Legacy of an Empress
Freeman’s March 12 Asian Arts auction is proud to feature a remarkable and exceptionally rare imperial porcelain seal of Empress Xiaoyiren, the third and final Empress of the Qing Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722), the longest reigning ruler of China and considered one of the country’s greatest emperors.
Empress Xiaoyiren is remembered tragically as the shortest reigning empress in Chinese history. She was instated for a single day before meeting her death on August 24th, 1689. However, contrary to what this unfortunate appellation implies, in reality she wielded a substantial amount of power as ‘Huang gui fei’ (“Imperial Noble Consort), and for all intents and purposes acted as de facto Empress of China for more than ten years before falling gravely ill. During her final days, the Emperor bestowed upon her the title of ‘Empress’ as a sign of his respect and affection for her, and did not name another empress for the remainder of his rule.
This large porcelain seal is one of a pair said to be the only example of its kind in existence. The other, now lost, is identical in its size and decoration but bears the eight-character inscription of Emperor Kangxi. Their rarity and uniqueness have been well-noted in a document authored in 1933 by the renowned connoisseur of Asian art and then curator of the Field Museum of Natural History, Berthold Laufer. They were once again reviewed in detail in an academic booklet titled “Symbolism in Chinese Porcelain and Decoration,” published in June 1941 by Chao Ming Chen, instructor of Chinese Literature and Language at Johns Hopkins University and also previously the Head of the Chinese Classics Department at Hwa Nan College in Fuzhou, China.
A very fine piece of porcelain craftsmanship, the seal of Empress Xiaoyiren embodies the high development of the potting and glazing techniques refined under the reign of Emperor Kangxi, who was a great patron of the arts and encouraged many innovations in the porcelain industry. It demonstrates the skilled revival of the famille noire glazing method, which had not been used since it was first produced by the Jingdezhen kilns in the mid-fifteenth century.
Decorated in this traditional palette, the body of the seal is evenly covered by an ink-black glaze with dragons molded in relief, accentuated by vibrant green, soft purple and yellow highlights of overglaze enamels. The monumental handle is formed by the interlocking horns of two finely embellished dragon heads, with delicately molded facial detailing to create sharp teeth, wind-swept whiskers and lolling tongue. The seal face is carved in seal-style script, bearing the eight-character inscription ‘xiao yi huang hou yu shang zhi bao’ (Imperial seal certifying the objects admired by the Empress Xiao Yi).
Before she became “Empress Xiaoyiren,” her personal name was “HeXian” of the clan Tong, one of the most illustrious families of the Manchu (also known as ‘Qing’) dynasty. The Tong clan, originally of Han Chinese origin, were instrumental in helping the Manchus defeat the preceding Ming dynasty and its armies, and thus were granted ‘Honorary Manchu’ status and given the Manchu name of "Tungiyya.” The Tungiyya family therefore had extremely close ties with the imperial family. Lady Hexian’s aunt, for example, was also an Empress to the Emperor Shunzhi and the mother of the future Emperor Kangxi.
Empress Xiaoyiren is a highly exalted and celebrated name of the Qing dynasty, praised for being pious, compassionate and benevolent. Indeed, she was posthumously awarded laudatory titles three times, during the reigns of Emperors Yongzheng, Qianlong and Jiaqing. Her diligence in parental care was also duly noted, having raised and educated several court princes. This included the future Yongzheng Emperor, who came to be known as an extremely hard-working sovereign responsible for creating an era of peace and prosperity.
To own this extraordinary object is truly to possess a riveting piece of history, evocative of the height of one of China’s most golden epochs. Interested collectors are invited to come and view the seal and other works being offered in our March 12 auction when exhibition opens to the public on March 8.
Images: Lot 146, A large and exceptionally rare Chinese imperial porcelain seal of Empress Xiaoyiren. Estimate $30,000-50,000; Portrait of an Imperial Consort of the Qing Dynasty Kangxi Emperor (Probably his third empress, "Empress Xiao Yi Ren"), Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.