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Details & Cataloguing

Qianlong – Scholar and Calligrapher

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Hong Kong

A MASSIVE IMPERIAL KHOTAN-GREEN JADE 'DRAGON' SEAL
QING DYNASTY, QIANLONG PERIOD
the substantial stone well worked of square section, surmounted by a superbly carved pair of addorsed dragons, each powerfully rendered with piercing eyes and nostrils flaring above curling whiskers and jaws revealing sharp fangs, the scales and flowing mane meticulously incised, the two scaly bodies depicted tightly intertwined and crouching on the haunches, pierced through the centre with an aperture, the square seal face crisply worked with a broad border enclosing a six-character inscription in seal script reading Xiyuan Qinzhengdian bao ('Treasure of the Hall of Diligent Government in the West Garden'), the stone of dark moss-green colour with natural veining
12.7 by 12.7 cm, 5 by 5 in.
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Provenance

An American private collection.
Sotheby's Hong Kong, 8th October 2009, lot 1653.

Catalogue Note

The Qianlong Seal 'Treasure of the Hall of Diligent Government in the West Garden'
Guo Fuxiang

One day in 1792 the over-eighty-year-old Qianlong Emperor, as he was wont, went to the West Garden. There in the Hall of Diligent Government he wrote the poem Inscription for the Hall of Diligent Government, which reads, "With two words ['diligent government'] the imperial hand reveals a history of a thousand years (fig. 1). Dare I not follow my family's tradition? On stays outside the capital, I see his inscriptions everywhere. In untiringly carrying out my duties, I feel the weight of my responsibilities." In conceiving this poem, the Qianlong Emperor must have thought of the profound meaning of "diligent government", which his grandfather, the Kangxi Emperor, wrote on the tablet for the Hall of Diligent Government, since this poem draws a clear connection between the Hall of Diligent Government and his family's tradition of conscientious rule. This point is often reflected in Qing imperial seals. The seal Xiyuan Qinzhengdian Bao ('Treasure of the Hall of Diligent Government in the West Garden'), to be offered at auction by Sotheby's Hong Kong, is just such an important imperial seal. A palace seal kept in the Hall of Diligent Government in the West Garden, it is intimately connected with the Qing dynasty's tradition and family legacy of attentive administration. Here I will describe these connections to enable readers to better appreciate this treasure.

The seal, made of green jade, has a finial of intertwined dragons. The seal inscription consists of six raised seal-script characters: Xiyuan Qinzhengdian bao ('Treasure of the Hall of Diligent Government in the West Garden'). These characters are arranged in three columns from left to right, which produces an impression read right to left. The seal-script characters have very angular corners, giving an impression of great strength. There is a clear record of this seal in Qianlong baosou (Catalogue of the Qianlong Emperor's Imperial Seals), housed in the Palace Museum in Beijing. Comparing this seal with the description in the Qianlong baosou, we find that it matches the description in all particulars, whether it be the material of composition, the size, the style of the seal script, or the layout of the characters. We can thus ascertain that this seal is the genuine article.

On the west side of the Forbidden City in Beijing was an old imperial garden, often called the West Garden, for members of the imperial family to stroll and escape the summer heat. It encompasses extensive bodies of water that naturally divide into the North Lake, Middle Lake and South Lake, along the shores of which were belvedere, terraces, pavilions and terraced gazebos-all in all an enchanting layout. During the Shunzhi (1644-1661) and Kangxi (1662-1722) periods, soon after the Manchus conquered China and before the other gardens were built in Beijing and its environs, the West Garden was a favourite spot for the emperor to escape the summer heat. The Kangxi Emperor in particular often stayed at Yingtai off the South Lake. The Kangxi Emperor was, of course, assiduous in carrying out his official duties, and he moved to Yingtai not only to escape the summer heat and rest, but also to perform his duties more effectively. Hence, during the Kangxi reign the West Garden had not only sleeping quarters but also a hall for receiving ministers and underlings and managing government affairs so that the Emperor could take care of government business as usual. This hall was called the Hall of Diligent Government and was situated in the northern part of Yingtai, a scenic area in the center of the South Lake. According to the Qinding rixia jiuwen kao [Imperially Authorised Edition of Historical Studies of Beijing], North of Yingtai were two gates, and directly north of the gates was the main hall, the Hall of Diligent Government, consisting of five rooms, and within the hall on the north side was hung a tablet with the words "diligent government," written by the Kangxi Emperor himself. From records of the times, the Hall of Diligent Government was quite simple. For example, the senior minister Xu Qianxue, who often presented memorials there, said, "The hall is not very spacious. The main hall is shortened, and the layout is simple: a long corridor in front runs down the center into the interior spaces." Another senior minister, Xu Yuanzheng, said, "The hall is simple and unadorned: atlases on the left, annals on the right, and for some time it has retained its thatched roof and earthen steps." But the function that this hall served was important indeed, for it was here that the Kangxi Emperor, every summer, "administered the empire, met with his ministers every morning, and perused petitions." "Though serving as an abode away from the capital, there was never a day when he did not meet with his ministers. Ever diligent, ever focused, he ate only after the sun was beginning to set and rose and got dressed while stars still appeared in the morning sky. There was also never a day that officials serving the Emperor, from the prime minister down to directors of agencies, did not go to this hall." The words "diligent government," written by the Emperor himself and placed on a tablet in the hall, actually seems to be a cautioning note by the Kangxi Emperor to himself. One can say that the example of the Hall of Diligent Government, where, from an imperial garden, the Kangxi Emperor established the institutions of the Qing era and administered the empire, became a model for administrative halls in other imperial gardens.

