Treasure from the Imperial Court –
Legacy of Prince Kung
The Eighteenth day of the third month of Bingshen year
Aisin Gioro Yixin (1833-1898) was a legendary figure in the history of Qing Dynasty. He had bestowed upon him the title ‘Prince of the First Rank’ by the Daoguang Emperor in a posthumous edict, and was one of the most important statesmen during the Xianfeng, Tongzhi and Guangxu periods. Directly involved in instigating the Xinyou Coup in 1861, he was appointed Prince-Regent afterwards.
He was compelled to sign the Convention of Peking, which set the scene for an era later known as the ‘Tongzhi Restoration’. Personally urging the Qing Empire to reform its foreign diplomacy, he launched the Self-Strengthening Movement, but was criticised by the conservative Qing-liu school and ridiculed as ‘Devil Number Six’ (for Prince Kung was the sixth son of the Daoguang Emperor). His contention for the throne against his half-brother Yizhu (who became the Xianfeng Emperor) was a tale which fascinated people, who have painstakingly combed both the official Qing archive and apocryphal accounts for riveting details of palace intrigue. Today, as one of the few preserved imperial mansions, the Prince Kung Mansion on the south bank of Beihai receives throngs of tourists every day.
A re-discovered treasure of this pivotal historical figure that recalls his extraordinary life has appeared on the art market after nearly 150 years: Prince Kung’s ‘Dragon and Phoenix’ tianhuang seals. The pair of seals are 1 1/4 in. (3.3 cm.) square and nearly 9 cm high, each weighing just over 200 grams. They are very well preserved, have an illustrious provenance and are unquestionably important in
terms of their academic, artistic and historic value.
These tianhuang seals have been cut from a single rough boulder which would have been covered by a layer of outer skin, and signs
of the preliminary cleaving marks can be seen on one of the seals. The stone is of excellent quality, lustrous and unctuous with red fissures and characteristic “radish veining” clearly visible. In the old days, fine stones such as tianhuang, chicken-blood, hongfurong or baifurong only commanded high prices if they could be cut into seals of square section. A portion of each of the current seals has been fashioned into a square section. Each finial has been decorated in ‘surface-relief ’ carving and still retains the natural colour pigmentation. One of the corners of each seal face is canted owing to the natural formation of the material, where the original outer skin can be seen. While modern tianhuang carvings are often presented with their skin intact to indicate that the boulder has been collected from the field, in the past stones were prized for ‘indication without retention’ – that is the removal of most of the skin, leaving only a subtle pointer to denote its presence. The thoughtful and artistic treatment of the material seen on these seals can only have been done by an experienced master carver.
The ‘dragon’ seal is carved in ‘surface-relief ’ with two dragons on the top; the lower left is carved in relief with the characters Cangmen. Incised on the cleft side is a seven-character stanza followed by a signature, Lin Ji (1660-1722), dated 11th day of the
ninth month of yihai year, corresponding to 1719. The poem was composed by an early Ming poet Wang Boyun (dates unknown)
and can be translated: ‘The east wind flutters the curtain of the red chamber; the spring pear blossoms beckon the golden pigeons.
Once a jade beauty held a phoenix flute, hidden by flowers, quietly played Xiaoliangzhou.’ The seal face inscription is formal and
angular, carved in intaglio using short ‘chop cuts’ 切刀 with deep indentations, leaving prominent knife marks. The character gong is
missing the upper right due to the canted corner. There are no join marks at the turning points of the strokes, giving the impression of continuous knife work. The inscription style is not affected or laboured, but classic and elegant.
The phoenix seal is carved in ‘surface-relief ’ depicting two phoenixes; the lower left corner also bears the signature Cangmen.
The cleft side is incised with a five-character stanza, followed by a signature, Ziwei Neishi. The poem is composed by another early
Ming scholar Yuan Zhongche (1377-1459) and can be translated: ‘The evening clouds subdue the residual sunlight; on tree tops
the returning birds gather. Clear sounds of chimes reverberate in the woods; woodcutters’ songs echo beyond the mountain peaks.
Remembering the person by the Southern Dipper, the Milkyway is wet from the descending dew. The beautiful flowers have returned
in spring, but who to pick them with, deep inside the mountains?’The seal face has a complex composition. It is carved with two
chilong dragons in relief, flanking two characters yuci (Imperially bestowed) in relief above a four-character inscription weiguo fanfu
(Guardian Vassal of the State) in intaglio. The seal carving technique is exactly the same as that on the dragon seal. The composition
recalls Han bronze seals, while the use of two chilong dragons and the characters yuci is commonly seen on seals given to imperial
family members from the Kangxi and Yongzheng periods onwards as a sign of honour and favour. Many of Qianlong emperor’s own
seals adopt this format.
The ‘Cangmen’ who carved the finials of these seals refers to Dong Hanyu of Fujian province, whose style name is Cangmen.
According to records, he specialised in ink stones, seal carving as well as painting pine and bamboo. He was a contemporary of Wei Rufen and Yang Yuxuan, and pioneered a new carving style in the early Qing period. Lin Ji is also known by his style name Ji Ren and sobriquets Lu Yuan, Ziwei Neishi and Tong Di. He was awarded the Jinshi degree in 1713 for his services at court. He was a noted poet and calligrapher, specialising in xiaokai (small regular script), seal and cleric scripts. He had a substantial collection of rare and fine books in his library the Puxuezhai. He also had an illustrious student Huang Ren (1683-1768), who was known as an ‘Inkstone aficionado’. Huang Ren employed Dong Cangmen as his personal inkstone maker for many years, and once lamented his passing in a poem:
Dong’s illness followed by Yang’s passing; who else could tackle these stones for me? (My friends Dong Cangmen and Yang Dongyi both specialised in making ink stones and carving seals. They were in my employment for three years. Now Dong is sick and old, while Dongyi is buried among grass).
