Seals are an important and distinctive aspect of the China’s glorious civilisation. The study of seals, and especially the seals of emperors, is crucial to understanding the politics, economics, and intellectual and cultural history of China’s two-millennia-long imperial period. Few Ming and pre-Ming imperial seals have survived the privations of time, and it is difficult to reconstruct their history. By contrast, many seals used by the Qing emperors are extant today, enabling us to research and understand their use and context in a systematic manner.
A common feature of Qing imperial seals is that the frequency of a seal text’s appearance was closely related to an emperor’s thoughts, interests, and personal experiences. If the name of a building appears repeatedly in an emperor’s seals, then that building must have held a special significance for him. A prime example is Qianlong’s Sanxitang or Hall of Three Rarities. The thirteen extant Sanxitang seals make clear to us that this was the palace where the cultivated Qianlong Emperor roamed imaginatively through history and art, and where he lodged the aspirations of a lifetime. The same can be said for his son the Jiaqing Emperor’s Yuqing Palace. During his reign, Jiaqing had eight imperial seals made carved with the text Yuqinggong, indicating the special importance of his palace. Among these eight seals is the Shoushan stone Yuqing Palace seal presently on offer at Sotheby’s.
Carved from Shoushan stone, the seal stands 4.5 cm in height and has a face that measures 3 cm on each side. Its knob is in the form of a lionness and her cub. In seal script, the embossed seal text reads Yuqinggong bao (Seal of the Yuqing Palace). The seal is clearly documented in Jiaqing baosou [Catalogue of the Jiaqing Emperor’s Seals], exactly matching the corresponding record in material, form, dimensions, and the script and composition of the seal text. The lot on offer is doubtlessly the authentic seal used by the Jiaqing Emperor.
The Jiaqing Emperor, whose personal name was Yongyan, was the fifth ruler of the Qing dynasty after its conquest of the Chinese mainland. His 25th-year reign represented both the continuation of the Golden Age of the Kangxi and Qianlong emperors and the decline of the Qing empire. It was thus a period fraught with complex, inchoate emotions. This is exemplified by Jiaqing’s relationship with the Yuqing Palace.
The Yuqing Palace is located north of Jingyun Gate on the eastern part of the Forbidden City, and southeast of the Qianqing Palace. It was constructed in 1679 by the Kangxi Emperor specifically for the prince Yunreng, who was then Heir Apparent. Later, Yunreng’s unsavoury personality led to his abolishment as heir, exile from the palace, and imprisonment. Thereupon the Yuqing Palace became a residence for the Qing princes. The Qianlong Emperor lived here for five years, beginning at age 12, and left for the Chonghua Palace only after his marriage. During Qianlong’s reign, the Yuqing Palace was a communal residence for young princes. Prince Yongyan lived for ten years with his imperial siblings and cousins until his marriage, whereupon he moved to the Qiandong wusuo and then to the Yufang Palace. This was the first connection between Jiaqing and the Yuqing Palace.
In 1795, the sixtieth anniversary of Qianlong’s ascent to the throne, the emperor gathered the princes and high officials and had a secret edict extracted from the back side of the plaque reading Guangming zhengda at Qianqing Palace. This edict announced Yongyan as Heir Apparent, and a ceremony was decided for the following year confirming this status. The grand ceremony took place on the first day of the first month of the following year, which was the first year of the Jiaqing reign. On this occasion Qianlong passed to his son the emperor’s seal reading Huangdi zhibao, thus ending his six-decade career as emperor and becoming the only Emperor Emeritus of the Qing dynasty. By rights, after his abdicacy Qianlong should have moved into the Ningshou Palace and allowed his successor to enter the Hall of Mental Cultivation, but he had become too comfortable in the Hall of Mental Cultivation and used to receiving officials there. As a result Qianlong asked the new Jiaqing Emperor moved back into Yuqing Palace and gave it the title Jidetang (Hall of Continued Virtue). Soon after becoming Heir Apparent, on the 18th day of the 11th month of the 60th year of the Qianlong reign, Jiaqing moved from the Xiefang Palace into the Yuqing Palace, where he lived until Qianlong’s death on the third day of the first month of the Jiaqing reign. Afterwards Jiaqing continued to live in the Yuqing Palace for three more years. This was the second connection between the palace and the Jiaqing Emperor.
