Chinese history as told via Asia’s booming auction market
Three Chinese imperial seals sold at auction tell a story about the present and past worlds
Three Chinese imperial seals went to auction with Sotheby’s in Hong Kong last week, each with an astronomic valuation. Given their rarity, not to mention the growth of the auction market in Asia, it’s not hard to see why. The seals also give us a window into the lives of China’s imperial rulers.
The first, the Qianlong Emperor’s “Ji’entang” seal from 1766, is made from white jade. On top, the knop (grip) is carved in the shape of a dragon and, in delicate lettering around the base, the emperor sets the record straight on his succession. His grandfather was the Kangxi Emperor (1654-1722), at that time “the single most powerful person on earth”, notes Sotheby’s. In the 61st and final year of his reign, the Kangxi Emperor was introduced to one of his grandsons, the 20-year-old Prince Hongli, at the Yuanmingyuan palace in Beijing.
Taken with the young man, the emperor undertook to raise him, with the throne passing to his father, and thereafter to him, at which time he became Qianlong Emperor. The seal, which sold for HK$145.7m (£13.5m), celebrates the Emperor’s relationship with his grandfather. In 1796, he abdicated after 61 years so as not to reign longer than his forebear.
When an emperor paid homage to a deceased ancestor, three identical memorial seals would be made from “silk” (paper and plaster), fragrant wood and jade. The silk seal would be burnt after a memorial service, the wooden seal placed in a tomb, and the jade seal kept in the Tai Miao temple in Beijing. Thus the second seal at the Sotheby’s sale is made from tanxiangmu (sandalwood) and it was the largest to be carved for the Kangxi Emperor.
Sporting a mythical beast on top, the base of the seal bears four characters that read jingtian qinmin (“revere Heaven and serve thy people”), reflecting the first of four philosophical principles of ruling held by the Qing dynasty emperors – the others being fazu (learn from the ancestors), qinzheng (be diligent at politics), and aimin (love thy people). The Jingtian Qinmin seal had been given an upper estimate of HK$100m (£9.4m).
… and fall of a dynasty
The final seal bears witness to what happens when one dynasty, in this case the Ming, is supplanted by another – the Qing of the Kangxi and Qianlong emperors. It was carved in green jade for Empress Wen (1362-1407), consort of the Yongle Emperor, with a horned dragon, “encapsulating the pinnacle of wealth and power of the Ming dynasty in the early 15th century”.
It is also the only Ming-era memorial seal to have survived. Even the Qianlong Emperor wondered why this was, surmising that others had either been recarved for later rulers, or simply destroyed when his Qing dynasty took power in 1644. He was probably right. The Yongle Empress Wen seal, which sold for HK$43.4m (£4m), was smashed almost in two, and bears the scorch marks of a dynasty violently overthrown.
This article was originally published in MoneyWeek