These three seals are made from material equal to the best quality brilliant and translucent dong stones. Their inscriptions include one with raised characters inscribed Suianshi, another with recessed characters inscribed Bao Qinwang bao, and another one with raised script inscribed Changchun Jushi.
This group of seals was used and produced before Qianlong ascended the throne, while he was still Crown Prince. In the Record of Qianlong Imperial Seals, Qianlong baosou, which is kept in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, it is recorded that “before he ascended the throne, seventy seals were ordered to be made, and they were divided and kept in thirteen special boxes. After each was carefully recorded and the various seals used, the phrases on the seals were recorded on a list which together formed a meaning.” From this passage, we know that Qianlong as a Prince had seventy seals made for himself and they were divided and fitted into thirteen seal boxes, of which the present set of seals is one. The box is made from zitan wood, carved with the seal inscriptions in regular script on the outside, and the interior of the box, into which the seals are fitted, is lined with brocade. The workmanship is of the highest calibre and its abundance of luxury testifies to the dignified air of the imperial family.
In Qianlong’s imperial essay Jia yan ji it is stated “In the winter of the forty-sixth year of the Qianlong period, I respectfully gathered all the imperial seals used by my grandfather and generations of ancestors as well as those used in the ten or so years between taking residence in the Green Palace [residence of the Heir Apparent] and the ascendency to Imperial power, had boxes made for them and had them stored in the Shouhuangdian.” From this we know that these thirteen boxes of seals from the time when Qianlong was Crown Prince were originally kept in the Shouhuang Hall of Jingshan (an ancestral hall behind Coal Hill), and that they were properly registered to be cherished in the future and protected for generations according to the regulations. Unfortunately, China has experienced numerous misfortunes in its modern history, and the life of Imperial treasures inside the palaces was also susceptible to these unpredictable disasters. Of the thirteen sets of Qianlong’s Princely seals, aside from one box of sixteen seals in the collection of the Beijing Palace Museum (fig. 2), most others appear to have been lost through time. Thus this set of Bao Qinwang bao seals that is offered in this sale is the only set of Qianlong’s Princely seals known to be in a private collection. Furthermore, the fact that a set that has been privately owned for a long period of time, resurfaces, is in itself a fortunate occurrence.
It was on the eleventh year of Yongzheng’s reign that Qianlong was conferred as the Heshi Bao Qinwang (Prince of the Blood of the First Degree, Bao) and was given the designation Changchun Jushi (Scholar of Everlasting Spring). The Shiqu baoji records that this group of seals was already used during the twelfth year of Yongzheng’s reign, thus we can conclude that these seals must have been made no later than the eleventh year of Yongzheng’s reign (1732), making them some of the earliest works of art made to the order of Qianlong. What is also worth mentioning, is that Qianlong often used seals in groups, and more often in groups of three which were kept in a box together. These sets of seals often comprised one of rectangular or oval section, which was inscribed with then name of a palace hall, and two of square section inscribed with a by-name or a phrase taken from a poem. The Bao Qinwang bao seals offered in this seal are in fact the original set of this type. The concept of grouping seals into sets of three is out of convenience, and these seals have been impressed on a great number of works of art and are perhaps the most often used seals of Qianlong’s early life (figs. 3 and 4).
Another strength of these seals is the value of the materials from which they were made, including top quality tianhuang and steatite stones; pure and smooth, brilliant and transparent, because they are not engraved and free of decoration, the brilliant colours of the stones really shine through. Although they are a little different in shape from the set of three Qianlong seals Puyi took with him in his flight from the Imperial Palace (fig. 5), they were likewise carved in a standard rectangular or oval form which wasted a lot of the stone in the carving process, thus displaying the extravagance of the imperial family.
Made from the best stones, with masterful craftsmanship, this can be considered a representative work of art from Qianlong’s princely period.
1. Bao Qingwang bao
This seal is carved from a Shoushan (Fujian province) tianhuang dong (literally: ‘cold’) stone, it’s apex is multifaceted and its body glossy and plain.
On the first month of the eleventh year of Emperor Yongzheng’s reign, he announced that his fourth son was to become Crown Prince. From then on, Qianlong began to participate in political affairs. This seal was made in that same year and was thus used mainly in the period between his appointment as Crown Prince and when he ascended the throne a year later (figs. 1 and 6).
This seal is carved from a Shoushan (Fujian province) tianhuang dong stone, of oval section, it has a flattened apex which is left undecorated.
Suianshi is the name of one of Qianlong’s studies. The earliest Suianshi studio dates back to the time when Qianlong was still a prince and was the studio in which he would spend time studying and was a place where he could find peace and solitude. What is more significant is that Qianlong so liked this name, that he created Suianshi studios in the Five Gardens on the Three Mountains [the three mountains around Beijing, Xiangshan, Yuquanshan and Wanshoushan] as well as in various travelling palaces, for example, in the Western Garden, the Yuanmingyuan, and the Qingyiyuan [all in Beijing]. In this way, and using Qianlong’s own nostalgic words, he could be constantly reminded of his youthful life and never forget the past. Since the present seal was made during the time he was Crown Prince, it was the first such seal, made for use in the original Suianshi studio. This seal, together with Bao Qinwang bao and Changchun Jushi seals were very often used on works of art during the time he was Prince (fig. 7).
3. Changchun Jushi
This seal is carved from Changhua (Zhejiang province) steatite dong stone. It’s apex is multi-faceted and its body glossy and plain.
Changchun Jushi was the designation Emperor Yongzheng gave to Qianlong while he was still a Prince. The Emperor Yongzheng was highly influenced by Buddhist teachings and in the eleventh year of his reign he assembled fourteen ‘disciples’, of which Qianlong was one, into a meeting and personally preached the law to them; it was then that he first called Qianlong Changchun Jushi. It was in that year that this seal was made. Qianlong attached great importance to the designation Changchun and the numerous Changchun shuwu (libraries) all obtained their names from this by-name. This seal and the Bao Qingwang bao seal were both very often used by Qianlong before he ascended the throne (figs. 1 and 6).
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