Heirloom Seal of the Realm
The Heirloom Seal of the Realm (simplified Chinese: 传国玺; traditional Chinese: 傳國璽; pinyin: chuán guó xǐ), also known in English as the Imperial Seal of China, is a Chinese jade seal carved out of the He Shi Bi, a historically famous piece of jade.
In 221 BC, the Seal was created when Qin Shi Huang destroyed the remaining Warring States and united China under the Qin Dynasty. The He Shi Bi was a famous piece of jade stone which previously belonged to the Zhao state. Passing into the hands of the new Emperor of China, he ordered it made into his Imperial seal. The words, "Having received the Mandate from Heaven, may (the emperor) lead a long and prosperous life." (受命於天，既壽永昌) were written by Prime Minister Li Si, and carved onto the seal by Sun Shou.
The Seal was carved from jade because in ancient China, jade was symbolic of the inner beauty within humans. Many tombs and burials from ancient China contained decorative jade, including a jade burial suit in 1968 that belonged to a Han prince, Liu Sheng. During the Han dynasty, the Chinese associated jade with immortality to a point where some individuals attempted to drink jade in liquid form to gain eternal life. This association further complements the idea of the Mandate of Heaven and why the Seal was carved by jade, China's most valued material for thousands of years.
At the death of the second Emperor of Qin, his successor Ziying proffered the seal to the new emperor of the Han Dynasty, whereafter it was known as the "Han Heirloom Seal of the Realm". At the end of the Western Han Dynasty in AD 9, Wang Mang, the new ruler, forced the Han empress dowager to hand over the Seal. The empress dowager, in anger, threw the Seal on the ground, chipping one corner. Later, Wang Mang ordered the corner to be restored with gold.
This seal passed on even as dynasties rose and fell. It was seen as a legitimizing device, signalling the Mandate of Heaven. During turbulent periods, such as the Three Kingdoms period, the seal became the object of rivalry and armed conflict. Regimes which possessed the seal declared themselves, and are often historically regarded, as legitimate. At the end of the Han Dynasty in the 3rd century AD, General Sun Jian found the Imperial Seal when his forces occupied the evacuated Han imperial capital Luoyang, in the sequence of the campaign against Dong Zhuo, giving it to his chief, warlord Yuan Shu.
Yuan Shu then declared himself emperor under the short-lived Zhong dynasty in 197. This act angered warlords across the realm, including the likes of Cao Cao, Liu Bei, and Lu Bu, leading to several crushing defeats by each army. When Yuan Shu was defeated in 199 by Liu Bei, the Seal came into the hands of Cao Cao, whose son Cao Pi proclaimed the Wei Dynasty as the legitimate successor state to Han, in 220, in response to the established states of Shu Han and Eastern Wu. The Seal remained in the hands of Wei Dynasty emperors until the last emperor Cao Huan was forced to abdicate in Sima Yan's favor, passing the Seal from Cao to Sima and establishing the Jin dynasty in 265.
Three theories exist as to how it was lost:
- At the end of the Later Tang, when the last Emperor died by self-immolation.
- In AD 946 when the Emperor Taizong of Liao captured the last Emperor of the Jin state.
- The Seal came into the hands of the Yuan emperors. When the Ming armies captured the Yuan capital in 1369, it captured just one out of the eleven personal Seals of the Yuan emperors. The Heirloom Seal was not found. In 1370, Ming armies invaded Mongolia and captured some treasures brought there by the retreating Yuan emperor. However, the Heirloom Seal was again not among these.
In any case, the Seal was known to be lost by the beginning of the Ming Dynasty. Both the Ming and the Qing dynasties did not have the Heirloom Seal. This partly explains the Qing Emperors' obsession with creating numerous imperial seals - for the Emperors' official use alone the Forbidden City in Beijing has a collection of 25 seals - in order to reduce the significance of the Heirloom Seal.
Since the Qing Dynasty, several seals have been claimed to be the lost Heirloom Seal. One of these was even stored in the Forbidden City alongside other imperial seals prior to the Qianlong era. However, none of these claims have been confirmed by experts. The one held by the Qing imperial palace was found to be made of earth, not jade. In at least one modern case, the seal concerned was found to be a personal seal of an Emperor, rather than the Heirloom Imperial Seal.
Chen Shou (1977). Pei Songzhi, ed. 三國志 [Records of the Three Kingdoms]. Taibei: Dingwen Printing.
Feng Hui. (2003). "The Imperial Jade Seal." chinaculture.org, http://www.chinaculture.org/classics/2007-12/19/content_125944.htm
Morrow, D. , & Pearlstein, E. (1998). Immortal stone: Jade of the han dynasty. Calliope, 9(2), 24.