Lot 2103
  • 2103


25,000,000 - 30,000,000 HKD
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of large square form, surmounted by a superbly carved pair of addorsed dragons, each powerfully carved with eyes bulging and nostrils flaring above curling whiskers and a jaw bearing sharp fangs, the scales and flowing mane meticulously incised, the two scaly bodies tightly intertwined and crouching on the haunches, pierced through the centre with an aperture, the square seal deeply and crisply carved with the characters Xintian zhuren ('The Ruler Who Believes in Heaven'), the stone of a green-tinged milky-white tone with natural veining


Sotheby's London, 2nd December 1997, lot 118.


The overall condition is quite good. There is a nick along the upper edge and a 0.4 cm bruise to the right edge of the seal face. The characters on the seal face are in very good condition, with only tiny minute nibblings to the edges. The carving of the characters is crisp and clear. The flaw inherent in the stone is visible especially on the side on top of the seal face, as well as a triangular area on the left where small nibbling of 0.7 cm is found.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

The Qianlong Emperor's Xintian Zhuren Seal
by Guo Fuxiang
Researcher, The Palace Museum, Department of Palace History, Beijing

The Qianlong emperor (r. 1735–1796) had several well-known sobriquets, among them changchun jushi ('gentleman of eternal spring'), guxi tianzi ('Son of Heaven at Seventy'), and shiquan laoren ('the old man with a perfect military record'). He also had some less-well-known sobriquets, including xintian zhuren ('ruler who believes in Heaven'). Recently Sotheby's Hong Kong acquired a seal of the Qianlong emperor's with just these four characters. This imperial seal has a body of greenish-white jade, a knop of intertwined dragons, and a face with four seal characters xintian zhuren cut in relief. In the Qianlong baosou (Catalogue of the Qianlong Emperor's Imperial Seals) held by the Beijing Palace Museum, a catalogue of the impressions of Qianlong imperial seals, there is a clear description of this seal. Comparing the piece before us with the description in this catalogue, we find that it perfectly matches in material, composition, size, style of the seal characters, and the layout of the characters. Hence, we can verify that this imperial seal is indeed from the Qianlong period. Since the production of the xintian zhuren seal is intimately connected with the Qing pacification of the Dzungars and suppression of a Muslim uprising which precipitated in the consolidation of the northwest frontier, I will explain here the origin and use of the xintian zhuren sobriquet so that the reader can better understand and become familiar with this imperial seal.

The killing of Burhan al-Din and Khoja Jihan, the leaders of the Muslim uprising, in the lunar ninth month of 1759 marked the end of the Qing government's five-year campaign to pacify the Dzungars and suppress the Muslim uprising. The Qing government thus was completely successful in its efforts at preventing the Northwest from gaining independence, keeping the country unified, and stabilizing the situation in the Northwest. The Qianlong emperor gave the following lofty assessment of these two campaigns: "We reckoned that we needed to send in the army, and in less than five years, we no longer have to conscript from the interior regions. Moreover, more than 1,000 settlements west of the pass were added to Chinese territory, and like these Kazakhs, eastern and western Buluts (Oirats), and Muslims at our court, city-states of these peoples were pacified in turn, and now all the tribes of Badakhshan present captives at the [imperial] temple and are filial of their own accord. Previously this area had no contact with the central regions of the empire, and now these people serve as ministers and servants at the imperial court. One searches the history books in vain for such a flourishing state of affairs. Though from the beginning I would have welcomed this turn of events, I never thought that it would actually occur" (Qing Gaozong shilu [Veritable Records of the Qianlong Emperor], vol. 599). Looking back on the five-year campaign to pacify the frontier, the Qianlong emperor, in his delight, could not help but explain in detail the gains and losses, and the ensuing doubts. Hence, he wrote his well-known account Kaihuo lun ('Resolving Doubts'), and on the 13th December 1759, distributed it to his ministers and gave public notice of the work in China and abroad.

