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Seals of the Ruler--Ch'ing Imperial Collecting and Seal Carving
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The Manchu emperors of the Ch'ing dynasty are famous as ardent admirers of Chinese culture. Putting aside their political interests in doing so, their search for ancient seals and use of new seals alone reveal the fruits of their labor.
       
Their collection of bronze seals includes 1,649 seals in such sets as "Chin-hsieh liu-chen", "Pi-shu shan-chuang", "Yü-ch'ing kung", and "Shou-kuan i-fan". Ranging from the Warring States down to the Yüan and Ming dynasties, the collection is marked by the variety of these sets.
       
Collected ancient jade seals are labeled as from the Ch'in and Han dynasties, but in fact are mostly imitation carvings from the Ming and Ch'ing dynasties. The collection of 94 seals is in such sets as "Hung-wen ts'ui-ku", "Chi-ch'eng ch'i-shang", and "Liu-wen yün-ku".
       
Among stone seals of the Ming and Ch'ing dynasties are 23 engraved by Wen P'eng, such as "Lou-shih ming" and "Ai-lien shuo", as well as more than ten seals stored in curio boxes.
       
Ch'ing emperors were fascinated with antiquity. They not only inscribed poems and wrote texts on numerous paintings, but also in the appreciation of ancient artifacts often added their seal impressions as reminders of viewing. As a result, the seals they used were particularly numerous. In fact, multiple copies of the same seal were often made and distributed throughout the emperor's various studios and temporary palaces so that they could be applied whenever the need arose. In terms of this type of seal, the National Palace Museum has dozens in various sizes in its collection that were used by the Ch'ien-lung Emperor.
       

In addition, the emperor searched for fine stones to have seals carved, having palindromes (verses that can be read in both directions) and his own poems engraved into seal sets of various beautified archaic seal scripts. These include "Yüan-chin yün-chang", "Hsüan-chi hsien-ts'ao", and "Pao-chang chi-hsi". From an early date, the ardent interest in ancient Chinese characters of these Manchu rulers far exceeded that of many previous Chinese emperors themselves.

The Search for Exotic Seals--Seal Carving under the Ch'ien-lung Emperor

In the passion for Chinese culture among Ch'ing dynasty emperors, that of the K'ang-hsi and Ch'ien-lung Emperors was the most earnest. The contents of their imperial poems, judging from the contents, indicate that many are the result of viewing ancient works of Chinese painting and calligraphy. Furthermore, in the collection of both the Taipei and Peking Palace Museums, one often finds their "impressions" on imperially owned works in the form of seals and inscriptions added by them. In fact, their seals and inscriptions are sometimes so numerous as to almost overwhelm the original artwork, indeed often adversely affecting the original aesthetic intent.

The Ch'ien-lung Emperor's ardent esteem of ancient Chinese seal characters was varied in form. For example, when he acquired nine seals of t'ien-huang yellow stone of the finest quality, he had them carved with a palindrome text in nine script types: jade pin seal, variant characters, ancient script, curse Ch'u script, small seal, bronze seal, large seal, Ch'in seal, and Han seal scripts. He gave this set the title "Yüan-chin yün-chang", meaning "Faithful Brocade of Heavenly Seals". He also ordered that 84 seals of fine Shou-shan stone be carved into 42 pairs of seals in various seal scripts throughout the ages, including jade pin seal, variant script, archaic writing, gold inlay script, and ribbon script. Although many of the seal scripts therein are "fanciful adaptations" of these types, they are nonetheless artistic character forms in their own right that reveal the passion for seal script in its fullest expression. The fact that the emperor ordered his high officials to create a form of seal script for Manchu writing to be used in creating imperial seals is but another aspect testifying to his appreciation of seal script.

