The 'Four Sages of Mount Shang' are well-known figures from history. The four men: Dong Yuangong, Xia Huanggong, Qi Jiji, and Master Lu Li were once imperial ministers who served at court during the declining years of the Qin dynasty in the 3rd century BC. When these officials became disillusioned with the corrupt and desolate Qin government, they chose to live their lives as hermits on Mount Shang, in Shaanxi province. After the demise of the Qin dynasty, Liu Bang established the Han dynasty in 206 BC, under the reign title of Gaodi. Despite Gaodi's invitation for these four great men to return to official life, they all declined but when Gaodi waivered in his choice of a successor, the four reappeared at a banquet in support of the Crown Prince, Liu Ying. It is at this historical juncture that Qianlong, in his poem, refers.
The Qianlong inscription on the reverse of this boulder starts with four verses, each of seven characters, describing the carved landscape scene. The poem may be translated as:
Living in retirement to journey among colourful surroundings;
going into the vast mountains leaving the past behind.
Gone forever, these loyal officials;
they may have stablised the Liu (*) but could not stop a dynasty's decline.
(*) This is Qianlong's reference to the rise and fall of the house of Liu who ruled for 400 years as the Han dynasty. In this instance, the last verse of Qianlong's poem is an excerpt taken from a poem by the Tang dynasty poet Du Mu, entitled: Ti Shangshan Sihao Miao', 'A Mention of Mt. Shang's Temple of the Four Sages', in which Du Mu mentioned the decline of the Liu ruling house.
The remaining text is Emperor Qianlong's prose in explanation of the image in the historical context of these four elderly statesmen. The inscription ends with a record that in the Jiaxu cyclical year (1754), the Emperor after having viewed a painting of the 'Four Sages' by the 13th century Song artist Ma Yuan, he commanded that a similar image be carved onto jade and incised with his writings. The text finishes with the cylical date of Jihai year (1779), noting the year in which the boulder was completed.