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Chinese jade dragon seal (representational)

The Lost Heirloom Seal of China's First Emperor


The Heirloom Seal of the Realm (known also as the Heirloom Seal of the First Emperor, or the Imperial Seal of China) is a Chinese artifact that is now lost. This artifact was a jade seal created by the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, and was subsequently inherited by later Chinese emperors. Before the end of the first millennium AD, however, the Heirloom Seal of the Realm disappears from the historical records.

Bizarrely, this priceless object is claimed to have resurfaced at various points in Chinese history. The veracity of these stories, i.e. whether the object was actually re-discovered or not, cannot be ascertained, and perhaps should be best taken with a pinch of salt.

A Chinese seal

A Chinese seal. (Gocze_Schaff /Adobe Stock)

Chinese Seals

Seals have been an important aspect of Chinese society long before the time of Qin Shi Huang, who lived during the 3rd century BC. Although Chinese seals were most commonly associated with persons in authority, such as the emperor, princes, and ministers, they were also used by private individuals. The term used for the royal seal, as well as those belonging to high-ranking officials, is ‘xi’ (玺), whereas other seals of rank and appointment were known as ‘yin’ (印).

Interestingly, during the time of Wu Ze Tian, who reigned as empress regnant between the end of the 7th and beginning of the 8th centuries AD, seals became known as ‘bao’ (宝), which literally means ‘treasure’, as well. This was supposedly due to the fact that Wu Ze Tian did not like the word ‘xi,’ which sounded similar to ‘si’ (死), meaning ‘to die,’ and ‘xi’ (息), meaning ‘to rest.’ Seals owned by private individuals were known as ‘yin zhang’ (印章), ‘yin jian’ (印鑑), or ‘tu zhang’ (圖章). Unlike the seals of office, these personal seals normally had the words ‘seal of (name)’ engraved onto them, and served as a person’s signature.

Empress Wu Ze Tian

Empress Wu Ze Tian. (Public Domain)

Chinese seals may be made of various materials, including durable materials like stone and jade, as well as less durable ones, like bamboo or wood. Needless to say, seals came in all shapes and sizes, and were truly an expression of a craftsman’s creativity. Some seals were plain blocks, while others had carvings of mythical creatures on top of them. Some seals even had engravings on their sides, effectively combining several seals into one single object.

Even the engravings of the seals are fascinating to study. Apart from using different fonts, different phrases could also be engraved on the seals. Seals with a person’s name are arguably the most common, though there are even varieties among them. For instance, there are seals denoting one’s personal name, style (or courtesy) name, a combination of the personal name and place he/she is from, etc.

Another category of seals is ‘studio seals,’ which basically carried the name of a person’s private studio, something that most ancient Chinese literati had in one form or another. Examples of ‘studio seals’ include the ‘poetry seal,’ which has the engraving of a poem or proverb, ‘alias seals,’ and ‘storage seals,’ which were used on books or paintings kept by the user. Thus, it is not uncommon for a person in ancient China to have multiple seals.

Making an Impression

Seal impressions were made in red ink, the main component of which being crushed cinnabar. There were two ways in which this powder could be turned into an ink. The first was to mix the cinnabar with castor oil and silk strands, while the second was to mix it with castor oil and moxa (dried mugwort).

Ink produced by the former method is a thick substance, as the silk strands bind the mixture together, has a very oily appearance, and tends to be bright red in color. On the other hand, the latter recipe produces an ink that is loose, not oily, and tends to have a darker shade of red. Plant-based ink dries faster than its silk-based counterpart (between 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the type of paper), since the plant extract does bind itself to the oil as strongly as silk. Nevertheless, it smudges more easily as well, for the very same reason.

A Chinese stone seal with red ink

A Chinese stone seal with red ink. (zhengzaishanchu /Adobe Stock)

Depending on the way a seal was engraved, the impression that it makes may fall into one of three categories. The first of these is known as ‘zhu wen’ (朱文), which literally means ‘red characters.’ Sometimes referred to as ‘yang seals,’ the imprints made by these seals have the characters in red, and the background in white. Such seals are made by carving material away from the characters.

