NEW ORLEANS (ACNI)– There’s an unprecedented interest in fine Asian antiques in today’s auction marketplace. Expect that level of fascination to rise meteorically once collectors find out about an extraordinary object being offered in New Orleans Auction Galleries’ Nov. 13-14 sale: a rare, 18th-century Imperial white jade seal made for the Qianlong emperor.
New Orleans Auction’s Oriental specialist Richerson L. Rhodes, G.G., N.J.A., called Auction Central News to share details of the exceptional consignment that he estimates – conservatively – will sell for $100,000-$200,000 on auction day.
“This is a very important piece, and we expect it to attract global interest. We have a good number of regular buyers from China and Europe in our sales, and this is the level of quality they are looking for,” Richerson said.
New Orleans Auction Galleries enlisted the assistance of a top expert, Alan Thwaits, in researching the seal. Thwaits prepared the following report for his client:
The Qianlong Seal “Wu fu, wu dai tang; ba zheng mao nian bao”
by Alan Thwaits
We have before us a relic of history, a white-jade seal to be sold at auction by New Orleans Auction Galleries. This superb piece, topped with the head of an imperial dragon, is made of finest-quality white jade and measures 1.8 by 0.9 inches (4.6 by 2.2 cm) at the base and 2.5 inches (6.35 cm) in height. Where did it come from? What is its significance? Because of the similarity of the inscription with many other Qianlong seals, specialists working with Qing dynasty seals can instantly recognize it as a seal belonging to the Qianlong emperor. This is born out by fact that an impression of the seal appears in Qianlong xi yin pu (Catalog of Impressions of Qianlong Imperial Seals, vol. 4, p. 42), and this impression matches the seal in terms of the layout, style, and variations of the seal characters.
The inscription is complex and replete with literary allusions. The first two characters, “wu fu,” refer to the five happinesses in the “Great Plan” chapter of the Shangshu (Book of History). They are long life, wealth, good health and tranquility, consistent love of virtue, and living a purposeful life.
The next three characters, “wu dai tang,” mean having five generations under one roof. In 1784 the Qianlong emperor had a great-great-grandson and thus saw his line extended for four generations. To commemorate this happy state of affairs, the emperor decided to name a hall “Wu Fu, Wu Dai Tang” (The Hall of Five Happinesses and Five Generations) and to commission a seal so inscribed. Three years later the emperor wrote, “At seventy-seven, I see my great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchild running about my knees. This is worthy of the name of a hall, in order to remember this fact” (quoted in Ming Qing dihou bao xi [Imperial Seals of the Ming and Qing Dynasties], p. 153). In fact, according to the catalog mentioned above, the Qianlong emperor had in his collection some fourteen seals with inscriptions that read, at least in part, “wu fu, wu dai tang,” which can mean either the Hall of Five Happinesses and Five Generations (in the case of hall seals) or five happinesses and five generations under one roof (in the case of laudatory seals). It all depends on the purpose to which the seal was put. The present seal has a laudatory purpose. In any case, one can see how important having a great-great-grandson was to the Qianlong emperor.
But that is not all. The inscription continues, “ba zheng mao nian,” which means concern over phenomena at eighty. Here the emperor is cryptically referring to Jizi’s council for good government in the “Great Plan” chapter of the Book of History, as the emperor himself explained in “Ba zheng mao nian zhi bao ji” (Notes on the “Ba Zheng Mao Nian” Imperial Seal):
“When I was seventy, I used Du Fu’s term and had carved the Guxi tianzi zhi bao (Seal of the 70-year-old Emperor). I then wrote, ‘Ever busy day after day, I dare not be lax in governing’ With Heaven’s help, I fortunately have not made any great mistakes, and now another full decade has passed. When I think of the purpose of having an eightieth birthday celebration, engraving a seal, and impressing it at the end of my writing, no phrase is more suited than the “phenomena” phrase, number 8, in the “Great Plan” chapter of the Book of History. Moreover, I have already indicated a desire to pass on the throne at eighty-five, the sixtieth year of my reign. Though I am now eighty, there are still six years till I retire from the throne. I have not rested my weary shoulders for one day and have always cherished the people. How can I not be concerned about number 8, the common phenomena? Being concerned about the common meteorological phenomena is being concerned about the people. The Book of Rites says, “Eighty is called mao,” referring to the fact that the mind becomes feeble with advanced age. I am now eighty, and, relying on Heaven’s protection, I am still in good health. Though in one day there are a thousand affairs of state, my mind is still up to the task, but I must still strive to do better. If it comes to the point where I can no longer strive to do my best, then I cannot idle in office to fill my term of six years. For how then would I attend to the rites of state, or follow the weather, or daily attend to the domestic and foreign affairs of state, or keep in mind raising crops and providing for the people? If I am remiss in even one of these matters, the empire will disintegrate into a thousand small pieces. Hence, how can I be remiss? This is the reason that though I am eighty, I carefully concern myself with the common phenomena, just as I was diligent every day at seventy. Also, the five happinesses and five generations under one roof are what emperors should seek to administer to the people. I recently read the various theses of the “Great Plan” chapter. Among the six extremes discussed there, the third [worry] cannot be avoided. This is the significance of my worry.
