A private family collection
A Discussion on Taishang Huangdi Zhi Bao, Treasure of Emperor Emeritus
Associate Researcher, Department of Palace History, Palace Museum, Beijing
The renowed Taishang Huangdi Zhi Bao (Treasure of the Emperor Emeritus), a personal seal of Emperor Qianlong to be auctioned by Christie's Hong Kong, is made from white jade, with a knob featuring interlaced dragons and bearing the six-character mark Taishang Huangdi Zhi Bao executed in relief. The sides are inscribed with a poem by Qianlong entitled Ziti Taishanghuang Bao, (A poem composed by the Emperor Emeritus for one of his treasures). The white jade used is smooth and glossy, and the dragon knob and the calligraphy of the poem on the sides are executed in an eloquent, meticulous and naturalistic manner typical of the Qianlong reign. Even though the corners and edges reveal some signs of wear and the inscriptions on the four sides are in very low relief (probably due to being polished before the seal was being used) the seal is on the whole extremely well-preserved. This seal is listed in Qianlong Baosou (Catalogue of Emperor Qianlong's imperial seals) in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing. The shape and size of the seal, as well as the style and composition of the seal script, match the book's descriptions exactly, placing the authenticity of this imperial seal beyond doubt. To help collectors better understand this seal, I have been invited to examine the seal and the context in which it was created in greater detail. As far as I recall, this seal is the third example offered at auction from the Taishang Huangdi series, and I have written about the other two other seals at length on previous occasions. Since the current seal and the two other examples were made under the same circumstances and at approximately the same time, some of my previous writing on the background to Qianlong's Taishang Huangdi seals will be also in appear this essay.
A few years ago, I mentioned in a book entitled Palace Museum: Ming Qing Dihou Baoxi (or Precious Seals of the Emperors and Empresses of the Ming & Qing Dynasties) that a prominent feature of Qianlong's personal seals is that they were largely made to celebrate monumental or meritorious events. It is also mentioned that "seals were made to commemorate almost every important state or family event, and these seals were copied in large numbers after Qianlong's death. If arranged in chronological order, they tell much about major state or family events throughout the Qianlong reign." Major historical events are therefore integral to the cultural significance of these imperial seals and key to a thorough understanding of these works. The seal to be auctioned by Christie's Hong Kong is one such work, being of great historical significance.
To fully appreciate this seal, we have to understand the historical context against which the expression "Emperor Emeritus" or Taishang Huang emerged. Taishang means 'supremacy' and is a title denoting utmost respect, and huang represents someone who is even more virtuous than the emperor. Used together, Taishang Huang refers to the noblest man in the world who is more virtuous than the emperor. In Chinese history, this term first appeared in the Qin dynasty. It is recorded in Sima Qian's Shiji or Records of the Grand Historian that Qin Shi Huang conferred the posthumous title of Taishang Huang upon his father, the king of Zhuangxiang, when he had united the six kingdoms and proclaimed himself the First Emperor or Shi Huangdi in Chinese. This is also the only example of the title being conferred posthumously. Shiji also mentioned that Liu Bang, Emperor Gaozu of Han, held his father Liu Zhijia in high esteem and visited the latter every five days, performing all common filial duties. One day a housekeeper said to Liu Zhijai, "Neither should there be two suns under the heaven nor should there be two kings on the face of the earth simultaneously. The emperor, being your son, has the more important role as the head of state. As the father of the emperor, you are nonetheless a subject of your son. How can a monarch act so humbly to one of his subjects? If this is allowed to continue, how is the emperor to make his prestige or power felt?" When Liu Bang next came, his father went to greet him outside the door holding a broom and then walked backwards before Liu Bang into the house. Astounded, Liu Bang asked why his father was acting so humbly. His father replied, "You are the sovereign and I am your subject. How can ceremonies and rituals be altered for my sake?" Consequently, Liu Bang decreed that the title of Taishang Huang be conferred upon his father, making his father the only figure in Chinese history who to become a Taishang Huang who had never previously reigned as an emperor. However, it must be pointed out that the two examples of Taishang Huang mentioned here are essentially different from all subsequent examples of emperors referring to themselves as Taishang Huang after their abdication.
