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each of square form, surmounted by a superbly carved pair of addorsed dragons, each with bulging eyes and flaring nostrils above curling whiskers and a partially open mouth revealing sharp fangs, the scales and flowing mane defined by fine incisions, the two bodies intertwined and crouching low on the haunches, pierced through the centre with an aperture, one seal deeply and crisply carved with the characters Jiaqing yulan zhibao ('Appreciation of His Majesty Jiaqing'), the other similarly carved with the characters Jiaqing yubi zhibao ('In the Imperial Hand of Jiaqing'), both stones of bright apple-green tone with patches of white
Two Jadeite Seals Belonging to the Jiaqing Emperor
By Guo Fuxiang
Researcher, The Palace Museum, Department of History, Beijing
Imperial seals of the Qing period (1644–1911) include a wide range of types. Considering only the content of the inscriptions, we find seals recording nobility titles, personal names, and reign titles, seals for use in a particular palace hall, seals for appreciating and collecting works of art and literature, and seals quoting a particularly memorable poetic phrase. Though imperial seals may be of different types or have different distinguishing characteristics, a common feature is that they reflect the emperor's thoughts and interests. Seals recording nobility titles, personal names, and reign titles and seals for appreciating and collecting works of art and literature especially tend to capture collectors' fancy, since the facts concerning such seals are the most definite. The two seals of the Jiaqing Emperor's recently acquired by Sotheby's Hong Kong fall into this category.
These two seals both have jadeite bodies, have an impression surface of 7.1 centimeters square, have handles of intertwined dragons, and have inscriptions of raised seal characters. One seal reads Jiaqing yubi zhibao ('Treasure from the Brush of the Jiaqing Emperor'), and the other reads Jiaqing yulan zhibao ('Treasure for the Viewing Pleasure of the Jiaqing Emperor'). In Jiaqing baosou (Catalogue of the Jiaqing Emperor's Imperial Seals), a catalogue of the impressions of Jiaqing imperial seals held by the Beijing Palace Museum, there are clear descriptions of these seals. This catalogue reveals that the two seals were originally a pair, kept in the same case. Comparing the two seals before us with the descriptions in this catalogue, we find that they perfectly match the descriptions in shape, size, style of the seal characters, and the layout of the characters. Hence, we can confirm that these imperial seals are the actual seals that the Jiaqing Emperor used.
The owner of these two seals, the Jiaqing Emperor, whose given name was Yongyan, was the fifth emperor of the Qing dynasty after the Qing conquered China. During the twenty-five years of his reign, China enjoyed the legacy of the prosperity from the Kangxi period (1662–1722) to the Qianlong period (1736–1795), yet his reign also marked the beginning of the decline of the Qing court. Hence, China in many areas was lapsing into a complicated set of circumstances that are difficult to describe. Among the Qing emperors, the Jiaqing emperor had a relatively large number of seals. When an emperor assumed the throne, it was customary for the new emperor to have seals engraved for the use of writing and the appreciation of art and literature. Although such seals were engraved early on in the emperor's reign and may have different inscriptions depending on their use, they generally have the emperor's reign title to indicate ownership of the emperor. This would include seals with inscriptions meaning 'Treasure of emperor so-and-so,' 'Treasure for the Viewing Pleasure of emperor so-and-so,' 'Treasure from the Brush of emperor so-and-so,' 'Viewed by emperor so-and-so,' 'From the Brush of emperor so-and-so,' 'Appreciated by emperor so-and-so,' and 'Written by emperor so-and-so.' For example, the Kangxi Emperor had seals with inscriptions such as 'Treasure from the Brush of the Kangxi Emperor,' 'Treasure for the Viewing Pleasure of the Kangxi Emperor,' 'Written by the Kangxi Emperor,' and 'Viewed by the Kangxi Emperor.' The Yongzheng Emperor had seals with inscriptions such as 'Treasure for the Viewing Pleasure of the Yongzheng Emperor,' 'Treasure from the Brush of the Yongzheng Emperor,' and 'Written by the Yongzheng Emperor.' Te Qianlong Emperor had seals with inscriptions such as 'Treasure for the Viewing Pleasure of the Qianlong Emperor,' 'Treasure from the Brush of the Qianlong Emperor,' 'From the Brush of the Qianlong Emperor,' 'Written by the Qianlong Emperor,' and 'appreciated by the Qianlong Emperor.' Obviously, emperors would have more than one seal engraved, with seals of different materials and different sizes. Such seals were only used by one emperor, with the inscription indicating which emperor the seal belonged to. Amongst imperial seals for leisurely pursuits, seals with the emperor's reign title were used more frequently. Jiaqing imperial seals were no exception. While he was on the throne, seals that the Jiaqing Emperor had engraved with the title of his reign—seals with such inscriptions such as Jiaqing yubi zhibao ('Treasure from the brush of the Jiaqing Emperor'), Jiaqing yubi ('From the brush of the Jiaqing Emperor'), Jiaqing chenhan ('Written by the Jiaqing Emperor'), Jiaqing yulan zhibao ('Treasure for the Viewing Pleasure of the Jiaqing Emperor'), Jiaqing jianshang ('Appreciated by the Jiaqing Emperor), Jiaqing yushang ('Appreciated by the Jiaqing Emperor'), Jiaqing yulan ('Viewed by the Jiaqing Emperor'), and Jiaqing ('The Jiaqing Emperor')—constitute a good portion of the seals he had engraved. The two seals up for auction—Jiaqing yubi zhibao and Jiaqing yulan zhibao—were engraved early in the Jiaqing period (1796–1820).
There are two points about the present seals that I would like to emphasize. One is the special nature of the material used. These two seals are made of jadeite, which was seldom used to make imperial seals. Generally, Qing imperial seals were made of nephrite, stone, and wood. Because the Qing court was unfamiliar with jadeite until quite late, it was seldom used early in the Qing period. Only in the middle and late Qing period did jadeite become popular in the Qing court, and then it was mostly used for ordinary display items and jewelry while the use for objects of certification, such as imperial seals, was extremely rare. To my knowledge, only three sets, a total of eight imperial seals, were made of jadeite, and they were all made for the Jiaqing emperor's use. The first set, in the Collection of the National Palace Museum in Taipei, consists of the seal chang yuan lou ('Tower with an Unobstructed View of the Distance'), the seal zhi zhong han he ('Maintain the Golden Mean and Relish Harmony'), and the seal xie xin ('Reveal One's True Heart'). The second set includes two seals auctioned by Christie's Hong Kong, 28th May 2008, lot 1535, namely, the seal feng lin zhou ('Land of the Phoenix and Qilin') and the seal shui jing sha ming ('Clear Water, Bright Sand'). The third seal of the set is lin you feng wu" ('The Qilin Roams and the Phoenix Dances'). The third set is this pair that Sotheby's Hong Kong is auctioning, Jiaqing yubi zhibao and Jiaqing yulan zhibao. My second point is that the jadeite of these two seals is of superb quality: transparent and lustrous, white with touches of green, varying from dark to light, and the whole freely flowing, like the clouds in the sky. These qualities make these two seals extremely rare amongst imperial seals, and hence extraordinarily valuable.
One can see impressions of these seals on extant works from Qing palaces. For example, impressions of the Jiaqing yulan zhibao seal appear on the upper left section of Suichao tu ('Spring Festival'), by Zhang Bangwei, in the collection of the Beijing Palace Museum, and on the upper middle section of Suichao huanqing tu ('Celebrations for the Spring Festival'), by Yao Wenhan, in the collection of the Taipei National Palace Museum.
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