Qianlong's 'Lion Grove' Seal
The present white jade carving belongs to a group of scholar's seals specifically commissioned for Emperor Qianlong's personal use. Recent research by Guo Fuxiang, Associate Researcher at the Palace Museum, Beijing, identified this seal as the one recorded in the Qianlong Baoshuo, 'A Compilation of Qianlong's Treasures', listed under the section Qianlong Yuyong Yinpu, 'Seal impressions for imperial use by Emperor Qianlong'.
According to Guo Fuxiang, the present seal was carved to exacting imperial measurements and standards as set by Qing court regulations. However, one of the most interesting points of note is the proportion of the seal platform which appears to be unusually shorter in comparison to the lion finial. The reason for this anomaly will be explained later in the text. The seal chop itself has been closely examined and the technique in which the seal characters have been carved is consistent with examples of the period. Furthermore, the seal characters match exactly the seal impression found on a handscroll entitled, Lin Ni Zan Shizilin Tu, 'A Scene of Lion Grove in the style of Ni Zan', painted by Emperor Qianlong in the fourth year of his reign, corresponding to 1739, now in the Palace Museum collection. This painting was included in the exhibition, The Life of Emperor Qianlong at the Macao Museum of Art in 2002, and illustrated in the Catalogue, no. 29 (see fig. 1). From archive materials, Guo Fuxiang was able to connect a fascinating series of historical events that led to the production of this Lion Grove seal. Cf. the essay , 'A Discussion on Qianlong's Lion Grove Seal', published in this present Catalogue pp. 130-131. The key factors concerning this seal included: Ni Zan's Lion Grove painting, the emperor's subsequent visits to the Lion Grove garden in Suzhou, and the construction of Qianlong's own version of the Lion Grove within the Yuanmingyuan. All these events culminated in the Emperor's commission for a group of three seals, one of which is the present carving, to be placed in the Yuanmingyuan as a tribute to the artist Ni Zan.
The Lion Grove's association with Ni Zan
The Lion Grove is a garden located in Suzhou, Jiangsu province. It was originally constructed to accompany the Putizhengzong temple as instructed by the Buddhist monk, Wei Ze in 1342, in memory of Wei Ze's tutor. The 'Lion Grove' name was derived from decorative ornamental rocks from Lake Tai which were thought to resembled lions; the 'Lion' reference was further pertinent to Wei Ze as he received his Buddhist training at Lion Rock on Mount Tianmu, Zhejiang province. After the Lion Grove garden was completed in the Yuan dynasty, its ownership changed hands over the centuries and by the time of Qianlong's first visit in 1757 the area was densely inhabited.
Qianlong's initial interest in the Lion Grove was through a handscroll which was kept in the imperial collection and supposedly painted by the famous Yuan dynasty master, Ni Zan (1301-74) (see fig. 2). Having seen the painting, Qianlong had mistakenly assumed the Lion Grove garden depicted was once the residence of the artist. Ni Zan, whose hao, or designation, was known as Yunlin, is considered as one of the great masters of the late Yuan dynasty who, besides his famed landscape painting, was a poet and calligrapher. He is famous for his dry ink brushwork executed with a slanted brush, and for his sparse dots of intense black. Born into a wealthy family in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, the artist gave up his fortune to lead a simple life by living on a boat. It was recorded that in the fourth year of Qianlong's reign, 1739, the Emperor had seen the Ni Zan handscroll in the imperial collection, and gave it much praise. It was on this inspection that the Emperor added a four-character frontispiece Yunlin Qingbi, 'Refined Collection of Yunlin', and gave order for the handscroll to be re-mounted. Even though the Ni Zan handscroll is now widely accepted as a later copy, this landscape painting was Qianlong's first encounter of the 'Lion Grove' name, and from which he formed an association with Ni Zan.
Qianlong's Southern Inspection Tours to the Lion Grove
When Qianlong first inspected the Ni Zan painting, he was probably not aware of the famous Suzhou garden. Furthermore, it appeared that the emperor did not visit the place on his first inspection tour to the South in 1751. On his second visit in 1757, however, Qianlong discovered the She Yuan which at the time belonged to the Huang family was in fact the landscape depicted by Ni Zan. The emperor was surprised that Ni Zan, a reputed high browed scholar, had lived in such a busy town. On this occasion, Qianlong composed a series of poems describing the surrounding garden. By Qianlong's third visit to Suzhou in 1762, the Ni Zan handscroll had already entered the Shiqu Baoji, a catalogue of the imperial collection, and the painting was kept in the Hall of Harmony. In view of this, the painting did not accompany Qianlong on his southern tour. Instead, on this third visit, Qianlong painted his own version of Ni Zan's Lion Grove landscape, and added to it his own inscriptions. On his fourth visit to Suzhou in 1765, Qianlong bought along with him his own painting of the Lion Grove, and remarked that it bore no resemblance to the garden. As such, on his return to Beijing he ordered a replica of the Lion Grove to be constructed within the Yuanmingyuan.