The second type is known as ‘bai wen’ (白文), which literally means ‘white characters.’ The ‘bai wen’ is the direct opposite of the ‘zu wen,’ and has white characters against a red background. This type of seal is made by carving the characters into the material.

Chinese dragon - calligraphy sign and stamp

Chinese dragon - calligraphy sign and stamp. (zhengzaishanchu /Adobe Stock)

The third type of seals is known as ‘zhu bai wen xiang jian yin’ (朱白文相間印), which literally means ‘red-white characters combined seal,’ and is basically a combination of the ‘zhu wen’ and ‘bai wen’ in one seal.

The Heirloom Seal

Seals were used in China as early as the 11th century BC, either during the Shang Dynasty, or the succeeding Zhou Dynasty. Literary evidence for the use of seals is traced to the latter, as the word ‘xi’ (玺) is said to have first appeared in records from the Zhou Dynasty. On the other hand, some argue that seals were already used during the Shang Dynasty, based on the characters cast on the famous bronze vessels produced during this period.

The presence of these characters on such artifacts is taken to imply that seals, or seal-like objects were used to impress the clay molds used for the production of these vessels. Archaeologically speaking, however, the earliest known seals are from the 5th century BC, around the end of the Spring and Autumn period, and the beginning of the Warring States period. The majority of seals dating to this period were found to be made of copper. Nevertheless, bronze, stone, and even silver seals were also being produced at that time.

Copper seal of the Beijing Office of the Argya Hutuktu (Kuutuktu), the most important reincarnation lineage of Qinghai.

Copper seal of the Beijing Office of the Argya Hutuktu (Kuutuktu), the most important reincarnation lineage of Qinghai. The Hutuktu (literally meaning, 'immortal") was the Lama lineage recognized and protected by the Qing Dynasty of China. Exhibit in the Yonghe Lama Temple, Beijing. (Bjoertvedt/CC BY SA 4.0)

The Warring States period came to an end in 221 BC, when the State of Qin conquered its six other Warring States, thereby uniting China. The king of Qin became the first Emperor of China, and became known as Qin Shi Huang. In order to reflect his new status as the Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang commissioned an imperial seal, the Heirloom Seal of the Realm.

This artifact is known in the Chinese language as ‘Chuan Guo Yu Xi’ (传国玉玺), which literally means ‘Jade Seal Passed Through the Realm.’ From this name, it is clear that the seal was made from jade, which is an important and highly symbolic material in Chinese culture.

Precious Jade

According to the archaeological evidence, jade was already used in China as early as the Neolithic period, i.e. around 7000 – 5000 BC. Jade was made into all types of objects, including sacrificial vessels, ornaments, and even musical instruments.

Needless to say, jade was appreciated for its aesthetic value. The ancient Chinese also believed (erroneously) that jade was able to preserve the body from decomposition after death. Therefore, some of the Chinese elite, especially during the Han Dynasty, were found buried in jade suits of armor.

Jade burial suit at the Museum of the Mausoleum of the Nanyue King, in Guangzhou

Jade burial suit at the Museum of the Mausoleum of the Nanyue King, in Guangzhou. (CC BY SA 2.5)

Jade was also a material that was full of symbolic meaning. For the Chinese, jade represented beauty, grace, and purity. Confucius goes even further by stating in his ‘ Book of Rites’ that jade represents 11 virtues – benevolence, justice, propriety, truth, credibility, music, loyalty, heaven, earth, morality, and intelligence.

The Legendary Creation of the Heirloom Seal of the Realm

For Qin Shi Huang’s Heirloom Seal of the Realm, however, not any ordinary piece of jade would suffice. Instead, a special piece of jade had to be used for to make this imperial seal, and the emperor found it in the He Shi Bi (和氏璧), which is normally translated to mean ‘Mr. He’s Jade.’

According to legend, a man from the State of Chu, whose surname was He, found an uncut piece of jade in the Chu Mountains. The man brought it to the Chu court and presented it to the king (King Li in one version, and King Wu in another). The king instructed his jeweler to examine the object, and was told that it was just an ordinary stone of no value.