Now, from the Tang dynasty, there were only six emperors who made it to seventy, and of these six, only three made it to eighty. Of these three, only Kublai Khan of the Yuan dynasty can be called worthy; the other two I despise. Of all the emperors since the three kingdoms, only six made it to seventy. I have already discussed seventy previously. Of these six emperors, only Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty, Emperor Gaozong of the Song dynasty, and Kublai Khan of the Yuan dynasty made it to eighty. Emperor Wu left behind an empire on the verge of collapse, and Emperor Gaozong sought peace at the price of humility. Both are plainly despicable. Only Kublai Khan was a capable ruler who accomplished great things. But he succeeded to the throne at a point not early in his career, his reign lasted only thirty-five years, and his posterity extended only to grandsons when he died. Though in the History of the Yuan Dynasty there are no genealogy tables for princes that one can check, yet in view of the fact that the imperial succession was not determined beyond the fourth generation, it is apparent that Kublai Khan did not enjoy our blessing of five generations under one roof. Hence, I am deeply indebted to Heaven’s bounty. Not only have I been blessed with rare good fortune; in all of Chinese history there has never been such a previous case. Thus, when it comes to caring and providing for the populace, how can I restrain and set limits to what I will bear? Since even Kublai Khan was not blessed with five generations under one roof, as I was, how should I reverently receive Heaven’s munificent bounty? The answer is to carry out Heaven’s will of caring for the people, to sincerely and industriously govern, to mete out the five happinesses to the people (as in no. 5 of the “Great Plan”), to be concerned about meteorological phenomena (as in no. 8), and to worry (as in no. 9). That is, I must apprehensively apply myself more and more every day. If any of my descendents can assume my mindset, govern as I govern, fret as I fret, worry as I worry, and perhaps cultivate Heaven’s favor and live to seventy or eighty, may he continue to use this seal. We the great Qing empire do fervently wish and encourage this, yet do not dare force the matter, for all time. Personally written by Qianlong in the lunar first month of 1790. [Stamped with the following three seals:] To encouragingly use the five happinesses (“Xiang yong wu fu”). Seal of concern over phenomena at eighty (“Ba zheng mao nian zhi bao”). To continuously strengthen oneself (“Zi qiang bu xi”).”
So all told, the inscription of the seal translates, “Seal of five happinesses, of five generations under one roof, and of concern over phenomena at eighty.” The phenomena that Jizi had in mind were meteorological phenomena that affected crops. From the above text, the phenomena that the Qianlong emperor seems to have had in mind were Heaven’s responses to his governing.
One detail that I should note is that throughout this passage, Qianlong uses the Chinese way of reckoning age: the number of calendar years in which one has lived, not the number of years one has lived. By the Chinese way of reckoning, the emperor turned eighty in the lunar first month of 1790. So we can surmise that the present seal was made around that time.
The phrase “Concern over phenomena at eighty” figures even more prominently in Qianlong’s collection, with around fifty seals of his featuring this phrase. The emperor definitely had some imperial seals carved with this phrase. Then quite possibly word got around court that this was a favorite phrase of his, and members of court gave him such a seal as a present for his eightieth birthday.
The Qianlong emperor was an avid collector and commissioner of imperial seals. The catalog Qianlong xi yin pu contains impressions of over 1,100 seals. This seal more than most has roots in the literature, is intimately connected with the emperor’s personal life, and at a deep level reflects his thinking.
Qianlong. “Ba zheng mao nian zhi bao ji” (Notes on the “Ba zheng mao nian” Imperial Seal). Available from Gugong shuhua (Calligraphy and Painting from the Forbidden City). Available from http://painting.npm.gov.tw/npm_public/System/View.jsp?type=1&ObjectID=4987.
Ming Qing dihou bao xi (Imperial Seals of the Ming and Qing Dynasties). Beijing: Zijincheng Chubanshe, 1996.
Qianlong xi yin pu (Catalog of Impressions of Qianlong Imperial Seals). Beijing: Xianzhuang shuju, 2004.
(end of Thwaits’ report)
For additional information on the Chinese Imperial Seal to be auctioned in New Orleans Auction Galleries’ Nov. 13-14 sale, call Richerson Rhodes at 1-800-501-0277 or 504-566-1849. Internet live bidding will be provided by LiveAuctioneers.com. The fully illustrated catalog will be available to view soon on www.LiveAuctioneers.com.
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