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The Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799) carefully orchestrated the significant events of his life, including his seventieth and eightieth birthdays in 1780 and 1790, the birth of his great-great-grandson in 1784 and his abdication from the throne to become the Emperor Supreme in 1795, and left a large number of material evidence and textual documentation of them. As products of these special moments and reflections of the Emperor’s state of mind, his imperial seals deserve our special attention. The present Ziqiang buxi seal is an artefact of the Qianlong Emperor’s eightieth-birthday celebrations.
The Qianlong Emperor’s eightieth birthday coincided with the fifty-fifth year of his reign. He regarded this as a highly auspicious event and a sign of heavenly blessing, one requiring a major celebration. A year beforehand, on the Mid-Autumn Festival in 1789, he had already begun planning the festivities, including the consideration of what tribute he would receive from the various provinces and vassal states, in addition to the venue and scale of their presentation. The manufacture of seals was an indispensable part of these festivities.
The Qianlong Emperor focussed his attention on the important Confucian classic Shangshu [The Most Venerable Books). According to the Hongfan (The Great Plan) chapter of Shangshu, after King Wu conquered the Shang, he sought Qizi’s instruction on the ‘Way of Heaven’. Qizi responded with the nine principles of emperorship, which the Qianlong Emperor believed to be “the origin of the imperial system that persisted throughout the ages… All connected to the single body and heart of the ruler”. The eighth principle, Nianyong shuzheng (‘Think as do the common people’), was consistent with the Qianlong Emperor’s own populist ideology. He therefore ordered seals made with the phrase Bazheng maonian zhibao (‘Treasure of the Eighty-year-old Man Mindful of the Eighth Principle’). He elaborated his reasons in Bazheng maonian zhibao ji: “The various seals I ordered made to commemorate the celebrations of my eightieth birthday and to impress on my various writings were all connected to the idea of Bazheng in the Hongfan chapter. Moreover, I intend to retire from ruling at eighty-five years, after completing six decades of the Qianlong reign. Although I am currently eighty years old, I am still six years away from retirement. As long as I bear the burden of emperorship, I am always conscious of my millions of subjects. How can I not be mindful of the Eighth Principle about regard for commoners? Regard for commoners is regard for the millions of subjects. According to Quli, ‘an eighty-year-old person is called mao’ because intelligence fades in old age. I have now reached eighty. Due to good fortune bestowed by Heaven, my body remains healthy. Handling ten thousand affairs every day, I do not show signs of mental deterioration. I must continue to motivate myself”. Thus, the Bazheng maonian zhibao seals did not only commemorate his birthday, but also reminded him not to neglect the well-being of his subjects. The earliest imperial seal bearing this text dates from the winter of the 1789, and was first used on the spring solstice of the following year.
Bazheng maonian zhibao was a primary seal in the set, which also included a secondary seal reading Ziqiang buxi. The latter phrase is excerpted from the section on the Qian trigram in the Zhouyi/ Book of Changes, another Confucian classic: “As Heaven's movement is ever vigorous, so must a gentleman ceaselessly strive to strengthen himself”. Why did the Qianlong Emperor select Ziqiang buxi to accompany Bazheng maonian zhibao? According to his own explanation, “I have always impressed my own writings with Ziqiang buxi. During the gengzi year, I had made a primary seal reading Guxi tianzi zhibao and an accompanying secondary seal reading Youri zizi (‘Still diligent every day’). To commemorate my impending eightieth birthday, I have commissioned a seal reading Bazheng maonian zhibao and an accompanying secondary seal reading Ziqiang buxi. Although there are many self-motivational phrases in the classics, none is more important than this one connected to the first trigram of the Book of Changes”. “After having the Bazheng maonian zhibao seal made, I had a Ziqiang buxi seal made to accompany it. This was similar to the pairing of the Guxi tianzi zhibao and Youri zizi seals created to celebrate my seventieth birthday. All these phrases are to motivate myself”. The phrase Ziqiang buxi as accompaniment to Bazheng maonian zhibao expressed Qianlong’s resolution to keep his subjects’ well-being in mind and to attend to affairs of state diligently. One senses an anxiety beneath Qianlong’s happiness about his eightieth birthday. The phrase Ziqiang buxi reflected this anxiety and was a form of self-admonishment.
After deciding on the pairing of the Bazheng maonian zhibao and Ziqiang buxi seals in 1789, the Qianlong Emperor began to order their large-scale production. As many as over 140 seals bearing the phrase Bazheng maonian zhibao were produced between the winter of 1789 and 1794 without interruption.