Actually, throughout the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), other palace buildings were also named the Hall of Diligent Government, not just the West Garden Hall of the Kangxi period. In 1725, three years after the Yongzheng Emperor ascended the throne, he followed precedent and built a Hall of Diligent Government in the palace compound of Yuanming Yuan (the Garden of Perfect Brightness or the Old Summer Palace) in the environs of Beijing, and the Qianlong Emperor, during his reign (1736-1795), gave the name of Hall of Diligent Government to buildings at such imperial gardens as the Jingyi Garden amid Fragrant Hills, the Qingyi Garden (the forerunner of the Summer Palace) at Longevity Hill, and the Rehe Mountain Summer Retreat. This state of affairs reflects a great difference between the function of imperial gardens during the Qing dynasty and their function during previous dynasties. The Qing dynasty stressed carrying out daily official duties and performing important ceremonies in the capacity of relaxing at imperial gardens. Consequently, the important imperial gardens each had a place for the emperor to manage government affairs, and each of these places was, as a rule, called the Hall of Diligent Government. One can even say that there is an intimate connection between the Hall of Diligent Government and the philosophy of government of the Qing emperors. One can even elevate this philosophy into a family tradition-a point fully realised by the Qianlong Emperor (fig. 2).

In 1745 work began on a hall built in the palace compound of the Jingyi Garden at Fragrant Hills as a place for the Emperor to administer the government when in residence, and this hall was finished in the next year. The Qianlong Emperor named this hall the Hall of Diligent Government, the first building in an imperial garden that the Qianlong Emperor so named. On the source of this name, the Qianlong Emperor said, "My imperial ancestor [the Kangxi Emperor] called the slope of Titai in the West Garden 'Yingtai' and there made a place for escaping the summer heat and carrying out the affairs of government, which he called the 'Hall of Diligent Government.' After considering the matter, I too am naming the place in the Yuanming Yuan where I take care of government affairs the 'Hall of Diligent Government.' I have named this garden Jingyi (Garden of Tranquility and Pleasure), and I will build more halls in the hills to receive ministers and bureaucrats in order to save them the trouble of coming from afar and climbing the hills. We can be industrious in the morning and not tired at midday. This is just the type of government sought by my imperial ancestor and me. With this name and its implied message, we show and express this desire in order to encourage ourselves." It bears emphasising that the name "Hall of Diligent Government" for the building in the Jingyi Garden in the Fragrant Hills followed the precedent of the Kangxi and Yongzheng Emperors, that it followed the philosophy and practice of diligent government of these emperors, and that it served as a sort of cautionary note to the Qianlong Emperor and those under him. For the next several decades the Qianlong Emperor continued to strengthen this attitude. Naturally, he could not forget that this attitude always traced back to his grandfather the Kangxi Emperor and his Hall of Diligent Government in the West Garden. This can seen in such quotes as the following: "Imperial gardens and mountain summer retreats each had a hall named the Hall of Diligent Government. Several classical instances of good government were realised through the imperial ancestor's tablet and brilliant couplets written on the columns. Dare I not command Heaven's will; dare I not be concerned about the people's livelihood? Those who heed my words will see that good government depends on respect and sincerity." "The inscription for the tablet for this place [the Hall of Diligent Government in the West Garden] was provided by the imperial ancestor. The places for conducting government at Yuanming Yuan, the Qingyi Garden at Longevity Hill, the Jingyi Garden at Fragrant Hills, and the Mountain Summer Retreat are each named the Hall of Diligent Government. And several classical examples of good government were realised through this practice." From these words of the Qianlong Emperor, we can infer that in the eyes of the Qianlong Emperor, the Hall of Diligent Government in the West Garden was the source of the spirit and conviction of the establishment of a Hall of Diligent Government in these other imperial gardens.

