QING DYNASTY, JIAQING PERIOD
the plain high square base surmounted by a carved and pierced top in the form of a ferocious dragon in pursuit of a 'flaming pearl', its undulating body with finely incised scales meandering within dense cloud scrolls to display great vigour and power, its head carved with bulging eyes and flared nostrils above its clenched open mouth revealing a curled tongue between sharp fangs, the seal face deeply and crisply carved with the four characters Hui qi you ji ('Maintain one's standards'), a phrase excerpted from Shangshu ('The Book of History'), the stone of a dark green tone with areas of darker speckling
The Jiaqing Hui Qi You Ji Seal
Researcher, The Palace Museum, Department of Palace History, Beijing
Sotheby's Hong Kong has recently acquired a seal of the Jiaqing emperor (r. 1796–1820) that will be sold at auction. This imperial seal has a body of green jade and a knob of a dragon in the clouds. Its base is 5.4 centimeters square and it has a four-character inscription: Hui qi you ji ('Maintain one's standards'). The carving of both the knob and the inscription are fine, skillful and well executed—an indication of the carver's superior artistry. There is a clear record of this seal in the Jiaqing bao sou (Collection of Jiaqing Seals), presently held by the Beijing Palace Museum. A comparison of the seal with the description shows that this seal matches the description in material of composition, size, and style and layout of the seal characters. We can thus affirm that this seal is the authentic Jiaqing imperial seal described in the catalogue. According to the Jiaqing bao sou, this seal was one of a set of three, the other two seals being Xianfu Gong ('Xianfu Palace') and Xu yi shou ren ('Encounter others with an open mind'). This shows that these three seals were made with the intention of placing them in the Xianfu Palace.
The owner of this seal, the Jiaqing emperor named Yong Yan, was the fifth Qing emperor after the Qing conquered China. His twenty-five-year reign followed the prosperity of the early Qing dynasty, yet served as an important turning point toward China's later decline. Hence, circumstances in many areas of Chinese life present a complicated picture. Among the emperors of the Qing dynasty, the Jiaqing emperor had relatively many seals. And like the age in which he lived, his seals were a mixture of zenith and decline. As is well known, the Jiaqing emperor was 36 when he ascended the throne, but unlike other emperors, after he ascended the throne, he could not exercise authority, since the Qianlong emperor emeritus still retained the final authority to make decisions. These peculiar circumstances made it difficult for the Jiaqing emperor to break away from traditions established during the reign of the Qianlong emperor. All aspects of the Qianlong period (1736–1795) were carried forward into the Jiaqing period. This inertia also found faithful expression in the seals made by the Jiaqing emperor. One example is the seal sets made by this emperor. During his reign, the Qianlong emperor made a considerable number of seal sets consisting of one seal for the front of a work and two seals for the back of a work. Such seal sets can be divided into two types. One type of seal set consists of a front seal with the name of a palace building and of two back seals with a memorable or suggestive phrase giving the significance and origin of the building name on the front seal. This type of set can be called a palace-building seal set. In the other type of seal set, the front seal and both back seals feature fixed phrases that elaborate on each other. This type of set can be called a fixed-phrase seal set. Like the Qianlong emperor before him, the Jiaqing emperor made more than seventy sets of seals.1 And the set to which the seal Hui qi you ji belongs is of the former type of set. In the making of seals, the Jiaqing emperor thus seems to be following in the tracks of the Qianlong emperor by imitating him. He was unfortunately led to do this by his special social and familial circumstances, mentioned above.
If, as stated above, the Jiaqing emperor imitated the Qianlong emperor in the making of seals in a way that reflects how the Jiaqing court continued Qianlong traditions, then an explanation of the meaning of this seal can tell us something about the Jiaqing emperor's own thoughts and perceptions as China transitioned from prosperity to decline. As I already mentioned, the Hui qi you ji seal is one part of a palace-building seal set of three, and such sets of seals have inscriptions that are intimately related. The inscriptions of the two back seals express the seal owner's understanding and gives explanation to the palace-building name. Hence I think that to understand any one of the seals of a set, it is necessary to explain all three seals as a group. Accordingly, to understand the seal Hui qi you ji, we have to consider it together with the Xianfu gong seal and the seal Xu yi shou ren in the context of the historical circumstances of the Jiaqing emperor, the seal's owner.
Though the seal set including the seal Hui qi you ji was made for the Xianfu Palace, we also have to consider how the seal's owner, the Jiaqing emperor, was connected with the Xianfu Palace. For background information, the Xianfu Palace is in the western group of six palace buildings in the Forbidden City. It was formerly named the Shouan Palace. During the Jiajing period (1522–1566) of the Ming dynasty, it was renamed the Xianfu Palace. The name comes from the happiness (fu) resulting from the mixing of Yin and Yang of the xian hexagram from the I-Ching of Changes (Book of Changes). The building itself has a roof of yellow-glazed tiles and is taller than the other buildings in the western group of six palace buildings. It served not only as a residence for empresses and consorts, but also on occasion as a place for the emperor to sleep. When the Qianlong emperor emeritus passed away in the lunar first month of 1799, his successor to the throne, the Jiaqing emperor, first used the Prince's Study (Shang Shufang) as his humble abode to show respect for his father. After twenty days, he moved to the Xianfu Palace to continue mourning his father. From then on, for the rest of his period of mourning, he used the Xianfu Palace as his interim sleeping quarters. During his ten months of residence at the Xianfu Palace, the Jiaqing emperor conducted government business and met court officials there. One can thus say that the Jiaqing emperor's personal control of the reins of government began at the Xianfu Palace. Here he no doubt thought about how to govern as emperor, and how to consolidate imperial power. For this reason, he wrote the following antithetical couplet: 'In one day, a myriad opportunities, and each happy result has an effect. Blessings bestowed among the commoners reap virtue without limit'.2 This antithetical couplet not only contains the characters of the name of the Xianfu Palace ('each' = xian; 'blessings' = fu) but also expresses what the Jiaqing emperor thought to be the ideal necessary qualities for carrying out affairs of state and exercising imperial power, namely, the moral cultivation and qualities that the emperor himself should possess. If we consider this antithetical couplet together with the two back seals of the present set—Hui qi you ji and Xu yi shou ren—we can see that these seals reveal how the Jiaqing emperor thought that he should govern the empire.