The primary seals Bazheng maonian zhibao were combined with various secondary seals. Most commonly, a Bazheng maonian zhibao seal was accompanied by a secondary seal reading Ziqiang buxi and another frontispiece seal, forming a set of three. The three seals had to be identical in material, colour and size, and housed together in the same case. The Qianlong Emperor himself likely chose the combination of a Bazheng maonian zhibao seal, a Ziqiang buxi seal and a frontispiece seal reading Xiangyong wufu. In his preface to Bazheng maonian zhibao lianju, he specified that the secondary seal read Ziqiang buxi and that the frontispiece seal read Xiangyong wufu. The latter phrase was excerpted from the ninth principle in the Hongfan chapter, “For enjoyment use the Five Fortunes; for authority use the Six Extremes.”Reflecting the Emperor’s joy and self-admonishment at the same time, over a dozen such sets of three seals was produced between the winter of 1789 and early 1794. The Ziqiang buxi seal currently on offer belonged to one of these sets of three seals.
The records of the workshops of the Imperial Household Department help us date the creation of this seal precisely. On the tenth day of the tenth month of the fifty-fourth year of the Qianlong reign (1789), “the eunuch Eluli conveyed the following imperial decree: Qixianggong (‘Palace of Auspicious Sign’) is tasked with selecting two sets of white jade seals, each set containing two seals and one frontispiece seal. So it was decreed. A piece of shanliao jade weighing 10 jin was procured, and was divided into two sets of seals. A drawing on paper of Song dynasty-style dragon seals was made and handed for inspection to the eunuch Eluli, who received the decree that the seals be made according to it: a drawing on paper of a Song dynasty frontispiece seal would be handed to the Mauqindian (‘Hall of Great Diligence’), which would then create the seal text; afterwards, the drawing and seal text would be handed to the Suzhou Manufactory for production. So it was decreed. On the twenty-sixth day of the tenth month, a sample Song dynasty-style dragon seal was created in wood for inspection. It was decreed that actual seals be created accordingly to the samples, and that the Suzhou Manufactory be tasked with this. So it was decreed. On the twenty-fifth day of the third month of the fifty-fifth year [of the Qianlong reign], Suzhou sent two sets of jade frontispiece seals, which were presented to the Mauqindian”. Although this particular record does not specify the texts of the two sets of frontispiece seals produced, other records of the same period indicate clearly that the sets of three frontispiece seals made by the Suzhou Manufactory during the tenth month of this year all read Xiangyong wufu, Bazhengmao nian zhibao and Ziqiang buxi respectively. The seals of one of these two sets have already appeared at various auctions: the frontispiece seal Xiangyong wufu was sold in this rooms, 23rd April 2003, lot 27, Bazheng maonian zhibao was sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 26th April 2004, lot 1012 and Ziqiang buxi in our London rooms, 9th November 2016, lot 8.The current Ziqiang buxi seal can be confirmed as one of the other set based on the following considerations.
Firstly, the seal corresponds closely to the above entry. Its material of pale celadon-white jade of subtly variegated colours matches the shanliao jade mentioned in the entry. Similarly, the dragon finial on top of the seal has a powerful upturned head, a thin and tensile scaly body, matching the description of “Song dynasty-style dragon seal”. Thus we can conclude that the current lot was in one of the two sets of seals mentioned in the entry, created between the tenth month of forty-fourth year (1789) and the third month of fifty-second year (1780) of the Qianlong reign, designed by the Imperial Workshops and produced at the Suzhou Manufactory.
Secondly, the entry quoted above records two sets of three seals made from the same piece of shanliao white jade and inscribed with the same texts. The working of inscriptions of the two sets should thus be highly similar but not identical. In Qianlong Baosou in the Palace Museum, Beijing, the inscriptions are identical, which initially puzzled the author. However, Baosou, the Qianlong Emperor’s personal seal catalogue, now housed at the Musée Guimet, Paris, also records the two sets of seals together and confirms that their inscriptions are indeed similar but not identical. This indicates that the compilers of Qianlong Baosou carelessly impressed one set of two highly similar sets of inscriptions twice, an error that was later corrected in Guanghan Xingdou. Guanghan Xingdou also proves the authenticity of the present seal.
After ascending the throne in 1799, the Jiaqing Emperor organised Qianlong’s imperial seals and consolidated them in storage. The set of three seals to which the current lot belonged was likely housed in the Qianlong Emperor’s Dabaoxiang (‘Treasury Box’). It is unknown when it left the imperial court. Reflecting the sophistication of high-Qing Suzhou jade craftsmanship, the dragon finial on the seal is very intricate, and the working of the text assured, meticulous and orderly. The seal’s remarkable appearance allows us to reflect on the Qianlong Emperor’s thoughts and feelings late in his reign.
1 Guo Fuxiang, Ming Qing Dihou Xiyin [Imperial Seals of the Ming and Qing Dynasties], Beijing, p. 154.
2 ‘Official communications’, in the tenth month, 54th year of Qianlong, 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. 51, p. 256.
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