Later in Chinese history, the title of Taishang Huang took on a new meaning and became associated specifically with living emperors who had abdicated the throne for varying reasons. So it gradually became an established practice to use Taishang Huang to describe an abdicated emperor who had formally handed over the rule to his designated successor. Nevertheless, the Taishang Huang appointment was never part of the intrinsic values of China's political environment. It is therefore not surprising to see that its use was often associated with major historical upheaval. Even though circumstances under which abdicating emperors were referred to as Taishang Huang varied a great deal, the majority of them surrendered their rule rather unwillingly. Indeed Emperor Qianlong is probably the only Taishang Huang in Chinese history to have enjoyed both eminence and real power. To Emperor Qianlong, the act of giving up the throne to his successor Emperor Jiaqing and proclaiming himself a Taishang Huangdi was a voluntary decision and marked a major turning point in his life.
Emperor Qianlong allegedly prayed to heaven when he ascended the throne and promised that he would surrender the throne to his heir if he was allowed to reign for sixty years. He had made no public mention of this until the eleventh lunar month in the 37th year of his reign (AD 1772). The promise must have initially been intended as a means of securing longevity, and it was not until a few years later, when the connection between abdication and naming the heir apparent became increasingly obvious, that he came to realise the full implication of his vow. However, in no circumstances should an emperor renege on his word. To honour his promise, on the third day of the ninth month in the sixtieth year of his reign (AD 1795), the then 85-year-old Emperor Qianlong declared in the presence of his sons, grandsons, ministers and officials that Prince Jia, his fifteenth son Yongyan, would be made the official heir and that the next year would be the first year of the Jiaqing reign, at which point he would formally step down. At the beginning of the next year, Emperor Qianlong officiated at the handover ceremony and announced, "[...] the named heir apparent has become the emperor on the first day of the first lunar month in the cyclical bingchen year. I shall personally hand the imperial seal to the new emperor at the Hall of Great Peace, and thence I may be addressed as Taishang Huangdi." It was in such a manner that Emperor Qianlong ended his sixty-year rule and became the only Taishang Huangdi in the Qing dynasty and the last one in Chinese history.
Meanwhile, all sorts of arrangements were made to prepare for Qianlong's forthcoming life as an emperor emeritus. Emperor Qianlong later announced in an imperial edict on the 28th day of the ninth lunar month in the same year, "The number one jade treasure bearing the character xi should be engraved with the six characters Taishang Huangdi Zhi Bao after my abdication, and the essay 'Shiquan laoren Zhi bao shuo (Treasure of the Old Man of the Tenfold Perfection), will soon be carved and made into an album entitled Taishang Huangdi Ce, so as to mark this golden age." Measuring 22.5 cm. in width, the square seal consequently made was the largest imperial seal ever created in the Qing dynasty and is now in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing. Emperor Qianlong later commissioned several other similar seals to be made by imperial workshops, which all bear the characters Taishang Huangdi Zhi Bao but which were executed using a variety of material. The current seal is one of these.
It is noted in the Qianlong Baosou (A complete record of Emperor Qianlong's seals), which is kept in the Beijing Palace Museum, that over twenty seals similar to the current lot but of various sizes were made throughout Qianlong's career as Emperor Emeritus, most of which are now also in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing. The current lot is one of the few Taishang Huangdi seals inscribed with poems composed by Emperor Qianlong. The poem on the sides is entitled Ziti Taishanghuang Bao (A poem composed by the Taishang Huang himself for one of his treasures), which is intended to commemorate the then newly-made seal and express the emperor's emotions at the time. It was written on the eighth day of the second lunar month in the first year of the Jiaqing reign (AD 1796), exactly one month after the handover ceremonies and as Qianlong began his new life as an emperor emeritus. It may be translated as reading,
"The term Taishang Huang has been in use since ancient times,
Yet grand epithets such as this I think I deserve none.
I have always thought it a blessing that I reigned for sixty years;
any eulogy would only embarrass me even further.
All my life I have pondered how virtue might be attained, and I
Have come to believe future prosperity can be achieved by keeping traditions alive.
Now I read Ximing in my well-lit and uncluttered study;
the best place for me to wisely spend the rest of my life."
