The Glory and Downfall of Ming and Qing Dynasties in the Palm: Chinese Imperial Seals That Could Fetch US$30m

With just a month away from Hong Kong’s marquee spring auctions, Sotheby’s has revealed its star lots for the upcoming Chinese works of art sale. Three Chinese imperial seals that embodied some of the most history-defining moments of Ming and Qing dynasties will go on the auction block on April 22, collectively estimated at HK$230m (US$29.6m).

Nicolas Chow, Chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, sat down with us to talk about the fascinating stories behind these seals and how they witnessed the rise and fall of two dynasties that lasted from the end of the 14th century through early 20th century.

Nicolas Chow, Chairman of Sotheby’s Asia


An imperial green jade memorial seal of the Yongle Empress Wen

Ming dynasty, Hongxi period (1424-1425)

Height: 10.5 cm 

Inscription: ...tian qi sheng wen huang hou bao (...天齊聖文皇后寶)

Provenance: Sotheby’s Hong Kong, October 31, 2004, lot 15

Estimate: HK$25,000,000 - 35,000,000 (US$3,220,000 - 3,870,000)

 

The jade seal, though partially broken, is carved with a horned dragon squatting surmounted on a square pedestal. Originally carved with four rows of characters, the seven-character inscription that remains on the base of the seal reads “...tian qi sheng wen huang hou bao (...天齊聖文皇后寶),” meaning “treasure of Empress Wen.” 

The seal was carved by Ming Emperor Hongxi (r.1424-1425) during his short reign, in remembrance of his mother, when Empress Wen died. Traditionally, a Chinese emperor would have had three identical seals created to pay respect to a deceased ancestor: a silk one that would have been burnt after the memorial service; a wooden one for burial; and a jade one to be placed in Taimiao, or the Ancestral Hall, as a keepsake.

 

Inscription: ...tian qi sheng wen huang hou bao (...天齊聖文皇后寶)

 

After a thorough examination done by Guo Fuxiang, a researcher at The Palace Museum, the present seal is believed to be the only surviving Ming imperial jade memorial seal. 

In fact, the fifth emperor of the Qing dynasty, Emperor Qianlong (r.1735-1796) once looked at the Ming relics but was not able to find any Ming imperial seal. He even composed an essay and expressed his idea that perhaps the seals either had been re-carved and adapted for Qing imperial use, or destroyed during the ravages of war when the Ming dynasty was overthrown.

“The obliteration of the dynasty is why these seals have disappeared. These are the most important symbols of power and the first things to have been destroyed when the dynasty fell. You have here - in a single object - the absolute apex of the Ming dynasty and its obliteration, not even Emperor Qianlong knew about this one apparently.” said Chow.

 

The rear side of the present seal

 

“You can see the burnt marks here and basically when Li Zicheng and his peasants rebelled and invaded the Forbidden City - and we know exactly when that was - it was on June 3, 1644, because he only spent one night in the Forbidden City before going to fight the Manchus up north. It was that very precise moment that the Taimiao was destroyed and all the seals and ritual objects within it, including this seal.” said Chow, referring to when Li Zicheng (r.1644-1645) led the rebellion against the Ming dynasty in 1644.

 

An imperial tanxiangmu Jingtian Qinmin” seal 

Qing dynasty, Kangxi period 

Inscription: Jingtian Qinmin (敬天勤民)

Dimensions: 11 x 10.2 x 10.2 cm

Provenance: Sotheby’s Hong Kong, April 6, 2016, lot 3101

Estimate: HK$80,000,000 - 100,000,000 (US$10,300,000 - 12,880,000)

 

Carved from sandalwood (tanxiangmu), the seal stands 11 cm in height and has a face measuring 10.2 cm on each side. The seal face is carved with a four-character inscription, Jingtian Qinmin (敬天勤民), meaning “revere Heaven and serve thy people.”

 

Inscription of the seal: Jingtian Qinmin (敬天勤民), meaning “revere Heaven and serve thy people”

 

The seal was carved by the order of Qing Emperor Kangxi (r.1662-1722) during the early years of his reign and was placed in the Forbidden City’s Qianqinggong (“The Palace of Ultimate Purity”), where Qing Emperors rested, entertained, and made policies.