A piece of unworked jade

A piece of unworked jade. (Immanuel Giel/CC BY SA 3.0)

The king thought that He was trying to deceive him, so he ordered his left foot to be amputated as punishment. After the death of this king, the man returned to the Chu court with his jade, and presented it to the new king (King Wu in the first version, and King Wen in the other). Once again, the jeweler was summoned to examine the piece, and gave the same verdict. This time, He’s right foot was amputated.

In the first version of the story, the man returned to the foot of the Chu Mountains, and wept bitterly for three days and three nights. He wept so much that his tears were exhausted, and replaced with blood. When the king heard of this, he thought that He was weeping excessively for his amputated feet, and sent men to enquire  about the matter.

The man replied that it was not for his feet that he was weeping, but for being called a liar. Therefore, the king ordered the jade to be cut and polished, thereby obtaining the treasure within. In the other version of the story, it was not King Wu, but his successor, King Cheng, who had the jade cut and polished.

King Cheng of Zhou

King Cheng of Zhou. (Public Domain)

When Qin Shi Huang became Emperor of China, the He Shi Bi had fallen into his hands, and therefore was used to make the Heirloom Seal of the Realm. It is said that the phrase ‘shou mingy u tian, ji shou yong chang’ (受命於天,既壽永昌), meaning ‘Having received the Mandate of Heaven, may he (the emperor) live a long and prosperous life.’

Unfortunately, no imprint of this seal is known to have survived, so there is no way to verify this claim. Interestingly, an imperial seal from the Song Dynasty bears a similar phrase, ‘huang di shou ming, you de zhe chang’ (皇帝受命, 有德者昌), which translates as ‘The emperor receives the Mandate of Heaven, he who has virtue prospers.’

Emperors and the Imperial Seal

One story about the imperial seal and Qin Shi Huang is related by the historians of the Han Dynasty, who did not like the first emperor at all. In this story, Qin Shi Huang is said to have thrown the seal into Lake Dong Ting in order to ensure smooth passage for his boat. Apparently, the seal was found eight years later by a farmer, who returned it to the emperor. In a way, the story serves to enforce the Han perception that Qin Shi Huang was a terrible ruler who only thought about himself.

The Heirloom Seal of the Realm outlived the Qin Dynasty and was inherited by the emperors of the succeeding Han Dynasty. The seal is said to have been lost towards the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty, following the confusion that ensued after the death of the regent He Jin. It was allegedly re-discovered in a well by the warlord Sun Jian when the Eastern Han capital, Luoyang, was occupied by his forces.

It was later taken by his superior, Yuan Shu, and later fell into the hands of Cao Cao. The Heirloom Seal of the Realm continued to be passed down from emperor to emperor during the dynasties that succeeded the Three Kingdoms period.

It is unclear exactly when the seal disappeared for good, and the various sources place this event from anywhere between the end of the Tang Dynasty and the end of the Yuan Dynasty. Nevertheless, the Heirloom Seal of the Realm was definitely lost by the beginning of the Ming Dynasty.

A jade imperial seal from the Qing dynasty

A jade imperial seal from the Qing dynasty. (CC BY SA)

The dynasty’s founder, Zhu Yuan Zhang, is said to have went as far as the homeland of the Mongols to search for the seal but to no avail. Instead of one single imperial seal that was passed down from one emperor to the next, the Ming emperors produced many personal seals, a practice that continued under the Qing Dynasty.

For instance, the Qing emperor Qian Long is said to have had 1800 seals, 700 of which are now lost. 1000 of these, including a set of 25 known as the ‘Imperial Seals of the Qing Dynasty’, are kept in the Palace Museum in Beijing’s Forbidden City. And one of these seals was sold at an auction for a record sum of €21m (£ 18m or $ 22m), more than 20 times its estimated price.

Top Image: Chinese jade dragon seal (representational). Credit: Adobe Stock

By Ḏḥwty


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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