The Qianlong period (1736-1795) of the Qing dynasty is widely recognised as a prosperous age. As a result of developments during the Kangxi (1662-1722) and Yongzheng (1723-1735) periods, Chinese society, economy, and culture achieved unprecedented prosperity during the Qianlong period. Along with these developments, the production of works of art achieved a high standard and in many ways displayed an atmosphere of grace associated with this age of peace and prosperity. Seal making, in particular, developed features peculiar to the age, namely, a tendency to record important events and note successes. The Qianlong Emperor, during his life, experienced many personally significant historical milestones, such as his seventieth birthday in 1780, the birth of a great-great-grandson in 1784, his eightieth birthday in 1790, and his retirement from the throne in 1795. For each of these milestones, the Qianlong Emperor seems invariably to have made meticulous arrangements, and he left behind many documents and artifacts for later generations to investigate. Among these documents and artifacts, the Qianlong Emperor’s seals are, without doubt, worthy of great attention. Qianlong’s personal moments serve as the background story to many of these seals, and seek to give concrete expression to his circumstances and emotions at the time. To commemorate his coming eightieth birthday in 1790, he made the seal Bazheng maonian zhi bao, to be offered at auction by Sotheby’s Hong Kong.
The seal, made of jade, has a knop of intertwined dragons. The seal face is worked with six raised characters, Bazheng maonian zhi bao, and is 6.4 centimeters square. There is a clear record of this seal in Qianlong baosou (Qianlong Treasures: A Catalogue of Impressions of the Qianlong Emperor’s Seals). Compared with what we find in the Qianlong baosou, the seal matches in all particulars, including the seal material, size, style of the seal script, or the layout of the characters. We can thus be certain that this seal is indeed a genuine legacy of the Qianlong period. Here I will briefly discuss the historical background that enables the reader to better appreciate the value and significance of the seal.
The year 1790 was an important year for the Qianlong Emperor. This year was not only the fifty-fifth year of his reign, but also the year of his eightieth birthday. According to the Emperor’s own practice, every fifth birthday was a milestone year and was the occasion for a great celebration. In the Emperor’s mind, the auspicious circumstance of the fifty-fifth year of his reign, corresponding to the year of his eightieth birthday, called for an especially grand celebration. Hence, early on, in mid-autumn of 1789, the Qianlong Emperor began preparations for a great celebration, including those for the palace where he would receive congratulations, the scale of the celebrations, and the return gifts to provinces and vassal states presenting tribute. And creating a seal appropriate to the occasion was an important part of these preparations.
Actually, in making a seal to commemorate a milestone birthday, there was a precedent that the Qianlong Emperor could follow. In 1720 the Kangxi Emperor, approaching his sixtieth year on the throne and his seventieth birthday, had the idea of creating a multipurpose seal, and he ordered his more literate Inner Court scholar-officials (graduates of the Hanlin Academy) to compose an appropriate phrase, but since none of their phrases were to his liking, he himself came up with the phrase Jie zhi zai de ([In old age] beware of complacency; a quote from the Analects) and had several small seals carved.1 In 1780 the Qianlong Emperor, for his seventieth birthday, followed the Kangxi Emperor’s practice and had two seals carved with the phrases Guxi tianzi zhi bao (Seal of the seventy-year-old Emperor; an allusion to a poem by Du Fu [712-770]) and Youri zizi ('Still diligent every day', see lot 3627), thereby commemorating his seventieth birthday and at the same time expressing the thought that he dare not be lax in governing. Then, ten years later, it was inevitable that the Qianlong Emperor would follow this established practice and have an appropriate seal carved.
On this occasion, it so happened that the Emperor’s eyes alighted on the Hongfan [Great Plan] chapter of the Shangshu [Classic of History, sixth century BC]. In this chapter, after King Wu of Zhou defeated the Shang dynasty, he asked Jizi to expound on the Way of Heaven, and Jizi responded to him by telling him the nine categories of the Great Plan:
The first is called the five elements. Second is called reverent attention to the five personal matters. The third is called assiduous application to the eight objects of government. The fourth is called coordinated use of the five dividers of time. The fifth is called the establishment and practice of the great mean. The sixth is called discriminating application of the three virtues. The seventh is called intelligent use of divination to decide doubts. The eighth is called concern about the various signs [of good and bad government]. The ninth is called the hortatory meting out of the five sources of happiness and the awing administration of the six modes of suffering.