The seal served as a reminder for Emperor Kangxi himself on “the Mandate of Heaven” - a philosophical and political idea originated from the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BCE), which believed in the divine authority for emperorship and a legitimate ruler’s key responsibility to care for his people. The Mandate was passed on to the successors of Emperor Kangxi - Emperors Yongzheng and Qianlong for more than a century to come.
 

“The first seals Emperor Yongzhen and Emperor Qianlong carved for themselves after ascending the throne, were copies of this very seal carved out of jade. So they each believed that this was the foundation of their reign. They believed in the motto that was so important to their father and grandfather, which was to ‘revere Heaven and serve your people.’ They would have to abide by this rule in order for them to be successful and legitimate rulers.” said Chow.

 

The Qianlong Emperor’s “Jientang” white jade seal

Qing dynasty, Qianlong period, dated to the Bingxu year (1766)

Inscription: Jientang (紀恩堂)

Dimensions: 10.4 x 10.4 x 7.8 cm

Provenance:

  • A French collection
  • Sotheby’s Hong Kong, November 2, 1994, lot 408
  • An American private collection
  • Sotheby’s Hong Kong, October 31, 2004, lot 3

Estimate: HK$125,000,000 - 350,000,000 (US$16,096,000 - 23,178,00)

 

Carved in archaic seal script on the face seal, Jientang (紀恩堂) or “The Hall of Grace Remembrance,” the white jade seal was carved by the order of Qing Emperor Qianlong (r.1735-1796) in remembrance of where he met his grandfather, Emperor Kangxi, for the first time. 

“It was where he would every time go there, remembered the grace of his grandfather - someone who instructed him and spent a lot of time educating him,” said Chow. 

There are two Jientang halls, one in the Yuanmingyuan (The Summer Palace) which was where Emperors Qianlong and Kangxi first met; another one in Bishu Shanzhuang (The Imperial Summer Retreat). The two locations were where Ming emperors spent their summer months back then. He had the palace craftsmen carve a pair of Jientang seals - the present one and another, which now resides in the collection of the Palace Museum in Beijing.

 

A white jade "dragon" seal with "Jientang" mark, The Palace Museum, Beijing

 

On the side of the jade seal, there carved an imperial poem that dates back to 1766. It begins with Emperor Qianlong’s recollection and fond memories of his grandfather Emperor Kangxi as well as the significance of abiding by the Mandate of Heaven to rule. 

“Suddenly the poem takes a very interesting turn, where you can feel a bit of self-doubt experienced by Emperor Qianlong. You can see the humanity of him shining through the poem, where he recognized that he was not loved by everyone and he had critics at the court. He says, ‘For all my critics, I want them to remember that I work extraordinarily hard. I abide by all the rules set by my grandfather. So remember that before you criticize me.’” explained Chow.

Emperor Qianlong mentioned in the poem, that he wished to clarify and support his grandfather’s decision: “My grandfather who, like the Zhou Emperor, who did not pass his throne down to his eldest son but to his fourth son, my father and then to me.”

Given that neither Emperor Qianlong nor his father Yongzheng, the fourth son of Emperor Kangxi - were “heirs apparent,” the inscription on the present seal served to legitimize his authority aside from speaking to his relationship with his beloved grandfather.

“What's interesting on this seal is that, you also have the scars that the seal carries. On the stone you see these marks of burning, which signifies the downfall of the Qing dynasty. This is the seal which was placed in the Yuanmingyuan, which had suffered fire damage in October 1860, when the French and British forces sacked the palace,” said Chow.

Charting the defining moments of Chinese imperial history, the seals tell the stories of the apex and downfall of the Ming dynasty, as well as the controversial imperial succession power struggle.

The three seals will go under the hammer in the upcoming Hong Kong sale in April. Together they are estimated at HK$230m to HK$310m (US$30m-40m). The Qianlong Emperor’s “Jientang” white jade seal, estimated at HK$125m to HK$180m (US$16.1m-23.2m), carries the highest estimate ever placed on a seal at auction. It was last seen at auction 17 years ago and was sold for HK$14.1m (US$1.8m) after fees.


Preview exhibitions:

Dates: April 16-21, 2021
Venue: Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre

Auction Details: 

Auction house: Sotheby’s Hong Kong
Sale: Chinese Works of Art Spring Sale 2021
Date: April 22, 2021
Venue: 5/F One Pacific Place, Admiralty, Hong Kong