Details & Cataloguing

Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art

Hong Kong

of upright rectangular section, the knop carved in low relief with a coiled chilong crouching on clawed legs, detailed with a grinning face below a bifurcated curling crest issuing a finely incised wispy mane, its bifurcated tail parting beneath its muscular hindquarters and curling along its flanks, above a border of incised undulating waves between double fillets, the seal face crisply carved in deep relief with the three-characters Sanxi Tang ('Hall of the Three Rarities'), the smoothly polished stone of deep emerald-green colour figured with darker specks and white streaks
7.6 by 3.4 by 1.7 cm.
3 by 1 3/8  by 3/4  in.
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The Qianlong Green-Jade 'Hall of Three Rarities' Seal
Guo Fuxiang

In early spring of 1746, the Qianlong Emperor had before him the rare, prized calligraphy of a literatus of the Eastern Jin Dynasty, the Letter to Boyuan (Boyuan tie) by Wang Xun (AD 350-401), a work comparable to Clear Skies after a Sudden Snowfall (Kuaixue shiqing tie) by Wang Xizhi (AD 303-361) and Mid-Autumn Letter (Zhongqiu tie) by Wang Xianzhi (AD 344-386). No New Year’s present could have brought more delight to the emperor, a fastidious art collector. In his delight, the emperor used some spare time from his governmental duties to remodel the hothouse west of the west hall of the Hall of Mental Cultivation in the Forbidden City so as to house these three masterpieces, and he called this room the Hall of Three Rarities (Sanxi Tang). The site of the emperor’s literary activity and a Qing art repository with a typical cultural layout, the Hall of Three Rarities has not diminished one bit in appearance since it was first set up. The emperor was especially attached to the Hall of Three Rarities. During his lifetime, he had at least thirteen 'Hall of Three Rarities' seals carved.1 The green-jade 'Hall of Three Rarities' seal with a hornless-dragon knob being sold at auction by Sotheby’s Hong Kong is one of these seals.

This seal is made of green jade, has a hornless-dragon knob, has a printing surface 3.3 centimeters long and 1.6 centimeters wide, and is 7.5 centimeters tall. The inscription consists of three raised characters, 'Sanxi Tang' (Hall of Three Rarities). Qianlong bao sou (Catalog of Qianlong Seals), presently held by the Beijing Palace Museum, describes this seal, and this seal matches the description in size, style of the seal characters, and their layout. Thus, we can affirm that the seal is the actual seal used by the emperor. The best text for fully understanding the Hall of Three Rarities and appreciating the 'Hall of Three Rarities' seal is Sanxi Tang ji (An Account of the Hall of Three Rarities), written by the Qianlong emperor himself.

The emperor wrote this account when naming the Hall of Three Rarities. In this well-known account, the emperor gave the most direct reason for naming this room the Hall of Three Rarities: “Three uncommon works of the Palace Treasury—Wang Xizhi’s Clear Skies after a Sudden Snowfall, Wang Xianzhi’s Mid-Autumn Letter, and the recently acquired Letter to Boyuan by Wang Xun—are all rare treasures. I thus renamed the hothouse of the Hall of Mental Cultivation as the Hall of Three Rarities in order to house these three pieces.” The sole purpose of the Hall of Three Rarities was to house these three artworks so that the emperor could view and appreciate them at his convenience. The Qianlong Emperor continued, “Though a man lives much less than a thousand years, he contemplates the history and discusses the times of more than a thousand years. When fine words and noble actions meet the eye and gather in the mind, one is invariably touched by and admires such words and actions, and one yearns to meet their owner. Xizhi’s pure character and lofty spirit are worthy of esteem, and Xianzhi was the dutiful son of the general of the Right Army. As for Wang Xun, history praises him for rectifying decadence and fighting extravagance with his sense of honor. These three men of the same ethnic background and the same age were the cream of Jin society. Now their calligraphy—after many centuries of stability and chaos, prosperity and decline, rise and fall of states, and merger and division of nations—has appropriately been united in one room. Even the sword of Fengcheng or the pearl of Hepu cannot compare.”2 These three priceless works were passed down the centuries for over 1,300 years and, by a stroke of good fortune, entered the collection of the Palace Treasury as if by divine guidance. Displaying and studying this animated calligraphy, tracing its strokes with the mind’s eye and hand, makes one feel that one is silently interacting with three calligraphers of more than a millennium ago. This, for the Qianlong Emperor, who ardently collected and appreciated works of art, was ultimate bliss.