Not only that, through constant promotion by the Qianlong Emperor, the diligent-government philosophy, reflected in the Halls of Diligent Government, eventually developed into an imperial family tradition of the Qing dynasty: "The family tradition teaches diligent government. We dare not forget this, even for a moment." "In accord with family tradition, the front hall at the Qingyi Garden too is called the Hall of Diligent Government." Even the inscription "diligent government" became a part of the imperial family tradition: "The family tradition of this dynasty is that at every inner hall for managing government matters, the tablet with the imperial inscription is constrained by tradition, so that this court's aspiration may continue in the vein of the dynasty's ardent aspiration. Hence, the inscription zhengda guangming ('just and honorable') has been used for four generations, from the Shunzhi Emperor to the present, and the inscription 'Hall of Diligent Government' has been used for three generations, from the Kangxi Emperor to the present, to copy on the front columns of buildings. Every rule of this teaching, this behavior, is worthy of reflection." "My imperial ancestor wrote the inscription for the Hall of Diligent Government in this place [the West Garden]. Upon consideration, I wrote the inscription for the Hall of Diligent Government in the Yuanming Yuan. For the halls at Qingyi Garden, Jingyi Garden, and the Mountain Summer Retreat, I used the same inscription. For if the family tradition is passed on, even when I stay in these other places, I cannot forget it." As a result of these efforts, "wherever the emperor stayed, each place had a Hall of Diligent Government" (see also a 'Qinzheng qinxian' tablet, inscribed by the Yongzheng Emperor, fig. 3).

Though the inscription "Hall of Diligent Government" was part of the imperial family tradition, among imperial seals there was some natural variation. Among the Yongzheng Emperor's seals, for example, are one with the inscription Qinzheng Dian ('Hall of Diligent Government') and another with the inscription Qinzheng qinxian ('Being diligent in government and favoring those with talent'). Yet during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor, as a result of his continuously promoting the aforementioned attitude of the Hall of Diligent Government and ideal of diligent government, seals related to the Hall of Diligent Government achieved a level of development previously lacking. The Qianlong Emperor intentionally had different seals carved for the different Halls of Diligent Government and placed them in the appropriate halls. Not only was this the Emperor's practice; these Hall of Diligent Government seals also bear witness to his philosophy of and attitude toward government.

According to the Qianlong baosou, during the Qianlong years many large seals were made relating to the Halls of Diligent Government. In addition to the present seal, Xiyuan Qinzhengdian Bao ('Treasure of the Hall of Diligent Government in the West Garden'), there were Yuanmingyuan Qinzhengdian zhibao ('Treasure of the Hall of Diligent Government in the Yuanming Yuan'), Jingyiyuan Qinzhengdian zhibao ('Treasure of the Hall of Diligent Government in the Jingyi Garden'), Wanshoushan Qinzhengdian zhibao ('Treasure of the Hall of Diligent Government on Longevity Hill'), and Bishushanzhuang Qinzhengdian bao ('Treasure of the Hall of Diligent Government in the Mountain Summer Retreat'). By analysing the style of the seal script, the layout of characters and related matters, we can determine that all of these Hall of Diligent Government seals were made during the same period of time. From the work records of the Qing Palace Workshop, we can determine the date of manufacture more precisely.

According to the Qing Palace Neiwufu Zaobanchu huoji dang (Crafts Archives of the Imperial Household Department Workshop), "On the 29th day of the 5th month [of Qianlong 59 (26th June 1794)], the important Vice Director Da Sai and the clerk Yan Xiang came and said, 'Palace Eunuch E Luli delivered a jade piece.' Attached to the jade was a note with the inscription Bishushanzhuang Qinzhengdian bao ('Treasure of the Hall of Diligent Government in the Mountain Summer Retreat')". Accompanying the jade was a box with a sliding lid ornamented in gold. The two men transmitted the imperial command, which was, 'Send this to Suzhou and have the characters carved extra deeply according to the attached inscription.' On the 27th day of the second intercalary month, the jade piece, returned from Suzhou with its inscription carved, was presented to the Emperor. It was then delivered to Maoqin Hall for transport to Rehe." Though this record mentions only the circumstances of the carving of the Bishushanzhuang Qinzhengdian bao seal, because the style is very similar to the present seal, we can infer that the present seal was made during this same period, that is, around 1795, and that it was carved by the jade carvers of Suzhou.

The seal inscription is finely carved. The blank spaces within and around the characters are deep, and the sides of the character strokes go straight up and down, as if cut by a knife. Thus, the characters of the seal are carved fully in accord with the Qianlong Emperor's request that it be "carved extra deeply according to the attached inscription." The seal's finial follows established practice: it is freely carved without marks or traces remaining. Here one can see a bit of the consummate skill of the Suzhou jade carvers during the Qianlong period.

The reason that the Qianlong Emperor had several seals carved for the different Halls of Diligent Government before retiring and passing on the throne was clearly to encapsulate for himself the lesson of diligent government, as well as to pass this lesson on to succeeding generations. And among the Hall of Diligent Government seals, that for the West Garden Hall of Diligent Government, up for auction by Sotheby's Hong Kong, is important; its value should speak for itself.

Unfortunately, the Hall of Diligent Government in the West Garden no longer exists, but to see this West Garden Hall of Diligent Government seal, a symbol of former palace buildings, offered at auction, gives one a profound sense of the vast changes wrought in China.

Qianlong – Scholar and Calligrapher

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Hong Kong