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Taste of Life Magazine is France & Canada's leading luxury lifestyle magazine in Chinese and English.

Articles

This Is The Most Important Chinese Historical Object Ever Auctioned

Ben Maloney

This spring, Sotheby’s Hong Kong presents the most important Chinese historical object ever to be offered at auction. Bearing the inscription: “Revere Heaven and Serve thy People,” the Seal of the Mandate of Heaven is the largest and most powerful seal ever carved for the Kangxi Emperor, the greatest and longest reigning monarch of China. Two other important historical objects from the same dynasty will be offered to complement this extraordinary seal: the Yuanjianzhai (Studio of Profound Discernment) seal and one of only two existing copies of the historical record of the Kangxi emperor’s seals, in which the exact impressions of the dynasty's official seals are recorded.

The Mandate of Heaven (tianming) is the philosophical tenet that Heaven granted emperors the right to rule based on their ability to govern and their righteousness and was used throughout the history of China to validate and legitimize the rule of the emperors of China. According to this belief, Heaven will only bestow its mandate to a just and virtuous ruler, the Son of Heaven. Otherwise, the Mandate and thus his right over his kingdom and subjects will be forfeited in favour of someone better qualified. The overthrow of an emperor was often interpreted as the loss of the Mandate of Heaven. The kings of the Zhou dynasty (1046- 256 BCE) first used the concept of the Mandate of Heaven to legitimise their rule and the overthrow of the earlier Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BCE).

Kangxi Mandate of Heaven Seal (Image: Sotheby's)

All three objects will be offered in a dedicated themed sale titled "Kangxi –Emperorship and Power" on April 6th, 2016 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. 

“It is an unprecedented privilege for us to handle such an important historical relic of China's Imperial past," said Nicolas Chow, deputy chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, "This seal is emblematic of the Mandate of Heaven, which has legitimized the authority of rulers in China since the dawn of recorded history. This almighty principle was also the single guiding light for the Kangxi Emperor, China’s longest reigning emperor, who is credited for completing the conquest of China, anchoring the Qing dynasty and ushering in a long period of great prosperity and peace. The Kangxi Emperor was the single most powerful person on earth at the time, ruling over a vast Kingdom and over 100 million subjects.”

The soapstone seal is carved with the characters of the Yuanjianzhai (‘Studio of Profound Discernment), the Kangxi Emperor’s favourite personal retreat in the Imperial gardens northwest of Beijing, the studio where he cultivated his passion for calligraphy and research into Western science and art. The carving is of superlative quality, and is exceptional for featuring a dragon and a tiger in addition to mystical trigrams, a specific combination for evoking his status as the unsurpassed ruler of heaven and earth. The unusual positioning of the seal text between double dragons on this seal is a feature that was specifically commented on by Jean-François Gerbillon, the famous Jesuit missionary and close confidant of the emperor, when he was invited to inspect the Emperor’s seals in 1690 in the Yangxindian. (Image: Sotheby's)

The soapstone seal is carved with the characters of the Yuanjianzhai (‘Studio of Profound Discernment), the Kangxi Emperor’s favourite personal retreat in the Imperial gardens northwest of Beijing, the studio where he cultivated his passion for calligraphy and research into Western science and art. The carving is of superlative quality, and is exceptional for featuring a dragon and a tiger in addition to mystical trigrams, a specific combination for evoking his status as the unsurpassed ruler of heaven and earth. The unusual positioning of the seal text between double dragons on this seal is a feature that was specifically commented on by Jean-François Gerbillon, the famous Jesuit missionary and close confidant of the emperor, when he was invited to inspect the Emperor’s seals in 1690 in the Yangxindian. (Image: Sotheby's)

The Seal of the Mandate of Heaven is unusual among Qing imperial seals as it testifies to the close correspondence between Kangxi’s philosophical ideals and his deeds as emperor. The seal was so important that during Kangxi’s reign it was kept at all times in the Palace of Ultimate Purity (Qianqinggong), where emperors entertained and policies that affected the entire nation were created.

Kangxi's son and grandson, the Yongzheng and Qianlong Emperors, together with Kangxi, were the three greatest emperors of the Qing dynasty, and both had identical seals carved as they believed that the imperial motto would bestow authority and blessing onto their reign.

Kangxi Mandate of Heaven Seal Imprint (Image: Sotheby's)

Kangxi Mandate of Heaven Seal Imprint (Image: Sotheby's)

Kangxi Mandate of Heaven Seal Imprint (Image: Sotheby's)

Kangxi Mandate of Heaven Seal Imprint (Image: Sotheby's)

Both the Soapstone ‘Yuanjian Zhai’ Seal and Seal of the Mandate of Heaven are also recorded in the Kangxi Baosou, a complete record of the Emperor’s seals commissioned in 1781 as an act of piety by his grandson, the Qianlong Emperor. Only two copies were produced. The one offered in the upcoming sale is the only example in private hands, while the other copy is preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing. (Image: Sotheby's)

 

Text courtesy of Sotheby’s