Lot 3011. A highly important imperial white jade 'Zhoujia yanxi zhi bao' seal, Jiaqing period (1796-1820); 3 13/16 x 3 ¾ x 3 ¾ in. (9.7 x 9.6 x 9.6 cm). Estimate HKD 18,000,000 - HKD 24,000,000. Price realised HKD 20,525,000. © Christie's Image Ltd 2019.
The square seal platform is surmounted by a mythical double-headed beast carved recumbent with a scaly body, the conjoined mid-body pierced with an aperture and threaded with its original yellow silk braid terminating in knotted tassels, the base is carved in intaglio, zhuwenwith six characters, Zhoujia yanxi zhi bao, 'A treasure in auspicious celebration of a sixtieth birthday', the stone of pale celadon tone with areas of russet inclusions.
Provenance: A French family collection, acquired in the late 19th century, and thence by descent
Sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 30 May 2005, lot 1235.
Literature: Ching Wan Society Twentieth Anniversary Exhibition: Objects of vertu, Taipei, 2012, pp. 16-17
Exhibited: National Museum of History, Taipei, Ching Wan Society Twentieth Anniversary Exhibition20 October – 9 December 2012.
Note: The impression of the current seal is included in Qingdai dihou xiyin pu['An Album of Impressions of the Qing dynasty Rulers and Empresses' seals], vol. 3, Jiaqing juan 2, Beijing, 2005, p. xxx (fig.1).
Re-Examining The Imperial Seal ‘Zhoujia yanxi zhi bao’ of The Jiaqing Emperor
There are only a few milestones in one’s life. For the Emperor, the highest ruler of the empire, his actions during those essential moments invariably dictate the ensuing course of history, and artifacts associated with them subsequently assume great historical significance. This is especially true for the study of seals of the Qing Emperors. A survey of these seals reveals a pattern – a correlation between the recurrence of a certain seal inscription and the Emperor’s ideology, interests, and experiences. For the Jiaqing Emperor, the 24th year of his reign (1819) signified an important milestone in his life, as this was the year when he turned sixty-years old, completing a full jiazi cycle. The Jiaqing Emperor commissioned the carving of over ten seals bearing the inscription Zhoujia yanxi zhi bao to commemorate this landmark event, including the one to be offered at Christie’s Hong Kong. I had previously written about this seal when it was last offered in 2015, much of the content has been included here with addition of some further information.
The present seal is carved from greenish-white jade and surmounted by a pair of addorsed dragons. The seal face is carved with six characters, Zhoujia yanxi zhi bao, ‘Seal of continual joy on the sixtieth birthday’. The seal is consistent in size, text and calligraphic style with one documented and illustrated in the Jiaqing Baosou, the Jiaqing Emperor’s imperial seal catalogue—including fine details like the slight curvature of the rectangular frame, the modulation of strokes among the characters, and the slight hesitation at the beginnings and ends of the strokes. The motif and the knotting on the accompanied yellow tassel are consistent with those found on other large Qing imperial seals.
The Jiaqing Emperor, originally named Yongyan, was the fifth emperor of the Qing dynasty who ascended the throne at the age of thirty-six. In the 24th year of his reign (1819), Jiaqing turned sixty-years old. In traditional Chinese chronology, this is a significant completion of a cycle known as the jiazi, which symbolises an important landmark in one’s life, and normally commands large-scale celebrations. However, the modest Jiaqing Emperor instructed officials across the empire against this a year beforehand, he writes, ‘When I turned fifty-years old, I forbade officials from sending me extravagant gifts. I will turn sixty next year, which is more significant than fifty as it marks the completion of a full cycle, so I would assume that the officials would want to send me more lavish gifts. However, the affairs of the state still require much rectification, and I admire frugality, thus no birthday celebration nor any elaborate rituals will be held next year. And I instruct, other than regular local tributes, do not present me with any sumptuous furnishings. To those officials coming to the capital to send me good wishes, gifts such as ruyi sceptres, paintings and calligraphy will be accepted, in return, satins and nourishments will be rewarded.’1 The Jiaqing Emperor only did two things to commemorate his sixtieth-year birthday. First, he chose Zhoujia yanxi zhi bao as the inscription for a group of special commissioned seals. According to the Baosou, more than ten seals in varying sizes and materials bearing this inscription were carved, which the Jiaqing Emperor used the most frequently out of all his seals. Second, on the New Year’s Day following his sixtieth-birthday, the Emperor invited court officials and Hanlin scholars to a tea gathering at the Palace of Double Glory, where the Emperor and his guests composed couplets around the theme of Zhoujia yanxi zhi bao.2 The two events clearly convey the importance of this phrase to the Jiaqing Emperor, with the Zhoujia yanxi zhi bao seals serving as a symbolic witness to this great milestone. The seal to be offered by Christie’s is among the larger and more impressive from this group.
