Saturday, 23 November 2013

The Jade Seal of State

Compiled from Secrets of the Chinese Palace
        The Jade Seal of State was used by emperors in ancient China to authenticate documents and it represented the highest level of authority in the empire. Its user held the ‘will of heaven’ and for this reason, the seal was sought after by succeeding dynasties of emperors.
        The Jade Seal of State was carved from the heshibi, the He jade. There is a legend regarding the origin of the heshibi. According to it, during the Spring and Autumn period, there was a person called Bian He who discovered a big green rock at Mt Jing. Thinking it was valuable jade, he first tried to give it to King Li of Chu and then King Wu of Chu. The kings, thinking he was dishonest, refused the gifts and had both his feet cut off. After King Wen came to the throne of Chu, Bian He carried the green rock to the foot of Mt Jing of Nanzhangxi (aka Hubei today) and wept. When King Wen learnt about this, he ordered the rock to be carved and discovered that it was the most beautiful jade. This carving became the heshibi.
        The heshibi was handed down from one ruler to the next until it reached the hands of King Wenhui of the kingdom of Zhao. King Zhaoxing of the kingdom of Qin offered to swap 15 cities for the heshibi, but when Lin Xingru took the heshibi to the Qin court, King Zhaoxiang went back on his word. Fortunately, Lin Xiangru was witty and managed to escape and returned back to the Kingdom of Zhao with the heshibi. This is the historically famous incident of ‘returning the Jade to Zhao’.  
        In 221 BC, when Qin Shihuang vanquished the six kingdoms and united China, he took the heshibi from the kingdom of Zhao. Qin Shihuang had the heshibi carved to make the seal of kingdom and ordered the minister Li Si to write eight characters in zhuan script, ’accept the will of heaven for long-lived prosperity’. These words were then carved into the seal.
        After the Qin Dynasty was overthrown, Liu Bang entered Xianyang and the last Qin Emperor Zi Ying handed the seal to Liu Bang. After establishing the Han Dynasty, the jade seal became the seal of the country. In the last years of the Western Han Dynasty, Wang Mang usurped the throne and ordered Empress Dowager Xiaoyuan to hand over the seal. In her disgust, she threw the seal onto the ground, damaging one of the corners. Wang Mang used gold to patch it up. After Wang Mang was defeated, the jade seal changed hands a number of times, eventually falling into the hands of the Eastern Han Emperor Guangwudi.
        At the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty, there was the Shichangsi uprising during which the infant emperor was forced to flee the chaos, and lost the seal in the process. During the reign of the Han Emperor Xiandi, Dong Zhuo rebelled and many nobles were sent to fight Dong Zhuo. Sun Jian led troops that forced their way into Luoyang. They later managed to recover the jade seal in the south of the city in the Zhenguan Well. The seal then fell into the hands of Yuan Shu before it was finally returned to Emperor Xiandi.
        In AD 220, Cao Pi usurped the Han to form the Wei Dynasty and the jade seal became the national seal again. The Western Jin used the jade seal when they took power. After the fall of the Jin, the country was divided into 16 kingdoms (to the north) that fought for control of the jade seal. Later, the seal was given to the Eastern Jin emperor. After the fall of the Eastern Jin, the jade seal was passed to the Southern Song, the Qi, the Liang and then the Chen.
        In AD 589, the Emperor Wendi of the Sui Dynasty defeated the Chen and took the jade seal. Following the destruction of the Sui, the jade seal ended up in the hands of Emperor Taizu of the Tang Dynasty. Zhu Wen took the seal from the Tang when he established the Later Liang Dynasty, one of the five dynasties. After the Later Liang, it was passed on to the Later Tang. When the Later Tang emperor, Li Congke was deposed, Shi Jintang conspired with Qie Dan to attack Luoyang and Li Congke took the jade seal up a tower where he committed suicide. After this, the whereabouts of the jade seal became unknown.


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