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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part VII  
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 26 November 2013: Lot 91 

Lot 91

Lot 91
Treasury 5, no. 870 (‘The Emperor’s Seal’)
HK$187,500

Opaque black glass; with a flat lip and recessed, slightly convex foot surrounded by a protruding rounded footrim; inscribed in regular script with an excerpt from a composition by the Qianlong emperor divided onto the two main sides, one followed by an undeciphered seal, the other by two seals, ping (‘peace’) and one other, also undeciphered, all in positive seal script
Bottle: 1760-1840
Inscription: possibly imperial, 1790-1850
Height: 5.49 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.59/1.68 cm
Stopper: coral; gilt bronze collar

Provenance:
Hugh M. Moss Ltd. (1993)

Published:
Treasury 5, no. 870

The text on this bottle is an excerpt from a text the emperor composed in late 1789 in preparation for his eightieth birthday the next year. It is an explanation for a phrase that he planned to have carved on a great many large seals over the next few years, an example being Bonham’s Hong Kong, 24 November 2012, lot 539. The catalogue entry for that seal quotes a helpful explanation of the content:

For a spinach-green jade 'dragon' Bazheng maonian seal of identical size, form and workmanship, see a seal from the estate of Emile Guimet, sold together with a Maoqin dian seal at Sotheby's Hong Kong, Legacies of Imperial Power. Qianlong Imperial Seals from the Estate of Emile Guimet, 8 October 2008, lot 2005.

As Guo Fuxiang, researcher at the Palace Museum, Department of Palace History, Beijing, notes in the Catalogue, pp. 27-32, the Qianlong Emperor paid close attention to the production of birthday seals and harked back to antiquity. In 1789, as he approached the fifty-fifth year of his reign, which coincided with his eightieth birthday, the formulation of relevant seal became increasingly important to him. Recalling a passage from the Shangshu ('Classic of Documents'), when the Viscount of Ji, speaking to King Wu of Zhou about the Way of Heaven after the final defeat of the Shang, told him about the 'Nine Divisions of the Great Plan', the Qianlong Emperor decided to formulate an inscription based on this concept. The 'Nine Divisions of the Great Plan', considered by him as the ideal principle for Emperors to govern, consisted of: (1) living in accordance with the five phases (metal, wood, water, fire and earth); (2) attending to the five essential Matters (appearance, speech, observation, listening and thinking); (3) develop agriculture; (4) integrating the use of the five methods of keeping time (by year, month, day, stars and calendar); (5) the use of Imperial standards; (6) regulation of the three virtues (impartiality, hard and soft prevalence); (7) verification from examination; (8) thoughtful use of all signs (rain, rising sun, warmth, cold and wind); (9) use of the five blessings (long life, health, wealth, love of virtue and peaceful death) and use of the six extreme misfortunes (violent premature death, bad health, distress, poverty, being hated and becoming infirm and weak).

Of all the 'Nine Divisions', The Qianlong Emperor considered the eighth division, the 'thoughtful use of all signs' to be in closest accordance with his own philosophy. Therefore he formulated the seal inscription Bazheng maonian, where Bazheng refers to 'Eight Signs' and Mao means an 'octogenarian'. The seal therefore served a dual function - to celebrate his eightieth birthday, and to push himself to continue to govern wisely, aided by heaven. Production of Bazheng maonian seals commenced in 1789, the winter of the fifty-fourth year of his reign and continued until 1794, and it is recorded that one hundred and forty seals were made.

It is likely that the carver of this bottle was not literate enough to understand the emperor’s words in detail. We base this supposition on the fact that the inscription begins with an incomplete sentence. The full sentence is, ‘Blessed by the love and support of Heaven, I have had no great disasters.’ The carver omits ‘blessed by’. The omission was not a random one; the carver (or designer) was fooled by the fact that the emperor followed standard traditional practice in showing respect to a superior entity by breaking his sentence after ‘Blessed by’ and moving ‘Heaven’ to the top of the next column. This can be seen in an embroidered copy of the emperor’s handwritten text in Taiwan: the fifth column from the right begins with tian, Heaven. The designer of this bottle mistook that for the beginning of a new section or paragraph and started his text with tian. Of course, we do not know what the designer was copying, but any reproduction of the emperor’s text would have the same break and encourage the same mistake among the lesser educated.

On the other hand, the designer had a level of literacy that allowed him to rewrite a portion of the emperor’s text in order to fit the bottle. Skipping over several sentences, he changed ‘I cannot but exhort myself’ to ‘Now I exhort myself’. This shows that he knew simple Classical Chinese, enough so that he could rework a sentence to produce the desired number of characters.

Here is a translation of what we find on the bottle:

[Blessed by] the love and support of Heaven, I have had no great disasters. Now ten years have passed. Contemplating something appropriate for the commemoration of my eightieth birthday, I decided to have a seal carved to anchor the end of my writings. Nothing would be more suitable than the concept of the eight signs from the ‘The Great Plan.’ Furthermore, it has long been my wish that when I reach the age of eighty-five, on the completion of the sixtieth year of the Qianlong [reign] I would step down. [….] Now I exhort myself.

The emperor’s text was reproduced in its entirety in many media and was copied in several styles of calligraphy by royal calligraphers. Although we originally found it puzzling that an excerpt from it should appear on a snuff bottle, the fact that the piece as a whole expresses the emperor’s pious Confucian conscientiousness gave it the sort of popularity that the sayings of Mao Zedong had in our own time. In any case, the bottle is its own justification. True black glass, this is glossy, jet-black, and opaque, and beautifully made in a shape typical of the mid-Qing period.

 

This is not the Sotheby’s sale catalogue. This is a product of Hugh Moss for the purposes of this website. For the catalogue details please refer to Sotheby’s website or request a copy of a printed sale catalogue from Sotheby’s.

 

Easy link to this page: http://www.e-yaji.com/auction/photo.php?photo=1651&exhibition=12&ee_lang=eng


  
  

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