Soapstones, named in Chinese after their origin Shoushan, come in multiple colours and have for centuries been prized by scholars for their fineness and variegation. Since the beginning of the Qing dynasty, the Manchu emperors devoted themselves to the study of Han Chinese culture and adopted the usage of xianzhang ('seals of leisure'), which could be used on paintings and calligraphic works in addition to names and places. These seals of leisure, often carved with phrases proclaiming the rulers' political ideology and personal beliefs, help filling in the blanks left by written records.
On the 23rd day of the first month of the Yongzheng reign (1723), Prince Yi of the First Rank (1686-1730) presented a small group of soapstone seals adorned with mythical beasts. Apparently delighted by the seals' exquisite quality, the new Emperor ordered their seal faces to be carved at Kezizuo ('workshop of inscription'); see The First Historical Archives of China, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, eds, Qinggong neiwufu zaobanchu dang'an zonghui [General collection of archival records from the Qing imperial household department workshop], Beijing, 2005, vol. 1, p. 10. Included among them was the red soapstone 'winged bear' chaoqianxiti ('consistent perseverance') seal. Together with a handful of other examples, this seal is still preserved in Beijing, illustrated in Classics of the Forbidden City: Imperial Seals of the Ming & Qing Dynasties, Palace Museum, Beijing, 2008, cat. no. 169. Masterfully carved through a naturally variegated stone, the light amber coloured section was used for the mane, the 'winged bear' seal demonstrates a style similar to that of the present piece. In order to be presented in the first month of the reign so as to please the new Emperor on his ascendance to the throne, the production of these soapstone seals likely started months earlier in the late Kangxi period.
The production of imperial soapstone seals thrived between the Kangxi and Qianlong periods, when fine materials were used and seals were meticulously carved. It is recorded that among over 130 seals produced within the 61 years of the Kangxi reign (1661-1722), more than a hundred were made of soapstone. One important example is the yuanjianzhai ('The Studio of Profound Discernment') seal, sold in these rooms, 6th April 2016, lot 3102. The Yongzheng Emperor (1678-1735, r. 1723-1735) similarly favoured soapstone seals over other materials; among the two hundred seals he used within his 13-year reign, there were over 160 made of soapstone. In the reign of the Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799, r. 1735-1796), out of more than a thousand seals, six hundred were carved from soapstone.
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