A study on the present seal reveals the subtle relationship between the Jiaqing Emperor and his father the Qianlong Emperor. Unlike other sovereigns, Jiaqing was deprived of independent rule when he ascended the throne as his retired father, the Supreme Emperor, remained the de facto ruler and ultimate decision-maker. This unique situation set the standard throughout Jiaqing’s reign. What had been a practice in the Qianlong period also prevailed in the Jiaqing period, and this is reflected in the form and style of Jiaqing’s imperial seals. One such example is the carving of seals in the context of a group. During the Qianlong period a considerable number of seals in related groups were produced, each group comprising one principal seal bearing the name of a palace or hall while the others were inscribed with poetic phrases and maxims alluding to the meaning and textual reflection to the first seal. As with his father, a total of seventy groups of seals were carved during Jiaqing’s reign, and the present seal belongs to such a group forming a set together with two subsidiary seals, Zhuangjing riqiang, ‘Maintaining self-dignity and constant improvement’, and Jianxing buxi, ‘Strive ahead with unceasing effort’. This clearly illustrates an inherited style from the Qianlong Emperor and can be compared with Qianlong’s seal Guxi tianzi zhi bao, ‘Seal of the seventy-year-old Emperor’, with its subsidiary seal, Youri zizi, ‘Strive ahead assiduously’. At the age of eighty Qianlong commissioned the seal Bazheng maonian zhi bao, ‘Seal of an eighty-year-old man embodying the Eight Virtues’, and the subsidiary seal Ziqiang buxi, ‘Improving oneself with unremitting effort’, to commemorate his eightieth birthday. Evidently, Jiaqing continued this tradition when he reached the age of sixty. Apart from carving the Zhoujia yanxi zhi bao principal seal, there was also the inclusion of two subsidiary seals as mentioned above to form a group. The Qing-scholar Chen Kangqi notes in Langqian jiwen sanbi [Miscellaneous notes of a retired official 3], “In the twenty-fourth year of his reign, the sixty-year-old Emperor Renzong embodied all virtues yet still continued to strive ahead with conscientiousness and compassion. (To commemorate this), he ordered for the carving of two seals bearing the maxims Zhuangjing ziqiang and Jianxing buxi. Should we not live every single day with unremitting effort?”3 Obviously Jiaqing was purposely imitating his father’s style.
The Palace Archives from the Imperial Workshops provide clues on when the seal would have been made. An entry dated to the fifteenth day of the eleventh month of the twenty-third year of the Jiaqing reign (1818) may be translated, ‘Lu Jinxiang of Maoqin Palace presents: three celadon jade seals in three boxes, a white jade seal in a box, a group of three white jade seals with kui-dragon finials in a box, a group of three white jade seals with jiao-dragon finials in a box, a group of three white jade seals with dragons and clouds in a box. The Emperor decrees, send these to Suzhou and have the inscriptions finely and deeply carved according to what is written on the label of each box. Make zitan boxes for the seals and have everything delivered to the capital within this year.’4 Although the entry does not mention the exact content of the seal inscription, the descriptions of the materials, packaging, and groupings correspond to the four large Zhoujia yanxi zhi bao seals and three white jade Zhoujia yanxi zhi bao seal groups recorded in the last section of the Jiaqing Baosou, to which the present seal belongs.
The above entry reveals that the inscriptions of the Zhoujia yanxi zhi bao seals were carved in the Suzhou Imperial Textile Manufactory and that they had to be completed by the year’s end. As the entry dates to the fifteenth day of the eleventh month, the time of carving thus took place between the second half of the eleventh month and the twelfth month, leaving the carvers just about a month’s time to complete the task. Such a stringent time constraint may explain the rigidity of certain strokes found on the current seal.
There are two points worth further exploration here. First is the meaning behind the phrase Zhoujia yanxi zhi bao. During the tea gathering in 1820, the Jiaqing Emperor explained that the Zhoujia yanxi zhi bao seals were commissioned as a symbolic tool to extend the blessings associated with his sixtieth-birthday to people across his empire, since zhoujia refers to the completion of a jiazi cycle, xi has the meaning of joy and auspiciousness, and yan means to extend.5 Second, a survey of the Palace Archives and the Jiaqing Emperor’s imperial poems reveals that the events surrounding the production of Zhoujia yanxi zhi bao seals lasted for more than three years, from the eleventh month of the twenty-third year to the first month of the twenty-fifth year of the Jiaqing reign. The long production time coupled with the Emperor’s deliberate elaboration on the intent of this special commission clearly underline the importance of the Zhoujia yanxi zhi bao seals and distinguish them among the imperial seals.
The Zhoujia yanxi zhi bao seals are among the very last seals commissioned by Jiaqing and these were used for marking the Emperor’s own paintings and calligraphic works. Zhuangjing riqiang often appears at the beginning with Zhoujia yanxi zhi bao and Jianqiang buxi at the end of his works. However, due to its relatively large size, the present Zhoujia yanxi zhi bao seal often appears alone on Jiaqing’s works. This seal is carved from greenish-white jade of exceptional quality devoid of impurities. The double-dragon finial is exquisitely carved and vividly rendered. Particularly worth noting is the silk sash, although now detached and slightly fractured, is still in rather good condition, which is rare among imperial seals sold in past auctions.
1. Daqing Renzong Ruihuangdi shilu [Veritable records of the Emperor Jiaqing of Great Qing], juan 339, second month of the twenty-third year of the Jiaqing reign
2. Daqing Renzong Ruihuangdi shilu [Veritable records of the Emperor Jiaqing of Great Qing], juan 366, first month of the twenty-fifth year of the Jiaqing reign
3. Chen Kangqi [Qing Dynasty], Langqian jiwen sanbi [Miscellaneous notes of a retired official 3], juan 2, Beijing, 1984
4. ‘Dangfang xingwen’ dated to the eleventh month of the twenty-third year of the Jiaqing reign, Zaobanchu gezuo huoji qingdang [Records of the Imperial Workshops] preserved in the Chinese First Historical Archive
5. Qing Renzong yuzhishi yuji [Imperial poems by the Emperor Jiaqing, supplement], juan 1
Christie's. Leisurely Delights, Hong Kong, 29 May 2019