The Imperial Soapstone Qinmin Seal of Emperor Kangxi
Associate Researcher, Palace History Department
The Palace Museum, Beijing
The small personal seal of the Kangxi Emperor to be auctioned by Christie's Hong Kong is made from smoothly polished soapstone, with a knob featuring a lioness and her cub and bearing the two-character mark Qinmin, 'To work assiduously for the people', executed in relief. This seal is listed in Kangxi Baosou, 'Catalogue of Emperor Kangxi'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.
There was a code governing the production of imperial seals, and the choice of seal texts often reveals the thoughts and tastes of the emperors. This Kangxi seal is of no exception. For all its beguiling simplicity, Qinmin manifests the idea repeatedly emphasised by the Kangxi Emperor. According to the 'Songs of the Five Brothers', Classics of History: "The people are the foundation of a nation; with a solid foundation, the nation can stay in harmony." The people-oriented notion highlighted here was prized and practiced by generations of monarchs. A diligent ruler who placed the prosperity of his nation and his people's livelihood as his uppermost concerns, Kangxi exhibited a profound understanding and appreciation of the integral role played by his people, and the importance of being a diligent and benevolent ruler. He argued that monarchs existed for the sake of their subjects and once wrote, "The purpose of bestowing on people a monarch is not to make the monarch a vehicle of prestige and riches; rather, he is charged with the duty of enlightening and nourishing his people, so that all human souls under his rule can benefit." A monarch, therefore, should be mindful of his subjects and always remain sincere and vigilant when performing his duties. "Undivided attention and vigilance are essential to governance. As the saying goes: one single negligent thought may result in widespread misery and one moment of negligence may lead to enduring problems." Therefore, the monarch must strive to serve the people, hear their views and improve their livelihood; in other words, he must reign with diligence and affection. It seems that Kangxi had given this argument much thought. In the spring of the 19th year of his reign, Kangxi wrote in a poem entitled 'Spring Snow':
"Gazing at the snow fallen in the three winter months makes one long for Spring.
Now that the jade-like surface of the deep snow has been creased by the Spring breeze,
The land will soon be ready for ploughing and sowing,
Which reminds me that only monarchs working assiduously for their people are worthy of their title."
In this poem, Kangxi indicates that only monarchs who work diligently for the people are worthy of their position, a view constantly referred to in the imperial compendium of the Emperor's prose and poems. One example is: "If asked what they want, people will wish for honest officials and easier life, which will help bring about growth and prosperity." Another is: "Allowing people to live in peace secures a nation's prosperity, just as a good harvest ensures a life of plenty." These lines illustrate that Kangxi fully understood the thoughts and needs of his subjects. Kangxi's determination to work hard for the people was clear from his actions. He wrote, "In performing my duties, I always bear in mind people's needs. Rising early and sleeping late, I never for an instant shirk my duties towards my country." In a similar vein, he wrote, "I am always the first to worry about the woes of my people, and I am so occupied with my work that I often forget to eat or drink." Soon after he ascended to the throne, Kangxi identified his three chief concerns (the three vassal states, controlling the flood risk of the Yellow River and water transportation of grain and other necessities) and had them prominently displayed on columns in his palace, so as to urge himself to ensure these problems were tackled as soon as possible. Of the three issues, flood control and the transportation of grain are closely related to people's livelihood. Even in dealing with his everyday paperwork, Kangxi seldom forgot the sufferings of his people. From his instructions to courtiers across the country, we can see he was also concerned about such issues as the harvest, insect plagues, drought and excessive rain. "I work tirelessly to attend to every single need of my people, not even overlooking the most far-flung corners of my country," he wrote. Or "I reign for the sake of my people, and they are also the cause of my concern and exertion." In relation to Qinmin, it seems that the Kangxi Emperor did practise what he preached. In his 61-year reign, Kangxi implemented a series of policies to boost the economy and improve people's livelihood, bringing about economic prosperity and social stability, and thereby paving the way for the subsequent golden age. Indeed, the notion of Qinmin was clearly evident in Emperor Kangxi's social policies throughout his life. As such, it was only natural that Kangxi should have had the two characters Qinmin, which encapsulate his lifelong ambition, being rendered in this small seal as a mean of self-exhortation and encouragement.
This seal is carved from smooth, glossy red and white soapstone, a variety commonly used for the soapstone works of the early Qing dynasty and in making imperial seals. The knob features two lions, the carving of both making masterful use of the two natural pigments of the stone. The russet part is carved into a plump lioness full of vigour. Half-crouching and half-reclining, she glances affectionately over her shoulder at the cub. Rendered in the white part of the stone, the recumbent cub snuggles up to its mother, looking up mischievously. The pose and figure of the duo are subtly differentiated yet highly complementary, creating an enthralling scene contrasting motion and stillness and enriched by the lingering, affectionate glances. This powerful carving fully demonstrates the skills of the artist in his selection of the material and singular craftsmanship.
According to the Kangxi Baosou, this Qinmin seal was often affixed to the beginning of Emperor Kangxi's calligraphic works which were usually concluded by two accompanying seals bearing Jixia Yiqing, 'A pleasurable break from work', and Zhaomin Laizhi, 'On which the well-being of millions of people hangs'. Although small, this seal is the epitome of the people-oriented principle which Emperor Kangxi rigorously practised throughout his life. It affords valuable information for us to further study the imperial Kangxi seals and to better understand the emperor as an individual.