The Hall of Three Rarities, one can say, was a holy site in the Qing palace for the collection of ancient art. Though it has only four square meters of floor space, it was furnished in a quietly tasteful and anciently simple manner. Fine elegance suffused this small, narrow space, giving it a bookish ambience. This small room, in a sense, represents the Qianlong Emperor’s high level of attainment in the collection of ancient works of art. After the emperor laid out the Hall of Three Rarities, its furnishings were undisturbed till the end of the dynasty in 1911. Even today, this room retains its original appearance.

In his Account of the Hall of Three Rarities, the Qianlong Emperor also elaborated another meaning of the term “the three rarities”: “The gentleman rarely becomes a worthy. The worthy rarely becomes sage. And the sage rarely attains knowledge of Heaven.” This quote comes from 'Zhi xue' (Devotion to Study), in Tong shu (Penetrating the Book of Changes), by Zhou Dunyi (1017-1073), an important Confucian scholar of the Song Dynasty. Later scholars held this notion up as 'true cultivation of the three rarities.' With this notion, Zhou sought to encourage the scholars of the world to aim high and to never cease forging ahead. Now, the Qianlong Emperor alluded this background in naming the Hall of Three Rarities for a reason. According to the emperor, he was inspired to name this room the Hall of Three Rarities by the name of the study of his teacher, Cai Shiyuan, whose study was called the Hall of Two Rarities.

Cai Shiyuan (1681-1734), whose courtesy name was Wenzhi, was from Zhangpu in Fujian. He became a presented scholar in 1709. On account of his extensive knowledge of the classics and his upright character, the Yongzheng emperor had him directly enter the library to teach his son Hongli, the future Qianlong Emperor. Cai Shiyuan called his study the Hall of Two Rarities, and he had Hongli write An Account of the Hall of Two Rarities. At the time, Cai explained to Hongli, “I dare not pretend to be the rare one to attain knowledge of Heaven. Hence I call my study the Hall of Two Rarities.”3 But Hongli realized that his teacher referred to only two rarities not solely because he wished to avoid thinking about what was not his lot, since ordinary men cannot pretend to a knowledge of Heaven. He also had high expectations for Hongli. He thus reserved the highest attainment in life, attaining knowledge of Heaven, for his student, in the hope that Hongli in the future could be the sage who knows Heaven. Hence, when the Qianlong Emperor named this room the Hall of Three Rarities, he increased his teacher’s 'two rarities' to 'three rarities,' thus moving a step beyond his teacher, who “dared not pretend to be the rare one to attain knowledge of Heaven.” He also bridged the gap in status between him and his teacher, revealing an admirable friendship transcending prestige for all the world to see.

We can also say that in naming the Hall of Three Rarities, the emperor revealed the feelings and aspirations of his cultured, genteel character. The main hall of the Hall of Mental Cultivation was where the emperor carried out the affairs of government and realized his political ideals. And the adjacent Hall of Three Rarities was where he appreciated ancient art treasures and wrote during the interstices of governing. It was also a place for displaying items from the vast collection of a prosperous age. From then on to the end of his life, the emperor regularly engaged in appraising and appreciating art in the confines of this room. Moreover, of all the halls and palaces for which the emperor had seals carved, the Hall of Three Rarities has the most: thirteen seals, each differing in size and material composition. From this fact, one can see the importance that the emperor attached to this room.

As just mentioned, the Hall of Three Rarities had the most seals carved for it during the Qianlong period, a total of thirteen. These thirteen seals were made on different occasions of the Qianlong Emperor’s long career. So, when was the present seal being auctioned by Sotheby’s carved? We can gather some clues from Qianlong baosou [Catalogue of Qianlong Seals] and the archives of the palace workshops.

In the Qianlong baosou, two seal sets caught my attention. The seals in these two sets have the same inscriptions. Even the style and layout of the seal characters on corresponding seals is nearly identical. From these facts, we can infer that the same design plan was used for both sets when they were carved. The two sets each have six seals, and each seal is stored in its own case. Each set of six seals in fact consists of two sets of three seals, with a 'Hall of Three Rarities' seal heading up the set. The inscriptions of the seals of these two sets have the following translations: 'Hall of Three Rarities,' 'fully concentrate on the sole objective' (a quote from 'Counsels of the Great Yu', Book of History), and 'written by Qianlong' for the first set, and 'Hall of Three Rarities,' 'Where else can one find the delight that Confucius took in his disciple Yan Hui,' and 'Before the time of the sovereign Fu Xi, people had no sense of self' for the second set. The greatest distinguishing characteristic of these sets lies in the material that the seals were made of. One set of six seals was made entirely of [soap]stone. In the other set, three seals were made of white jade, and three seals were made of green jade. Such sets are not common among Qianlong seals, but they give us clues to the manufacturing process when examining workshop archives.