The Qianlong Emperor held that the nine categories expounded by Jizi were the principles of government from time immemorial, and that all of them were worthy of the ruler’s devotion body and soul.” And number 8, concern about the various phenomenon, agreed with the Qianlong Emperor’s thinking at the time, and thus appears to have provided the inspiration for the inscription Bazheng maonian zhi bao (Treasure of concern over phenomenon at eighty). As to why he chose to use this phrase for a seal, the Emperor himself offers this explanation in Bazheng maonian zhi bao ji (Notes on Treasure of concern over phenomenon at eighty Seal):
When I think of the purpose of having an eightieth-birthday celebration, engraving a seal, and impressing it on imperial documents, no phrase is more suited than the ‘concern about signs’ phrase, number 8, in the ‘Great Plan’ chapter of the Book of History. Moreover, I have already indicated a desire to pass on the throne at eighty-five, the sixtieth year of my reign. Though I am now eighty, there are still six years till I retire from the throne. I have not rested my weary shoulders for one day and have always cherished the people. How can I not be concerned about number 8, the various signs? Being concerned about the various phenomenon is being concerned about the people. The first ‘Quli’ chapter of the Book of Rites says, ‘Eighty is called mao,’ referring to the fact that the mind becomes feeble with advanced age. I am now eighty and, relying on Heaven’s protection, am still in good health. Though in one day there are a thousand affairs of state, my mind is still up to the task, but I must exhort myself to do better.3
One can thus say that this seal not only commemorates the Emperor’s eightieth birthday but is also a warning not to let his guard down.
In the next few months, the seal became a topic of conversation between the Emperor and his officers and became closely associated with the Emperor’s eightieth birthday. It became such a focus of attention that at the New Year’s tea party in 1790 Concern over phenomenon at eighty became a topic in the couplet contest among the Emperor, court officers, and academians of the Hanlin Academy. The Qianlong Emperor himself repeatedly referred to the circumstances surrounding the manufacture of the seal:
Having attained a full eighty years of age, I had a seal engraved with the inscription ‘Concern over phenomenon at eighty.’ It was finished in the middle of winter, and I used it during the festival marking the beginning of spring.4 Last year in the month of the summer solstice, since I attained my eighth decade, I thought of making a seal. For an inscription, the most suitable was ‘Concern over various phenomenon,’ number 8, in the ‘Great Plan’ chapter. I commanded that the artisans use green jade from Hetian and engrave ‘concern over phenomenon at eighty’ Since I look to Heaven for protection, am as healthy as in the past, am diligent in government, and love the people, I dare not pass a single day without exhorting myself to do better.5
From these quotes we can thus determine that this seal was carved as early as the winter of 1789, that it was made from Khotan jade, and that it came to use by the beginning of spring in 1790.
After the Qianlong Emperor settled on this inscription in 1789, he began to make a considerable number of such seals. According to records of the archive of the workshop of the Imperial Household Department, the Emperor continued to make Concern over phenomenon at eighty seals from 1789 to 1795. According to the Qianlong baosou, the number of imperial seals with the inscription of Treasure of concern over phenomenon at eighty or Concern over phenomenon at eighty reached sixty-three, one of which is the present seal.
The finial of this seal is quite finely worked. Though not large, the finial of intertwined dragons, worked in exacting detail, expresses the demeanour and charm sought by the Qianlong Emperor in jade carvings. In particular, the horns of the heads and crests of the backs of the dragons are set in the jade’s natural red layer to form a strong contrast with the rest of the dragons’ bodies. The carving displays a true stroke of genius. After this seal was made, the Qianlong Emperor often imprinted it on old palace works of calligraphy and painting to show his appreciation. For example, the head border strip of Bai Zhongyue ming zuo (Poetry on the Occasion of Visiting Zhongyue Temple, cursive calligraphy), by Mi Fu (1051-1107), housed in the Beijing Palace Museum, bears imprints of the seals Wufu wudai tang (Five happinesses and five generations under one roof, the palace seal of the Wufuwudai Hall), Bazheng maonian zhi bao (Treasure of concern over phenomenon at eighty), and Taishang huangdi (The Emperor Emeritus) (fig. 1). Also, the end border strip of the anonymous Tang calligraphy Gujin yijing tuji (Illustrated Record of Old and Recently Translated Scriptures, regular script) has imprints of the seals Wufu wudai tang, Bazheng maonian zhi bao, and Taishang huangdi zhi bao (Seal of the Emperor Emeritus) (fig. 2). In both cases, the Bazheng maonian zhi bao imprint is that of the present seal.
1 Midian zhulin [Pearl forest in the secret hall], Qing Inner Court manuscript, vol. 1.
2 Qing Gaozong yuzhi wen sanji [Text of the Qianlong Emperor, Collection 3], vol. 14.
3 Ibid., vol. 8.
4 Qing Gaozong yuzhi shi wuji [Poetry of the Qianlong Emperor, Collection 5], vol. 50.
5 Ibid., vol. 51.
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