The phrase Hui qi you ji ('Maintain one's standards') comes from the Hongfan ('Grand Standards') chapter of the Shangshu ('Classic of History', sixth century BCE), in which King Wu of Zhou, after he vanquished the Shang dynasty in 1046 BCE, asked Jizi about the justice of the Way of Heaven. Jizi then explained to him the Grand Standards in Nine Categories, that is, the nine important standards for governing. Jizi's Grand Standards in Nine Categories was later elevated as a paradigm for governing for rulers across the centuries and has been revered by rulers throughout the ages. The fifth of Jizi's nine standards was 'Establishing imperial standards.' Jizi's elaboration includes the following: 'Without partiality or favouritism, follow kingly righteousness. Without personal likes, follow the kingly way. Without personal dislikes, follow the kingly path. Lacking partiality and factionalism, the kingly way is spacious to accommodate all. Lacking factionalism and partiality, the kingly way is equitable. Lacking rebelliousness, the kingly way is upright. Maintain one's standards as to make others follow the one who exemplifies the norms.' As for Xu yi shou ren ('Encounter others with an open mind'), this comes from the explanation of the xian hexagram in the Book of Changes: 'The gentleman encounters others with an open mind.' The Jiaqing emperor was perhaps also familiar with the passage in Zizhi tongjian ('Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government') where Emperor Taizong of the Tang dynasty and Wei Zheng discuss the behavior of Emperor Yang of the Sui dynasty: In 628 A.D. 'the emperor said to the official attending him, "I see that Emperor Yang of the Sui dynasty accumulated meritorious achievements, that his writing was profound and erudite, and that he realized he should approve of Yao and Shun and disapprove of Jie and Zhou. Yet in conducting affairs, how he violated the norms!" Wei Zheng replied, "If a ruler, though he is wise, still encounters others with an open mind, the clever offer their schemes, and the brave exhaust their energy. Emperor Yang relied on their talent, but was too proud and conceited. Hence, he recited the words of Yao and Shun, but he followed Jie and Zhou in behavior. He never knew that this would lead to his downfall." The emperor said, "These events are not long past. I will learn from them." '3 From these source materials, we can see that the inscriptions of these two back seals are both about how to rule. The hui of Hui qi you ji literally means to gather, and ji means rule or standard. Hence, hui qi you ji means to gather the norms of the empire into one's person, or more idiomatically, to maintain one's standards. In this way, the ruler makes the commoners of the empire follow him, follow his example, and by logical extension, he becomes a model for the nation. As for Xu yi shou ren ('Encounter others with an open mind'), the meaning here is that no matter how wise the emperor, he cannot view himself too highly and be too stubborn. Rather, he should treat those under him with courtesy and respect, should deal with others with an open mind, and should listen to the opinions of officials and commoners without harbouring preconceptions. Here we can see the Jiaqing emperor, as supreme ruler, placing demands on himself, namely, to listen to officials' and commoners' views with an open mind, to improve himself morally, and to make himself a standard for the nation to follow.
When we browse through the Jiaqing emperor's writings and inspect his behavior, we find that the import of the inscriptions of the above seals is in keeping with the consistent tenor of his thought and actions. Jiaqing was a self-restrained, benevolent, economical, and practical emperor. As he saw matters, the example of the emperor was crucial to changing the temperament of society: 'For the emperor serves as a model for officials and commoners and causes the whole world to follow. If the emperor establishes standards to rule the people, then with a single word or a single action, everyone accords with Heaven.' And most importantly for a model to have its desired effect is the influence of the emperor's personal moral cultivation: 'As a general principle, for a ruler to govern, nothing takes precedence over cultivating virtue.' 'If the ruler has a rectified heart, everyone in the empire will seek to be rectified. This truly is the essence of the basic way and intention of governing, and the essence of spreading etiquette and cultivating morality among the people. One man's heart moves the hearts of the entire nation—such a hope leads me to expect that the multitudes will rise up and believe in their leader.' 'When the ruler faces the empire, his first priority should be to cultivate himself. As a cultivated ruler, he can truly govern men. His effectiveness is through influence.' These perceptions of the Jiaqing emperor found expression through his seals. The inscriptions on the three seals of the present set are what the Jiaqing emperor took to be the important tasks of the emperor's cultivating morality and carrying out the practice of government. They were also words of encouragement and discipline for his own governing.
The emperor's manufacture of seals for personal use was a serious business. Inscriptions for seals were not casually selected. Rather, they directly reflected the thoughts and perceptions of the emperor himself. We can see this connection most vividly in the explanation of the Jiaqing seal Hui qi you ji and its companion seals in this set of three.
1. Guo Fuxiang, Ming Qing dihou xiyin (Ming and Qing Imperial Seals) (Beijing: Guoji Wenhua Chubanshe, 2003), p. 169.
2. Zhang Naiwei (b. 1880), Qinggong shuwen (Qing Palace Lore) (Beijing: Zijincheng Chubanshe, 1990), pp. 755–757.
3. Sima Guang (1019–1086), Zizhi tongjian (Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government) (Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju, 1956), vol. 192.
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