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Creation of the Imperial Seal[]

200px-Imperial Seal Qianlong

An Imperial Seal from the Qing Dynasty belonging to Qianlong

The Imperial Seal is a jade seal carved out of the He Shi Bi, a historically famous jade disc, on the order of Emperor Yin Zheng, also known as the Qin Shi Huang of the Qin Empire. The He Shi Bi was taken from the last duke of Zhao when Qin conquered the other six Warring States in 221 BC and founded the Qin Dynasty.

His Prime Minister Li Si, who was an accomplished calligrapher in the clerical style of writing, wrote a sentence, which was carved into the seal by Sun Shou. The sentence was:

"For he who has received the Mandate from Heaven, long life and eternal glory."

"(受命於天, 既壽永昌)"

According to the Book of Wu by Wei Zhao, the seal was about four inches square at the base and surmounted by a ring carved in the form of five interlaced dragons.

Possession and the Mandate of Heaven[]

The Imperial Seal has been in possession of many emperors and warlords. In the hands of the Han emperors, it was called the Han Heirloom Seal of the Realm. At the fall of Qin, the last ruler of that state surrendered the Seal to the future Emperor Gao of Han, and it remained in the possession of the dynasty until it was seized by the usurper Wang Mang.

When Wang Mang was planning to take the throne, his daughter, the consort of the child Emperor Ping of Han, Lady Wang, threw the Seal on the ground in disgust, chipping one corner. At his overthrow, it again came to the possession of the restoring Emperor Guangwu. Thereafter it remained among the treasures of the house of Han until it was lost at Luoyang in the disorders of 189 A.D.

This seal passed on even as dynasties rose and fell. It was seen as a legitimising device, signaling the Mandate of Heaven. Regimes which possessed the seal declared themselves, and are often regarded historically, as legitimate.  

Sun Jian and the Imperial Seal[]

300px-Sun Jian and Yuan Shao quarrel over the Heirloom Seal

A Qing Dynasty illustration of Sun Jian and Yuan Shao fighting over the seal.

During the Three Kingdoms period, the seal became an object of rivalry and armed conflict. In the Campaign against Dong Zhuo in late 190, when Sun Jian's forces was a mere ninety li away from the Han Imperial Capital of Luoyang, Dong Zhuo retreated west to Chang'an after burning Luoyang to the ground. Entering Luoyang, Sun Jian ordered his men to reseal the tombs of former emperors that were excavated by Dong Zhuo, after which he returned to Luyang. It was said in the Book of Wu that Sun Jian found the jade seal in a well south of Luoyang and kept it, but was forced to hand the seal over to his warlord Yuan Shu who held his wife Lady Wu hostage in exchange for the seal.

Change of Possession[]

Yuan Shu later declared himself emperor and used the Imperial Seal to found his own Zhong Dynasty. Because of this, various battles were launched against Yuan Shu. When Yuan Shu was defeated, the seal fell into the hands of Emperor Xian, a figurehead for Cao Cao, for the next 20 years. Cao Cao's son Cao Pi proclaimed the Wei Dynasty on December the 11th as the legitimate successor state to Han and the other rival dynasties Shu and Wu to be illegitimate.

The Seal was transferred to Sima Yan, first Emperor of the Jin dynasty, at the time of the abdication of the Wei Emperor Cao Huan on 4 February 266 A.D.

Loss of the Imperial Seal[]

The Great Seal of State of the Western Jin dynasty, which was evidently this seal, is said to have fallen into the hands of the Xiongnu leader Liu Cong at the time of the sack of Luoyang in 311 A.D., the event which marks the effective end of the Western Jin period. Thereafter, however, the records become confused, complicated and uncertain.

This seal was supposed to be lost between Tang and Ming. Several theories exists of when and how it was lost:

1. At the end of the Later Tang Dynasty, when the last Emperor died by self-immolation.

2. In AD 946 when the Emperor Taizong of Liao captured the last Emperor of the Jin state.

3. 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.

However, at the sack of Luoyang in 311 A.D., the history became too confused, and the opportunities for distortion and propaganda too tempting, for anyone now to tell the real from the false so these theories will never be more than just that.