor when he was a prince and was made before his enthronement. It is made of soapstone and is decorated with landscape and three qilong on its handle. It contains seven characters in the emperor's calligraphy in the zhuanshu style which reads 'Si Shi Jia Xing Yu Ren Tong' and can be translated as 'People prosper as the seasons go by'.
According to archival records the present seal was made in the Imperial Palace and was part of a group of 70 seals stored in 13 boxes. The Qianlong emperor was enthroned at the age of 25. It is known that the ten years before his enthronement he collected over 70 seals which were placed in 13 boxes. An imperial record titled "Record of Boxes" notes that "In the winter of the 46th year of the Qianlong reign, the Qianlong Emperor ordered to have boxes made for the seals frequently used by Sheng Zu, Shi Zung, and his own seals collected in the decade before his enthronement''. These boxes were stored in the Shouhuangdian in Jingshan. It is regrettable that due to the turmoil of the last years of the Qing dynasty, imperial seals kept in the Shouhuangdian have been lost with the only exception of one box containing 16 seals which are now in the collection of the Palace Museum in Beijing. The present seal is one of a pair. The companion seal is inscribed with the Emperor's writing which can be translated as 'one is satisfied when observing all the things in the world with a peaceful mind'.
One of the important characteristics of Qianlong's seals is the large variety of sources used for the inscriptions. It is well known that Qianlong admired the Han culture and studied the writings of Confucius and Mencius. His profound knowledge of the Han dynasty is widely reflected in all aspects of his life, including his seals. Inscriptions on his seals are often taken directly or indirectly from classics such as the Lun Yu, The Book of Odes, Shang Shu, Shou Yi, Li Ji and others. Furthermore, many of the inscriptions were taken directly from famous poems by Li Bai, Du Fu, Xu Hun and Yu Liangshi who were all poets of the Tang dynasty. The inscription on this seal is quoted from a poem titled, "A Note Written by Chance on an Autumn Day" by Cheng Hao of the Song Dynasty. Cheng Hao was born in Luoyang, Henan province. In his youth he studied under the famous scholar Zhou Dunyi who was the founder of Neo-Confucianism during the Song Dynasty. Cheng Hao was a kind man with a candid mind. He further developed the theories of Mencius, and with his brother, Cheng Yi, developed Neo-Confucianism into an organized philosophical school. The Cheng brothers built their philosophies on the concept of li (basic truths), and stressed calm introspection and investigation of the myriad things of the universe and participation in human affairs. Cheng Hao's idealistic system of "heavenly rationalism" played an influential role in the development of Chinese philosophy over time. The Kangxi Emperor of the Qing dynasty was especially keen to promote Cheng's philosophy. In the 25th year of Kangxi's reign, the emperor upgraded Cheng's position from ru to xian. Qianlong followed his grandfather and was known to have admired the teachings of Cheng Hao. He is quoted saying, "It is highly effective when applied to major matters and less effective when applied to minor matters. Overall it is most suitable for ruling the world.'' Qianlong valued Cheng Hao's philosophy and the poem "A Note Written by Chance on an Autumn Day" is a summary of Cheng's teaching. Therefore, it is quite natural for the emperor to quote from Cheng's writings.
The present seal is a rare example of seals collected by the emperor when he was still a prince. It reflects the prince's peaceful mind at that time when he observed happenings in the world. As his other seals, it is made of soapstone, but the carving found on this seal is especially vivid and strong. This seal makes it possible for us to understand and appreciate Qianlong's seal collection when he was a prince.