Lin Ji also praised Cangmen: ‘good at carving seals and finials’. It is evident that both Lin Ji and Dong Cangmen were renowned talents in the Kangxi period, and their collaboration on this pair of tianhuang seals is an extraordinarily rare example.
The packaging for these seals was made in the Imperial Household Department at the Qing court, and is still remarkably well preserved. Each seal is secured by a fitted yellow damask-lined support at the base, which in turn is placed on a hongmu stand, all protected by a fitted cover lined on the exterior with an imperial yellow damask with patterns of the ‘Flowers of the Four Seasons’, and on the interior with a soft padding, which would help absorb shock and thus provide the stones with adequate protection from impact. These are all further secured by a fitted hongmu box with a sliding cover and an arched handle that has been meticulously crafted. Both the carving of the seals and their careful packaging exemplify the craftsmanship of the Imperial Household.
On the subject of tianhuang seals of the Qing dynasty, Qianlong’s ‘tianhuang triple linked seals’ are worthy of discussion. These linked
seals comprise of three small seals connected by chains, and were smuggled out of the Palace in Puyi’s jacket when he was evicted in 1924. Puyi called these seals tianhuang when he returned them to the Chinese government in 1950. Their nomenclature has remained until today along with the belief that the seals were carved from a single pebble. I have closely observed and researched these seals on numerous occasions. First of all, they are not made of tianghuang; secondly, they are not carved from a single boulder. In summary, the hardness of the stone, the sharp edges and the clinking sound made by the links are not characteristic of tianhuang; and one of the circular finials was made separately and skilfully attached with glue, so they are by no means carved from one stone. I am inclined to think they are made of yellow chalcedony. Since these seals are stored in the warehouse of another department, I have requested the relative specialists to conduct a scientific assessment of its material. There are many other such linked seals in the Palace. Puyi’s claim of them being tianhuang should not be taken at face value, as he was proven to be inaccurate on several occasions.
The finials of this pair of seals are carved by Dong Cangmen, who was active during the Kangxi period, and was a contemporary of
Lin Ji and Huang Ren, who were all natives of Fujian. This pair of seals was made in late Kangxi period when all three of them were
residing in Fuzhou and later entered the Imperial collection. The fact that they were not inscribed with Imperial poems indicates that the seals were only presented to the court after they had been carved. The careful packaging, crafted in accordance with court standards, clearly reflects their importance in the eyes of the new imperial owner. In the fourth month of the second year of the Xianfeng reign (1852), the residence once belonging to Prince Qing was bestowed upon Yixing by the Xianfeng Emperor. In the eighth month of the same year, the Emperor visited Yixing’s garden, the Langrunyuan. He personally inscribed the garden name and composed poems for it, showering the new prince with attention. It is perhaps also around this time that the Emperor selected these seals and commissioned the Imperial Household Department to carve the seal faces for Prince Kung. Despite the seal faces having been carved later, at the time these seals were already treasures from over a century ago. They are, in my opinion, the paradigm of tianhuang seals in the early Qing period.
Prince Kung was born on the twenty-first day of the eleventh month of the twelfth year of the Daoguang reign, corresponding to 1833. In 1850, when the Daoguang Emperor was critically ill, he summoned ten of his most important ministers and revealed the secret edict he had previously written, in which he made the Fourth Prince Yizhu his successor, and the Sixth Prince Yixin Qinwang, ‘Imperial Prince of the First Rank’. Given that Yixin was a more competent prince, this decision may seem puzzling, yet the intent may have been to achieve a political balance, in the hope that the talented and able Yixin would support the new Emperor, who was known for his merciful and filial qualities.
The bestowal of these seals was most likely accompanied by an imperial inscribed plaque, amongst other items. Unfortunately the Imperial archive has suffered much desecration and is not complete, so records of this event have not been identified. A kesi panel titled Geese and Reeds formerly in the collection of Jin Bosheng (1901-1967) and now in the Palace Museum Collection, bears the seal mark of the current ‘dragon’ seal. Furthermore, the seal marks of both the ‘dragon’ and ‘phoenix’ seals appear on the frontispiece of the first scroll of a series of ten etchings titled Pacification of the Zhang Ge’er Rebellion, housed in the Lushun Museum. This
monumental work was completed in 1828 in commemoration of the Daoguang Emperor’s conquest of the North-Western region,
and was probably given to Prince Kung in the first year of the Xianfeng reign. Over the course of 47 years, Prince Kung served
under the reigns of three Emperors, and experienced a rather turbulent political career. He had a vast collection of rare books
and paintings, but these were often stamped with his collection seals Gongdi cangshu (Collection of books belonging to the
Prince Kung Residence), Xijinzhai yin (Seal of Xijin Studio), and Baoyuelou micang (Hidden treasure of the Baoyue chamber). This
pair of important seals are rarely used, especially the one carved with ‘Imperially bestowed, Guardian Vassal of the State’. Perhaps it
is because these seals were bestowed to him when he first attained his title, and their exultant status surpassed that of his other
collection seals, and so they were not used lightly. This pair of historically important seals from the Qing Dynasty has recently surfaced on the art market. Having worked on seals for 30 years within the walls of the Forbidden City, I was still astounded by the quality of these two treasures. These important seals deserve to be in museum collections, but it is hard to know who might be lucky enough to acquire them.