During his three years in Yuqing Palace, Jiaqing had to visit his father at the Hall of Mental Cultivation everyday to receive instruction in rulership. In fact, these years were miserable for Jiaqing, who was trapped between the Emperor Emeritus above and powerful ministers below and reduced to a subservient position. A Korean emissary once described Jiaqing’s situation in the following words: “...sat subordinately to the Emperor Emeritus, happy when he was happy, laughing when he laughed... During banquets, [Jiaqing] sat subordinately next to Emperor Emeritus, attending to his every movement and not communicating any orders”. Jiaqing was emperor in name only and was in truth a student. To live under his father’s shadow during the very first few years of his reign must have had a profound effect on his later career.
In 1799, when Jiaqing became emperor in deed, he moved into the Hall of Mental Cultivation. Following Qianlong’s precedent in reserving his princely residence, the Chonghua Palace, as a palace of leisure, Jiaqing likewise decided to reserve the Yuqing Palace for his own pleasure. This also served to preserve the system of secrecy surrounding succession. As Jiaqing himself explained, although he now lived in the Hall of Mental Cultivation, if he gave the Yuqing Palace as a residence to a prince, it would invite speculation about that prince’s being his favoured heir. This would be far from a blessing to the prince. Therefore he departed the original function of the Yuqing Palace as a princely residence and reserved it for himself. This was the third connection between the palace of the Jiaqing Emperor.
From the above, it is clear that the Yuqing Palace had a special significance for Jiaqing, and was the site of many of his profoundly formative experiences and memories. It was therefore not surprising that Jiaqing had many imperial seals carved after the palace’s name. The majority of these seals were made not long after his ascendance to the throne, while Jiaqing was living in the palace and adjusting its function.
According to Jiaqing baosou, Jiaqing’s eight imperial seals with the text of Yuqinggong bao were virtually always used in combination with his other imperial seals. When used with Jiaqing yubi (By Jiaqing’s imperial brush) and Chuanxin jiming (Transmitting the heart as fundamental mission), the seals reflected Jiaqing’s status as a student to the Emperor Emeritus during his time in the Yuqing Palace. During this time, Jiaqing pursued artistic activities on the one hand, hnce the use of the Jiaqing yubi seal, and learnt from his father how to conduct politics in order to perpetuate the prosperity of the Qing emperor, hence the use of the Chuanxin jiming seal. The Yuqinggongbao seal was also often used together with other palace seals, such as those of Chunbendian and Jidetang. Perhaps for convenience, the Yuqinggongbao was stored together with the palace seals Chunbendian, Jidetangbao, and Changchunxianguan, suggesting that Jiaqing used Yuqinggongbao often during his early reign.
The Jiaqing Emperor had only 500 imperial seals, a number surpassed only by his father among all the emperors of the Qing dynasty. Jiaqing’s seals vary greatly in form and style. Some are plain and functional, while many others are of high material quality and craftsmanship. The present Yuqinggongbao seal was carved from furong stone from Shoushan, a stone with a lush tonality that accords with Qing court standards for dongshi (cold stones). Furong stone is referred to in Jiaqing baosou and Daoguang baosou [Catalogue of the Daoguang Emperor’s imperial seals] as dongshi (cave stones). The knob of the seal is in the form of a lionness and her cub. The lionness has bent hindlegs and raises her body with her frontlegs, and turns her head to the side, echoing her cub’s pose in an endearing manner.
Notably, the Yuqinggongbao seal was included in the later Daoguang baosou. This indicates that the Daoguang Emperor regarded it as seal frequently used by his father and adopted it as his own, perhaps as an expression of filiality. The seal thus gives us insight into the emotional bond between Jiaqing and Daoguang as father and son.
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