Yüan-chin yün-chang permutating seal signifying first permutation
Yüan-chin yün-chang
permutating seal signifying
first permutation
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Yüan-chin yün-chang permutating seal signifying fourth permutation
Yüan-chin yün-chang
permutating seal signifying
fourth permutation
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Yüan-chin yün-chang permutating seal signifying sixth permutation

Yüan-chin yün-chang
permutating seal signifying
sixth permutation

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Striving Both Day and Night--Ch'ing Imperial Personal Seals

Members of the Ch'ing imperial clan not only had 39 seals strictly regulated in the early Ch'ing and revised under the Ch'ien-lung Emperor in 1749 into a set of 25 imperial seals used for official occasions, many other seals were used by the emperors as well as their empresses and consorts.
       

As with studio seals of scholars, the imperial clan also had seals bearing their alternate names (such as "Hsin-t'ien chu-jen [Master Trusting the Heavens]" for the Ch'ien-lung Emperor), the names of studios (Chu-su Garden, Mo-yün Room, Ch'ang-yüan Building, Shu-fang Studio, Ning-shou Hall, Wu-i Studio, and Wu-fu-wu-tai Hall), phrases of reminder and auspiciousness ("Tzu-ch'iang pu-hsi [Never stop improving]", "Su-yeh ching-hsi [In reverence day and night]", "Chih-chung han-ho [Harmony in charge]", and "Hua-yü wan-fang [Cultivating all]"), and seals related to a particular age (such as for when the Ch'ien-lung Emperor was 70 ["Ku-hsi t'ien-tzu"] and 80 ["Pa-cheng mao-nien"] years old and commemorating the 60th anniversary of his reign ["Ssu-teh shih-ch'üan"]). One of the greatest differences between imperial seals and those of ordinary folk was that imperial ones were all carved with exacting standards and without the slightest imperfection, standing out strongly as a whole in terms of quality.


Hsin-t'ien chu-jen [Master Trusting the Heavens] Studio ownership seal
Hsin-t'ien chu-jen
[Master Trusting the Heavens]
Studio ownership seal
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Ch'ien-lung emperor
Ch'ien-lung emperor
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"Lou-shih ming" set of seals
"Lou-shih ming" set of seals
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Collecting and Preserving the Past--The Ch'ing Imperial Appreciation and Collecting of Ancient Seals


  • a. Bronze seals

    The Ch'ing dynasty court collection of ancient bronze official seals consists mainly of the "Chin-hsieh liu-chen (Precious Remains of Golden Leeks)" set containing 1291 seals and 100 in the "Yü-ch'ing kung" set stored in the Yü-ch'ing Palace. The 244 seals in the "Pi-shu shan-chuang (Summer Mountain Retreat)" set were originally at the Jehol temporary palace and later moved to the I-ho Hall, and ten seals made up the "Shou-kuan i-fan (Old Models of Official Seals)" set in the antiquities room, making for a total of 1,649 seals. Each set was stored in a lacquered box that included a manual of the impressions inside. In terms of quantity, most are official seals from the Han, Wei, Chin, and Six Dynasties period.


  • b. Jade seals

    The collection of ancient jade seals mostly came from the former collection at the Yang-hsin (Cultivating Mind) Hall. The largest set is "Hung-wen ts'ui-ku" (its manual containing impressions of 80 seals), and there are also eight seals in the "Chi-ch'eng ch'i-shang" set, and six in the "Liu-wen yün-ku" set, most of which can also be found in such Ming and Ch'ing dynasty manuals of ancient seals as Ch'in Han yin-t'ung (Gathering of Ch'in and Han Seals). However, judging from the texts and carving, the seals are probably Ming and Ch'ing dynasty imitations. Though later copies, they still offer fine evidence for the admiration and craftsmanship in archaism prevalent at the time.


  • c. Stone seals

    Stone seals carved by Wen P'eng, such as "Lou-shih ming" and "Ai-lien shuo", are distinguished by their beautiful phrases and refined carvings. However, the script type and carving methods also indicate that they are probably later imitations, too. Nonetheless, seals by late Ming masters did actually find their way into the Ch'ing court collection, revealing that not only ancient bronze and jade seals were collected with earnest by the imperial family. The Ming and Ch'ing "art of seal carving" had reached the innermost sanctum and greatest treasure house of the land.
"Liu-wen yün-ku" set manual
"Liu-wen yün-ku" set manual
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