The Jade Seal Of China was lost to recorded history. When the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644) came to power, it was officially gone.
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.
The History of 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. Some debate 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, 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. Bronze, stone, and even silver seals were also being produced at that time.
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.
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 believed 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 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.
Creation Of the Imperial Jade Seal
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.
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.
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.’
Where Is It Now?
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.
The Heirloom Seal of the Realm was definitely lost by the beginning of the Ming Dynasty.
There are several theories as to what happened to the seal. Some say that it disintegrated when the last Tang emperor killed himself through self-immolation. Others proclaim that it remained in play until the Ming’s conquered the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty. When the Ming armies took the Yuan capital in 1369, they raided the Imperial Palace and took one of the personal seals of the Yuan emperor. However, the Yuans had 11 imperial seals and the one the Mings snatched was not the Heirloom Seal of the Realm.
Today, the Forbidden City in Beijing has 25 imperial seals – perhaps to lessen the significance of the Heirloom Seal. But the legendary artifact has not been forgotten. Every so often, there are claims that the He Shi Bi has been found – so far, all these reports have been debunked by experts.