Qianlong's Game of Thrones revealed by a jade seal presented by Sotheby’s Paris

Seals play a significant role in Chinese culture. Beyond a symbol of imperial authority, seals often served as a reminder to the Emperor, thus offering us an opportunity to peep into an Emperor’s mind at the time – and the wheeling and dealing behind the royal palace. 

This month in Paris, Sotheby’s will present a jade seal carved during the time of Qianlong Emperor’s retirement with the characters Desui chuxin, meaning “able to follow my original intention” – what was Qianlong's aspiration as an Emperor and did he really fulfill it?

Lot 1 | Khotan green jade 'De sui chu xin' imperial seal
Seal mark of the Qianlong Emperor (1736-1795)
6.7 x 2.2 x 3.9 cm

  • Property from a French private collection

Estimate: €100,000 - 150,000

In Qianlong Emperor’s later years, he spoke of his initial wishes as such:

  • When I first became emperor, I burned incense and reported to the azure Heaven that if I were allowed to reign for a full sixty-year cycle, I would then abdicate to my heir, for I dare not reign more years than my ancestor [the Kangxi emperor], this I recorded among important events that I made clear in edicts promulgated all over the empire and abroad. Now I respectfully welcome the great change, fortunately fulfilling my original heart's desires.
  • It has been sixty years of my reign and my initial wish is fulfilled. The beginning of this year, I was bestowed the seal and name of Taishang Huang (Emperor Emeritus). I am blessed to be an all-rounded man throughout the ages.

As early as Qianlong succeeded as Emperor, he had made his intention clear: to achieve everything as he planned and gladly pass down the throne after having reigned for 60 years.

With the characters Desui chuxin (able to follow my original intention) having inscribed on the seal, it seemed to Qianlong that such wish had come true as he did abdicate before exceeding the 61-year reign of his grandfather – but would an imperial story go so simple?

Portrait of the Qianlong Emperor in Court Dress, collection of the Palace Museum

When we look at the companion seal of the Desui chuxin seal, there’s another one that was engraved with Guizheng nai xunzheng, meaning retired but still giving advice.

It’s true that he had given up the throne and passed it down to the Jiaqing Emperor. However, while he retired as an Emperor Emeritus, he was so actively engaged in state affairs – in the name of "giving advice" – that he was the real power behind the throne. The Jiaqing Emperor had actually remained a puppet until Qianlong passed away.

It comes as no surprise that their father-son relationship was not as positive as Qianlong wished to be. Immediately after Qianlong's death, Jiaqing Emperor arrested his father's favourite minister and forced him to commit suicide.

As revealed by historical records, Qianlong Emperor had found himself a glorified excuse for his obsession with power: Although I am in my eighties, my mind and body are as healthy as they can possibly be. If I set aside the empire and enjoy my own leisure time in the following years, is it not a shame to my people and the Heaven? That would not be my original intention when I ascended the throne.

Perhaps Qianlong was getting too immersed in the reminiscence of his brilliant achievements that he deluded himself into believing his own great story. While he kept saying happily that he was able to fulfil his original intention, practically, he enjoyed the longest period of government among the Qing emperors – that was, as we all know, his unspoken wish.

The oval Desui chuxin seal sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong in 2008

Desui chuxin seal comes in two forms: oval and rectangular. In 2008, the oval one, coming from the Estate of Emile Guimet, was sold for HK$4.46 million (US$568,000) at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong. As for this rectangular one going under hammer in Paris this month, the auction house said that it is property from a French private collection.

Lot 6 | White and russet jade archaistic ewer and cover
Qing dynasty, Qianlong period (1736-1795)
22.5 cm

  • Collection of Major R. W. Cooper.
  • Christie's, London, 29th April 1963, lot 31.
  • Property from a European private collection

Estimate: €200,000 - 300,000

Other leading lots of the sale are all from the Qianlong period.

Encouraged by the Qianlong Emperor's passion for the antique, Qing craftsmen began to look at the past for inspiration and adapt the forms and designs of archaic jades and bronzes into their pieces.

For the present jade vessel, the auction house believes its influence was from a yi, an archaic bronze covered pouring vessel of similar shape dating to the Western Zhou period (Ca. 1046-771 BC).

Yi (pouring vessel) of the Marquis of Qi, collection of Shanghai Museum

Lot 42 | Gilt-bronze and cloisonné enamel caparisoned elephant
Qing dynasty, Qianlong
51 x 49 cm

  • The Estate of Christian, Lady Hesketh,
  • Sold by Order of Her Executors, together with Property of the Trustees Of The 2nd Baron Hesketh’s Will Trust.
  • Sotheby’s, London, 7th March 2007, lot 71.

Estimate: €150,000 - 200,000

The cloisonné work shows an elephant supporting a Hu rider. In imperial China, Hu is a group of non-Chinese nomads living in Western Asia. As early as Western Han dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD), Hu people had already set foot in China.

In addition to the ambassadors, following the Han officials to China was a group of performers and acrobats who would ride elephants and beasts, perform sword dance and magic.

Due to its pronunciation in Chinese, ridding an elephant symbolized peace, prosperity and bountiful harvest. 

Lot 9 | An imperial inscribed white jade bottle 'dragon' vase
Qing dynasty, Yuzhi mark and period of Qianlong
21.3 cm

  • Collection of Major R. W. Cooper.
  • Christie's, London, 29th April 1963, lot 23.

Estimate: €150,000 - 200,000

The jade vase was inscribed with a poem written by Qianlong Emperor. It is the sceond of two poems entitled “Little Paintings by Dong Bangda”, which the Emperor wrote for his officials Dong Bangda. 

In 1963, Christie's London presented a sale dedicated to the jade collection of Major R. W. Copper. The present lot and the jade archaistic ewer and cover mentioned above were both included in the sale. 

The sale dedicated to the jade collection of Major R. W. Copper in 1963 at Christie's London

Auction Details:
Auction House: Sotheby's Paris
Sale: Arts d'Asie
Date and Time: 16 June 2022 | 10:30am (Paris local time)
Number of Lots: 216