Kaihuo lun is an important discursive work of the young Qianlong emperor. In imitation of Sizi jiang de lun ('Four Notables Discuss Virtue'), by the literatus Wang Bao of the Western Han (206 BCE–8 CE), Kaihuo lun presents a moralizing learned scholar and an accomplished grandee recalling and passing judgment on the Qing court's subduction of the Dzungars and Muslims in the western borderlands. Qianlong also presented his own views of the Qing government's use of the military in the west. In this work, the moralistic scholar, whose learning inclines him to affirm the past and denigrate the present, and hence adhere to conventional view, criticizes the Qing government for wantonly engaging in military aggression. While the accomplished grandee, as is his wont, makes light of the enemy for military advantage, dismisses the doubts, and hopes to quickly accomplish the business at hand. In the text, Qianlong assumes the role of 'the ruler who believes in Heaven' (xintian zhuren) and offers interpolated judgments on the arguments of the scholar and the grandee, which he holds are of no consequence. At the end of the text Qianlong says, " 'You two cannot even distinguish apples and pears. How can you know me, the ruler who believes in Heaven?' 'The ruler who believes in Heaven' then summoned the grandee and the scholar and told them, 'Just because Chu has lost some territory, does not mean that Qi has thereby gained it [Chu and Qi being two states of the Warring States Period]. For he who follows Heaven prospers, and he who acts contrary to Heaven perishes. Heaven proceeds in a timely fashion. Hence, how is he who acts in accord with Heaven depending on force to expand? Moreover, encountering numerous dangers and numerous peoples, the army became more spirited with the changes. Once mobilized, the army brought two areas into submission and 20,000 settlements into the fold, and it accomplished all this in five years. Even if we had given up the fight to avoid difficulties, we still might suffer disaster' " (Qing Gaozong yuzhi wen chuji [The Anthology of Imperial Qianlong Writings, Collection 1], vol. 3). This passage is the origin of the Qianlong emperor's sobriquet xintian zhuren ('ruler who believes in Heaven'). Clearly, the emperor called himself 'the ruler who believes in Heaven' because 'he who follows Heaven prospers, and he who acts contrary to Heaven perishes.' The sobriquet is also a concrete expression of his personal commitment, to his ancestors, to respect Heaven, and to cherish the people, and also of his gratitude for Heaven's aid and protection.

The next time this sobriquet was discussed in detail was twenty-five years after the writing of Kaihuo lun, when the emperor and his court, in recollecting the emperor's accomplishments and congratulating him on his eightieth birthday, deliberated the meaning of "the ruler who believes in Heaven." During the midsummer of 1784, the seventy-four-year-old emperor ruminated that although there was not a day since ascending the throne that he did not respect Heaven, exert himself on behalf of the people, and enjoy the aid of vast Heaven, he felt weary at the prospect of another eleven years on the throne. To exhort himself to carry on, he composed the poem 'Xintian zhuren zizhen' ('The Ruler Who Believes in Heaven Admonishes Himself'):

In the past I wrote a work on resolving doubts.
And in it I called myself the ruler who believes in Heaven.
I asserted that danger can often be turned into safety.
And captures and losses can still make for gains.
When a matter is settled, there is no point in looking back and remembering.
When the journey is long, benefits alone make the soul cautious.
In the past, only rarely has Heaven favored believers.
What training must I undergo to be among the few?

(Qing Gaozong yuzhi shi wuji [The Anthology of Imperial Qianlong Poems, Collection 5], vol. 9).

Over the next ten years, nearly every year one can find mention of xintian zhuren ('ruler who believes in Heaven') or the seal bearing this inscription. For example, the notes to the couplets of the elders' banquet of the lunar first month of 1785 tell us, "The western army having completed its objective, the emperor wrote Kaihuo lun, revealing the ruler who believes in Heaven, in order to dispel ignorance, and explained the notion that he who follows Heaven prospers and gains healthful benefits." Also, "the emperor on occasion admonished himself for being diligent to begin with and fatigued at the end, this year composing the poem Xintian zhuren zizhen (Qing Gaozong yuzhi shi wuji [The Anthology of Imperial Qianlong Poems, Collection 5], vol. 11). And in Ba zheng mao nian zhi bao lianju ('Couplets on the Treasure of the Eighty-year old who concerns himself with the Eight Signs') of the lunar first month of 1790, he wrote, "In 1760 the western army finished its mission, and the Dzungars and Muslims were brought into the empire. The emperor recalled the events leading up to the use of military force. His ministers debated, and all had their doubts, but the emperor decided on a brilliant strategy on his own, and in less than five years the army reported its mission accomplished. The emperor wrote Kaihuo lun to send a message to China and abroad. As interlocutors in this dialogue, he created a moralizing learned scholar and an accomplished grandee, mediated by the ruler who believes in Heaven. He then had the seal xintian zhuren ('ruler who believes in Heaven') engraved, making use of an appellation in the work" (Qing Gaozong yuzhi shi wuji [The Anthology of Imperial Qianlong Poems, Collection 5], vol. 51). Even as late a work as Hongfan jiuwu fu zhi wu yue kaozhongming lianju ('Couplets on the Fifth Happiness, Dying a Natural Death,' "The Great Plan," 95, Book of History), of the lunar first month of 1795, says, "In the campaign of the western army, after Dawaci was captured and Ili thoroughly pacified, Amursana still harbored different intentions, retreated and continued to rebel. The emperor thought it necessary to attack, but some of his ever cautious ministers recommended against it. The emperor then expounded the arguments of the 'ruler who believes in Heaven' to extinguish their doubts. After the western borderlands were entirely pacified, the emperor commanded that xintian zhuren be engraved on a seal of jade. Since the emperor silently conformed to the will of Heaven, this had a direct influence on Heaven, and Heaven helped things go smoothly" (Qing Gaozong yuzhi shi wuji [The Anthology of Imperial Qianlong Poems, Collection 5], vol. 93). One can thus see how the emperor's decisiveness in suppressing the Dzungar and Muslim uprisings and the ensuing campaign are intimately connected with the emperor's sobriquet xintian zhuren and the making of the xintian zhuren seal.