According to the Neiwufu Zaobanchu huoji dang [Archives of the Workshop of the Imperial Household Department], on 25th January 1769, “we received a note signed by Director Li Wenzhao. Previously, on 20th January, the eunuch Hu Shijie submitted . . . six soapstone seals. The note conveyed the emperor’s instructions. Our instructions were to use the white jade and green jade selected by the Qixiang Palace at court . . . to make three white-jade seals and three green-jade seals, making them the same size as the soapstone seals. On the same day we selected a first-rate piece of white jade, two remnants of white jade, and a piece of green jade, and we drew six seals. . . . These were shown to the eunuch Hu Shijie, who said to make the seals according to the models. . . . The deeply carved soapstone seals were given to Sazai, superintendent of the Suzhou Imperial Silk Manufactory, for manufacture. . . . On 3rd February 1770, three white-jade seals and three green-jade seals were sent and presented to the emperor.”4 After the six seals were completed and shown to the emperor, he quickly presented his opinions for improvements. According to the workshop archives, in February 1770, “three white-jade seals and three green-jade seals were given to the eunuch Hu Shijie to present for imperial inspection. The emperor sent out one white-jade seal with instructions: ‘Two of the raised-character, green-jade seals are carved too shallowly. Return them to Suzhou, and have the characters carved as deeply the raised characters of the white-jade seal.’ . . . On 31st August 1770, Suzhou returned the two green-jade seals, and the eunuch Hu Shijie presented them to the emperor.”5

Thus, according to these workshop entries, we know that the manufacturing process for this green-jade 'Hall of Three Rarities' seal was finished in 1770. And we also know that because this green-jade seal was based on the [soap]stone model, the inscription carving was rather shallow, and that because of this, when the workshop in Suzhou finished the seal and sent it to the court for approval, the Qianlong Emperor, after examining the seal, sent it back to Suzhou with a white-jade seal carved with raised characters, instructing the workshop to carve the characters as deep as those of the white-jade seal. The result was the green-jade 'Hall of Three Rarities' seal that we see before us. Yet we do not know why the Qianlong Emperor, more than twenty years later, selected some jade and had these green-jade seals recarved.

This green-jade 'Hall of Three Rarities' seal was made under the direct supervision of the Qianlong Emperor. He was involved in the whole manufacturing process: from the initiation, selection of materials, and design of the model to the final examination. This was typical of the manufacture of seals used by the Qianlong Emperor during the middle period. The jade used was a warm, lustrous, malleable green jade from Hetian in Xinjiang, and the printing surface is regular. The hornless-dragon knob is highly ornamental. The creature at the top is a hornless dragon with features of a mature dragon. Its eyes, nose, mouth, and beard are finely carved; its budding horns, legs, tail, and talons are boldly placed where they best fit. Around the base of the knob is a pattern of waves depicted with flowing lines—a pattern that blends well with the hornless dragon above. In the inscription, the strokes of the characters are all well distributed, and the frame is steep. These features display to advantage the superb carving skills of the Suzhou artisans.

By naming the Hall of Three Rarities and filling it with art treasures, the Qianlong Emperor established a tradition of art collection at court that displayed the splendor of the age. By learning the background of the 'Hall of Three Rarities' seal, we can peer through the fog of history to the politics and culture of that prosperous age.


1 Guo Fuxiang, Ming Qing dihou xiyin [Royal Seals of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, Beijing, 2003, p. 154.
2 Qianlong, emperor of China, Sanxi Tang ji [An Account of the Hall of Three Rarities], in Yuzhiwen chuji [Imperial poems, vol. 1], juan 4.
3 Qianlong, emperor of China, Erxi Tang ji [An Account of the Hall of Two Rarities], in Leshan Tang quanji dingben [Definitive Edition of the Complete Works by His Majesty from the Hall of Pleasure in Goodness], vol. 8.
4 First Historical Archives of China and Art Museum of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, eds., Qinggong Neiwufu Zaobanchu huoji dang’an zonghui [Documents in the Archives of the Workshop of the Qing Palace Imperial Household Department], Beijing, 2005, vol. 31, pp. 751-752, Qianlong 33, Twelfth Month, “official communications.”
5 ibid., vol. 33, p. 450, Qianlong 35, First Month, “records of business.”

Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art

Hong Kong