QING DYNASTY, SEAL OF EMPRESS DOWAGER CIXI (1835-1908)
of large square form, surmounted by a well-carved pair of addorsed dragons, each powerfully carved with piercing eyes and nostrils flaring above curling whiskers and clenched-open mouth bearing sharp fangs, the two scaly bodies tightly intertwined and crouching on the haunches, pierced through the centre with an aperture, the square seal deeply carved with the characters Tihe Dian zhenshang ('Treasured and Appreciated at the Hall of Embodied Harmony') in intaglio script (yinwen), the stone of light green tone with natural veining
Phol, Paris, 1905.
Emile Guimet Collection, inventory ref. EG 1718.
Embodied Harmony) Seal of the Empress Dowager Cixi
Department of Palace Arts, the Palace Museum, Beijing
In recent years, compared with imperial seals of emperors, those of empresses and royal concubines have received far less attention and consideration from collectors, due to the small number of those seals available abroad, as well as because of some fixed ideas about such seals. However, the fact is that during the Qing Dynasty, to entertain themselves and while away leisure time, some empresses and royal concubines of higher ranks owned different numbers of leisure seals, which doubtless are of special value for the study of the palace life of empresses and royal concubines. They thus form an important portion of imperial seals. The Tihe dian zhenshang (Treasured and Appreciated at the Hall of Embodied Harmony) seal is one such seal. It was collected by the famous French collector Emile Guimet and will be auctioned by Sotheby's Paris.
The present seal was carved from green jade of relatively low hardness and is of a light green color. It has a knob carved with intertwined dragons attached to which is a yellow silk ribbon. On the 12.7 cm-wide inscription face are five characters: Tihe dian zhenshang in intaglio script (yinwen). The five characters are carved in three columns; the middle one has only one character dian (hall), while each of the other two columns consists of two characters. By examining its knob carving, inscriptions, material and carving technique, we know that the owner of this treasure was the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908), who controlled the government during the late Qing Dynasty—the present seal was made for her imperial use in the palace during her reign as the Dowager Empress.
Located between Chuxiu Gong (Palace of Gathered Elegance) and Yikun Gong (Palace to Assist Earth), found among the Six Western Palaces in the Forbidden City, Tihe Dian (Hall of Embodied Harmony) was originally the rear hall of Yikun Gong. In the tenth year of the Guangxu era (1884), to celebrate the fiftieth birthday of the Empress Dowager Cixi, her resident palaces were renovated and reconstructed. The palace wall of the rear hall of Yikun Gong was demolished, as were the front palace wall of Chuxiu Gong and the Gate of Chuxiu. The rear hall of Yikun Gong was thus transformed into a passage hall connecting Yikun Gong with Chuxiu Gong. The reconstructed Tihe Dian consists of five rooms, the middle one serving as a passage, at both ends of which were doors that opened allowing entrance and egress. The two rooms in its east wing are linked and were used as the dining room for the Empress Dowager Cixi when she resided in Chuxiu Gong, and the two rooms in its west wing, also linked, were used as a place to drink tea and relax after dinner. According to a palace maid who had waited upon Cixi, Tihe Dian served as both the outer study and the dining room for the Dowager Empress. As such, we have to ask why did the Dowager Empress have "Tihe Dian" carved as the seal inscription? The answer intimately involves something concerning the Dowager Empress herself.
A comprehensive survey of the imperial seals of emperors and empresses of the Qing dynasty readily informs us that among them the Empress Dowager Cixi owned a comparatively larger number of precious seals—surely because she frequently "held court behind the screen" and actually controlled the Qing imperial government for some forty-eight years. During her reign, even though Chinese society was thrown into turmoil and worries and troubles constantly beset the country both at home and abroad, all of which drastically weakened governmental authority, she still demanded that every facet of her own power and influence be displayed to enhance her image as the real holder of power in China—thus how her seals were made also was meant to reflect such status. Her seals express prestige and power that differed from those of ordinary empresses and imperial concubines, who themselves lorded it over the mass of common folk. Even though the craftsmanship of her seals seems to exhibit a decline in quality commensurate with the decline of dynastic well-being, the number of her seals is uncommonly large, the palace seals among them constituting the greatest and most important proportion of them. As such, it was entirely appropriate to use "Tihe Dian" for inscriptions since this was an important place for her activities, and quite understandable that seals bearing this hall name make up a large part of all her seals.
Based on what we know of the extant seals of the Empress Dowager Cixi, she had more than forty seals inscribed with the name "Tihe Dian," which reveal some basic features of such palace name seals. As for inscription contents, the majority of the seals in addition to the name of the palace involved such words as jingjian xi ('Seal Signifying Careful Appreciation'), yushang ('For Imperial Appreciation'), zhenshang ('Appreciated and Cherished'), yubi ('From the Imperial Brush'), and therefore reflect the owners' activities in the palace. As for form, these seals often appeared in sets, with perhaps the same inscriptions in several different sizes and shapes, such as big rectangular, small rectangular, big square, and small square, and they might also vary in the way the scripts were carved—either in relief or in intaglio. In terms of materials, attractive seal materials often used in the early and middle Qing periods were no longer commonly seen, instead less expensive and less rare materials such as sandalwood, jade from in Liaoning, and the softer green jade of this seal. Sandalwood was used the most, then the Xiuyan jade, and soft green jade the least. In terms of specific production time, these seals were mass-produced in a short time during the later years of the Guangxu Era, and, once completed, they were stored in the Palace and seldom used. All these reflected the particular psychology of the Empress Dowager Cixi, the supreme ruler.
The Tihe dian zhenshang seal is one of the many seals bearing the name of Tihe dian, which were mass-produced for the Empress Dowager Cixi. It helps us appreciate the special characteristics of the Empress Dowager's seals, and also helps us more deeply understand the seals in terms of the personal, historical, and environmental contexts in which the Empress Dowager was located.
Emile Guimet acquired this seal from the Parisian dealer Phol in 1905 for 240 francs. This seal belonged to the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908). It is very imposing by its size and its powerful design of two dragons.
The relationship between Emile Guimet and the Empress Dowager Cixi, who both died in 1908, took on an interesting dimension when the French industrialist decided to offer the great Empress two seals from his personal collection. One of the cousins of the Emperor Guanxu, Tsai Tsö had noticed the two seals when visiting the museum in Paris, and expressed an interest in them on behalf of the Dowager Empress. Emile Guimet decided to offer them himself to his visitor the day after. In return Cixi offered Emile Guimet four paintings from the imperial collections. Omoto et Macouin related the episode in, Quand le Japon s'ouvrit au monde, Emile Guimet et les arts d'Asie, Découverte Gallimard, Paris, 1990, p.108.
The inscription Tihe, means the Palace; Zhenshang, means to appreciate, to value. This seal comes from the Ti He Palace where Cixi received her audience. It is of a size and a design comparable to the seals of the Qing emperors, evidencing the power and extensive governmental prerogatives of the Dowager Empress at the end of the Qing dynasty.
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