Xintian zhuren was a sobriquet that the Qianlong emperor particularly liked, so it was quite natural for him to make seals with this inscription. By drawing correspondences with the facts above, we learn that the xintian zhuren seals were created during two concentrated time periods. First, shortly after Qianlong authored Kaihuo lun ('Resolving Doubts') in 1759, the emperor commanded that court artisans make a number of jade and stone xintian zhuren seals of different sizes. Rough data indicates that there were about fifty-six seals made. These seals were impressed on books and paintings that the emperor created himself. Even today one can see these seals in the collection of the Palace Museum. Another batch of seals were made after 1785, when the Qianlong emperor sought to propagate the notion of the Qing dynasty's civilized governance and military prowess.

The present greenish-white jade seal was manufactured during the second period. From the present seal and extant literature, one can infer that the seal was made in 1786. In the work records of the Workshop of the Imperial Household Department, there are two entries that record circumstances of the manufacture of this seal. One entry reads, "On the 22nd of the fifth lunar month [June 17, 1786], Vice Director Wu De, Vice Director Da Dase, Storehouse Supervisor Jin Jiang, Foreman Shu Xing, and Clerk Fu Hai came and said, 'The palace eunuch E Luli handed us a greenish-white piece of jade, to which was attached a slip with the characters xintian zhuren. ' And they conveyed the imperial command: 'Send this to Suzhou, and have it deeply engraved with the indicated characters.' On the 12th of the ninth lunar month [November 2], Suzhou sent up the engraved seal, and we turned it over to the Maoqin Hall [the imperial study]." The other entry reads, "On the 27th of the lunar ninth month [November 17], Vice Director Wu De, Vice Director Da Dase, Storehouse Supervisor Jin Jiang, and Clerk Fu Hai came and said, 'The palace eunuch E Luli handed us the xintian zhuren seal of greenish-white jade and two other imperial seals of greenish-white jade being used in the Maoqin Hall.' And they conveyed the imperial command: 'Make two tightly fitting cases for these.' On the 9th of the tenth lunar month [November 29], the case for the xintian zhuren seal was sent up to us, and we turned it over to the Maoqin Hall." From these entries one can see particulars of how the xintian zhuren seal was made: On the 22nd of the lunar fifth month, 1786, the Inner Court sent a jade piece with handle already carved, along with the character layout, to Suzhou for engraving. After the Suzhou jade artisans engraved the characters, they returned the seal to the imperial Workshop, and the seal was presented to the emperor for his inspection. Half a month later the Inner Court sent the seal to the woodworking department of the Workshop for making a tightly fitting case. Finally it was placed in the Maoqin Hall for use there, the whole process taking nearly five months.

The greenish-white jade of this xintian zhuren seal is very lustrous, while the knop is finely carved. Moreover, the body is immense, the seal face measuring 12.9 centimeters square. This is the largest of all of the Qianlong emperor's xintian zhuren seals, and is a most rare acquisition. Such a huge seal could be used only on large-size works. In addition, the catalogue Shiqu baoji (Precious Collection of the Stone Canal Hall), second series, records that the work Zhang Zhao caoshu Han Yu shigu ge ('Zhang Zhao's Cursive Calligraphy of Han Yu's Stone Drum Song') bears an impression of the present seal and is also included in this sale (lot 2104), hence one can compare this seal's impression with the actual seal.

By means of this xintian zhuren seal, we can sense the effort and achievement of the Qianlong emperor, more than two hundred years ago, in maintaining China's unity and consolidating China's hold on the northwest borderlands. By placing the process of this seal's production within the context of Qing dynasty history, and by adding some research, we can begin to appreciate the value of this seal.