Royal Seals: Symbols of Imperial Majesty

Emperors in Chinese history used to have supreme powers over the country and its people but what was the symbol of their overwhelming imperial majesty? Well, nothing but royal seals!

And right now here’s a wonderful opportunity for the public to observe the symbol of imperial authority. Starting from September 26, an exhibition on royal seals of the Qing (1644-1911) emperors is being held at Yuyuan Garden in Shanghai. The royal seals on display traveled miles away from their home, the Forbidden City in Beijing, to the economic hub in East China for a public display. The exhibition will last till December 7.

Dating back to several thousand years ago, the seal has been considered as token of authorization, and in other words, it stood for the office and corresponding power. Royal seals likewise represented emperors’ sovereignty over the whole country. Those in the Qing Dynasty are not different.

On display in Shanghai include some valuable ones which have rarely ever made a public appearance. Two of them belonged to the 25 royal seals which were selected by Emperor Qianlong (reign 1735-1795) as the most treasured in 1746. The 25 seals were arranged to be used in different areas ranging from intern administration to legal issues, military affairs, education, and foreign affairs. The first four seals among the 25 pieces were exceptions as they were rarely used in any occasion. The two in Shanghai for public show are the sandalwood seal with four-character inscription meaning Treasure of Emperor and the gilded bronze seal with six-character inscription meaning Seal of Successor of Throne in Qing Dynasty.

The seal “Treasure of Emperor” ranks the fifth among the 25 most treasured of Emperor Qianlong. With a knot in the shape of reclining dragon, the seal was used on such occasions as enthronement, conferring the title of Empress upon a concubine, emperors wedding ceremony, or ordaining decrees.

The seal of “Successor of Throne in Qing Dynasty” ranks the third and was rarely used. It was for the throne successor and indicated the would-be emperor would follow the rules of his ancestors.

More than being used to dealing with business, some royal seals were made out of emperors’ personal likes either to lift their spirits or to entertain themselves. One royal seal of Emperor Kangxi (reign 1661-1722) on display is inscribed with four characters meaning “Cultivating Virtue and Making People Work Hard.” Made of sandalwood, the seal has a square base and a knot in the shape of an auspicious animal.

Two royal seals of Emperor Yongzheng (reign 1723-1735) have also shown up in Shanghai. One is inscribed with four characters meaning “Working Hard,” and the other with three characters meaning “Hard To Be An Emperor.” Made of Shoushan Stone, a rare stone produced in South China, the second one has a knot in the shape of Chi, a kind of hornless dragon in ancient folklore. Emperor Yongzheng used this seal to remind himself of exercising caution when making every single decision.

Emperor Qianlong (reign 1736-1796) was also fond of seals. He personally directed the designs and productions of the imperial workshops and through his connoisseurship exerted a profound influence on the arts of seal making. 32 pieces of seal made during his reign are on display in Shanghai.

Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) rose to power in the 1860s and ruled over China for around half a century. Compared with other concubines, Dowager Cixi had the most royal seals and left behind lots of calligraphy and painting works, though she was greedy and ruthless. Like any other emperor, Dowager Cixi would seal a painting of her own or what others did for her. Her seals are also on display in Shanghai.

In addition to seals, a bronze gilded document drew wide attention at the exhibition. With Chinese on the obverse side and Manchu language on the reverse, it’s meant to bestow on the only daughter of Emperor Xianfeng (reign 1850-1861) the title of “Princess Rong An Gu Lun.” The title was conferred to the princess one month after her marriage at the age 19, which was a great honor to any daughter of an emperor. Unfortunately, the young princess died one year later. According to established rules, all of her dowries, including this title-conferring document, were taken back to the Forbidden City.

By Dong Jirong

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