Yuanmingyuan's Lion Grove - A "Garden-within-a-Garden"
Qianlong located his own Lion Grove, northeast of the Changchunyuan, the Garden of Eternal Spring, where further north was the Xiyanluo, the Western Palaces. Yuanmingyuan's Lion Grove was built in the exact image with its landscape and dwellings as they appeared on the Ni Zan painting. The main building works were designated to artisans from the north whilst Suzhou craftsmen were employed for arranging the display of ornamental rockwork, thus combining an unusual fusion of imperial inspiration with the spiritual concept of Suzhou's Lion Grove. Qianlong's Lion Grove was completed in the late Spring of 1772, having spent over 134,000 teals of silver which made it the most expensive imperial 'garden-within-a-garden' project of his reign.
Qianlong's Lion Grove included two additional buildings that were modelled on imaginary properties. The first was a rendition of Ni Zan's "residence", and the other was Qianlong's version of Ni Zan's studio, where the emperor placed his collection of paintings by Ni Zan. The garden was complete with a sign to the entrance which was inscribed with the characters: Yunlin Shishi, 'The Stone Cave of Yunlin'. As Ni Zan's own studio in his home town of Wuxi was known as the Qingbi Ge, 'Elegant Collection Pavilion', the new honoury studio which was constructed in two storeys became the main reception hall of the Grove. It was in this studio that Qianlong placed his second copy of Ni Zan's painting.
The Summer Palace's Lion Grove
After the completion of the Yuanmingyuan Lion Grove, a third Lion Grove garden was built at Bishushanzhuang, the Summer Palace at Chengde, in the 39th year of Qianlong's reign (1774), and this was known as the Wenyuan Shizilin, 'Literary Garden of Lion Grove'. Stored within this Grove was a third copy of Qianlong's Lion Grove painting.
Identifying the Lion Grove seal
As recorded in the Qianlong Baoshuo and according to seal impressions found on Qianlong's calligraphy in the Palace collection, the Shizilin seal is the principal seal from a group of three. When these were used, the Lion Grove seal would first appear before two further seals, Qianlong Chenhan and Yunlin Qingbi. All three seals were impressed on the handscroll painted by the Emperor, and when compared, the Lion Grove seal impression on the painting is an exact match to the impression from the present carving (see fig. 3). It is evident that the last seal, Yunlin Qingbi, relates to the Ni Zan painting as this four-character title was previously given by Qianlong in 1739, when he wrote the frontispiece for the Ni Zan handscroll. As such, the Yunlin Qingbi seal served its purpose as a postscript in citation to Ni Zan.
The most intriguing discoveries were from archive materials relating to this group of three seals in regard to their production. As documented in the Qinggong Neiwufu Zaobanchu Huojidang, 'Record of Qing Palace Interior Design Workshops', dated to 15th March 1772, it was stated that an imperial order was given for two pieces of new jade material to be selected for the production of seals, and after approval they were to be sent to the Palace workshops. The text also referred to an existing jade carving which had been chipped and this was ordered to be repaired at the imperial workshops. The text gave further instructions for the old and the two new jades to be sent to Suzhou where they were to be carved in accordance with calligraphy which the emperor had previously approved. It was further requested that the old jade be used for the 'Shilin' seal. According to Guo Fuxiang, the two characters Shilin were undoubtedly referring to Shizilin, and this shortened form was frequently used by the Emperor himself in the same reference.
From the same record, on 28th September of the same year (1772), the seals were sent to Eunuch Hu Shijie for inspection; shortly following on 2nd October of the same year, Qianlong gave his approval for fitted boxes to be made at the Beijing workshops, and a month later, the boxes and seals were sent to the Yuanmingyuan's Lion Grove. As indicated from written records, it is interesting to note that Qianlong purposely commissioned the set of Lion Grove seals, and even more so, to know that the Palace reused old material by having them repaired at the imperial workshops in Beijing before having them sent to Suzhou where the seal characters were carved. If the present seal had to be re-worked due to damage, it undoubtedly explains why the seal platform of the present carving appears to be slightly reduced in proportion to the finial.
The building work at Yuanmingyuan's Lion Grove was completed shortly before these seals were finished in 1772. This further supports the theory that these seals were specifically commissioned to complement the interior halls of the garden and to complete the Emperor's grand design for his lavish garden to be furnished in commemoration of the artist, Ni Zan, whom he greatly admired.
(Reference material from the Chinese text by Guo Fuxiang - CFT)