The last two lines in particular must have been a vivid portrayal of Qianlong's feelings at the time. Studying Ximing or Western Inscriptions, a philosophical work written by the renowned Song scholar Zhang Zai, in his well-lit and uncluttered study, Emperor Qianlong sought to interpret the unity of all beings and examine the Great Ways of the universe, freely communing with historical figures of great virtue and leaving behind all cares of the world. This must have been an important aspect of the life that the emperor had envisaged for himself as an emperor emeritus. In his annotation to the poem, Qianlong noted that he had abandoned all customary court duties and formalities following his abdication, such as assuming grand epithets; instead, he only ordered the seals of Taishang Huangdi Zhi Bao to be made to mark this major turning point of his life. It is also worth noting that, apart from the current seal, the same poem also appears on a number of other different Taishang Huangdi seals.
Being one of the most important seals of Emperor Qianlong's life as an emperor emeritus, the current seal was frequently affixed to rare books and fine ancient or contemporary paintings and calligraphic works kept by the Imperial Household Department, as well as being used on Qianlong's own works. It is often accompanied by two other seals bearing the characters of Wufu Wudai Tang Guxi Tianzi Bao and Bazheng Mao Nian Zhi Bao. These three seals often appear together vertically in chronological order according to when they were stamped onto hand scrolls and ancient books; but on hanging scrolls, they are more often found on the upper left hand side. Rare ancient books bearing the current seal include those from the Song, Liao, Jin, Yuan and Ming dynasties recorded in Tianlu Linlang and Tianlu Linlang Xubian, imperial catalogues compiled during the Qianlong and Jiaqing reigns and kept in the Zhaoren Hall. In most cases, the seal can be found on the first and last pages of the books. Paintings and calligraphic works featuring the current seal in the collection of the Beijing Palace Museum are numerous, such as Wang Xun's Letter to Boyuan dating to the Eastern Jin dynasty; Zhan Ziqian's Spring Excursion dating to the Sui dynasty; Li Bai's Ascending Mount Yangtai, Zhou Fang's Ladies Fanning Themselves and the Six Hermits attributed to Lu Yao, all dating to the Tang dynasty; Wei Xian's Man of Virtue dating to the Five dynasties; Wang Ximeng's A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains, Illustrations of Ten Poems by Mr. Zhang by an anonymous painter, a Northern song copy of Gu Kaizhi's The Nymph of the River Luo, a Southern Song copy of Gu Kaizhi's The Nymph of the River Luo, Zhao Fu's A Ten Thousand Li of Mountains and Rivers, four works attributed to Ma Hezhi (i.e. Paintings Based on the Airs of Ancient Bin State, Paintings in the Spirit of 'The Deer Cry' in 'The Minor Odes' of the Book of Songs, Paintings in the Spirit of 'Jie Nan Shan' in 'The Minor Odes' of the Book of Songs and Paintings Based on the 'Min Yu Xiao Zi' in 'Hymns of Zhou' of The Book of Songs), Nine Aged Men Having a Gathering in the Period of Huichang by an anonymous painter, Lin Bu's Poems by the Calligrapher in running script, Fan Zhongyan's Dao Fu Zan in standard script and Wang Shen's Poems by the Calligrapher, all dating to the Song dynasty; Taking a Short Rest on the Way after Hunting attributed to Hu Xiang and dated to the Liao dynasty; Zhao Lin's The Six Horses at the Zhaoling Tomb dating to the Jin dynasty; Zhao Mengfu's On Horseback and Horses Drinking in the Suburbs in Autumn, Gao Kegong's Mist and Clouds around Mountains in Autumn and Zhu Derun's View of Xiu Ye Xuan, all of which are dated to the Yuan dynasty; as well as Emperor Qianlong's Mountain Pan and his Enjoying Tea after Tang Yin's work of the same title. The current seal can also be found on works in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, such as Li Tang's River and Mountains dating to the Song dynasty; Su Shi's The Cold Food Observance dating to the Song dynasty; Jiang Shen's A Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains dating to the Southern Song dynasty; Huang Gongwang's Dwellings in the Fuchun Mountains dating to the Yuan dynasty; and The Story of the Tenfold Perfection rendered on silk tapestry after Emperor Qianlong's handwriting and Giuseppe Castiglione's Ayusi Scattering Rebels with Upraised Spear, both dating to the Qing dynasty. There is a further example in the Musee Guimet, i.e. Kazaks Offering Horses in Tribute to Emperor Qianlong by Giuseppe Castiglione et al.
Judging by the sheer number of works depicting the current seal, it is evident that it was one of the most frequently used and prized works in the seal repertoire kept by Emperor Qianlong.