THE LAST HEIR-PRESUMPTIVE: AIXINJUELUO PUJUN
This exceptional zitan throne once belonged to Aixinjueluo Pujun (1885-1942), the last heir-presumptive of the Qing dynasty, known in Chinese as Da A Ge (which can be translated as “ First Son,” although in this case, it is probably more appropriately understood as “first in line”). He was the second son of Prince Duan (1856-1923, also known as Zaiyi), the grandson of Prince Dun (1831-1889, also known as Yicong), and the great grandson of the Emperor Daoguang (1782-1850).
Pujun’s father, Prince Duan, was an ultra-conservative and anti-foreigners politician, who opposed the 1898 Hundred Days Reform movement that was supported by the Guangxu Emperor (1871-1908) and his allies. After the Reform failed, the Dowager Empress Cixi implemented a coup d’état, imprisoning the Guangxu Emperor in his palace. In 1899, at the recommendation of a few close officials, Cixi chose Pujun to be successor in waiting. He was brought into the Palace to learn to live like an heir, with the abdication of the Guangxu Emperor planned to take place on the first day of cyclical year gengzi (January 31st, 1900), when a new reign, Baoqing, would be assumed by Pujun.
Meanwhile, the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901), an uprising against the privileged position of foreigners in China, was initiated by the Righteous Harmony Society (Yihetuan). As an avid martial art practitioner himself, Prince Duan was a sympathizer and staunch supporter of Yihetuan. After Yihetuan’s defeat and the subsequent Siege of the International Legations, along with the strong pressure from the Eight Nation Alliance, the Qing Court issued an Imperial decree condemning Prince Duan for his involvement in the Boxer Rebellion, and exiled him to Xinjiang. Prince Duan and his eldest son, Puzhuan (1875-1920), who volunteered to accompany his father, both died in exile. Left behind in the Palace, Pujun’s title Da A Ge was soon taken away as a result of his father’s fall, and he was ordered to return to his father’s old residence in Beijing. A heavy gambler and an opium addict, he soon went bankrupt. He died in poverty in 1942. The present throne and table (Lot 1789), which were among Pujun’s personal furniture, were given to Yuyue (1910-1964), Puzhuan’s son, and his family, in 1940, as a gesture of gratitude for saving Prince Duan’s residence from falling into others’ hands amidst his financial woes.
ZITAN: THE IMPERIAL HARDWOOD
Zitan is a general term which includes numerous species of wood, however, it is commonly agreed that it belongs to the genus Pterocarpus. A purplish-black, fine-grained hardwood, zitan was considered the most prized hardwood by the Chinese. The density of the wood makes this material especially suitable for fine and intricate carving and when polished the wood’s lustrous surface creates a jade-like effect. This combination of highly decorative and shimmering surface made zitan the preferred material for Imperial Qing dynasty furniture and interior settings.
The Yangxindian (Palace of Mental Cultivation), a three-room pavilion reserved for receiving court officials by the Emperor, illustrated by Yu Zhuoyun in Palaces of the Forbidden City, Hong Kong, 1982, p. 90-94, displays the sumptuous effect of a complex furnished almost entirely with zitan furniture. The elaborately decorated interiors open onto the main receiving room centered by an imposing throne flanked by pairs of pole supports and elegant incense stands in front and a towering three-panel screen. The side rooms are similarly furnished with smaller jade-inset thrones and carved tables and chairs. By furnishing the interiors with ornate zitan furniture, the Emperor constructed an image of power, luxury, and importance to all visiting counselors.
Imposing thrones were arguably the single most important element of formal arrangements in the palace during the Qing dynasty, and their production was highly regulated in terms of size, decoration and the materials used. Thrones created the platform upon which the emperor would be seen by his subjects and embodied the ultimate symbol of imperial power. Every throne, therefore, had to help create an imposing scene by being majestic in scale, constructed of the finest and rarest materials, and of the highest possible workmanship. Placed centrally in an Imperial hall, they would be backed by a large screen and flanked by pairs of incense burners, ornamental animals and fans.
Thrones come in two basic forms, differing only in the number of panels that form the back rest. The present example is composed of a single back panel flanked by two side panels forming the arm rests. The other variation is comprised of three back panels flanked by the two arm rests. The themes depicted in the carving on Imperial zitan thrones tend to fall into distinct themes, including dragons among clouds, floral scroll or landscape scenes. With their associations to Imperial authority, it is likely that that ‘dragon’ thrones would have been reserved for use in the most important halls and settings in the Imperial Household. Within the constraints of a prescribed form and decorative themes, the master craftsmen had a wide degree of freedom in their interpretation of the designs and as a result, almost all known examples of thrones appear to be different and individual in their designs.