The pages of history are littered with lost treasures. Some, such as the riches of Alaric taken from Rome, are valuable for their craftsmanship as much as the gemstones and precious metals. Some, such as the lost gold mine of Solomon, may not even exist. And some are valuable not for what they are so much as what they represent.
One such lost treasure is the Heirloom Seal of the Realm, also popularly known as the Imperial Seal of China or the Heirloom Seal of the First Emperor. The artifact was a jade seal that was created for China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang.
Passed down the line of Chinese Emperors, this was one of the most important artifacts of Imperial China. How did it come to be lost, and will it ever be found?
The Heirloom Seal of the Realm was created for use by Qin Shi Huang in 221 BC. It was created when the emperor finally conquered the remnants of the Warring States and successfully united China under the Qin Dynasty.
To the victor went the spoils of battle, including a fabulous and ancient piece of jade known as Heshibi (“Mr. He’s Stone”) that belonged to the defeated Zhao state. This stone was passed on to the hands of China’s new emperor, who ordered that an Imperial Seal be made from the stone.
The Heirloom Seal of the Realm carried the authority of the emperor and was used for stamping bureaucratic documents. The seal had a lot of symbolic significance and contained the dynastic power of the emperor. The seal provided tangible, physical evidence of the authority of Qin Shi Huang during his reign.
According to all the accounts of that time, the Heirloom Seal of the Realm was made up of pure jade. This was because, in ancient China, it was believed that jade symbolized the inner beauty of humans. Jade represented purity, grace, and beauty.
A number of burials and tombs in ancient China had decorative jade and some, such as the grave of Liu Sheng, a Han prince, even contained entire suits make of the precious green stone. In the times of the Han Dynasty, jade was associated with immortality. Many people tried drinking jade in liquid form in order to gain eternal life.
Safeguarding the Heirloom Seal of the Realm
After the death of Qin Er Shi, the second emperor of the Qin, Ziying, his successor, passed on the seal to the Han Dynasty’s new emperor. From that time onwards, the seal was renamed and known as the “Han Heirloom Seal of the Realm.”
In 9 AD, when the Western Han Dynasty ended, usurped by a warlord named Wang Mang, the seal was forcefully taken as a symbol of authority. However, out of anger, Wang Zhengjun, the empress of the Western Han Dynasty, threw the seal on the ground. This created a chip on one corner, which Wang Mang ordered to be repaired with gold.
The Heirloom Seal of the Realm passed from dynasty to dynasty and was known as a symbol of authority to rule, essentially a Mandate of Heaven. However, during the Three Kingdoms period, the Heirloom Seal of the Realm became a reason for armed conflict and rivalry: whoever held the seal had a claim to legitimate rule.
In the 3rd century AD, when the Han Dynasty ended, the Heirloom Seal of the Realm was found by General Sun Jian while evacuating Luoyang, the Han imperial capital. During the course of the Campaign against Dong Zhuo, General Sun Jian gave the seal to warlord Yuan Shu, his chief.
According to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the men of Sun Jian betrayed him and told Yuan Shao, the enemy coalition leader, that they held the seal. Yuan Shao asked Sun Jian for the seal, but he denied it. Sun Jian even swore that if the seal was with him, he would die a violent death.
This gave rise to a rivalry between Sun Jian and the enemy camp he had sought to approach. Later, Sun Jian died a violent death according to his own oath while fighting with his rivals. Sun Ce, the son of Sun Jian, inherited the Imperial Seal after the death of his father. He gave the seal to another Chinese politician named Yuan Shu.
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In 197 AD Yuan Shu declared himself as the emperor of the short-lived Zhong Dynasty. It gave rise to anger among the warlords Liu Bei and Cao Cao. Two years later in 199, Liu Bei defeated Yuan Shu, and the Imperial Seal went into the hands of Cao Cao.
The Trail Runs Cold
The Imperial Seal was passed on from one emperor to another, from one dynasty to another unbroken until, suddenly and at some time in the 10th century, it vanished. The Seal survived the Cao Wei Dynasty, Jin Dynasty, the period of Sixteen Kingdoms, Sui Dynasty, and even Tang Dynasty. But it was lost during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period.
There are a number of theories as to when and how the seal went missing. One of the theories is that the seal went missing when Li Chu, the last Tang emperor, incinerated himself and his family. It is believed that the seal got caught in the fire. However, according to historians, the jade cannot melt or disintegrate on the application of heat. It will only change its color, crack, and burn.
According to another theory, the Imperial Seal was lost when the Emperor Taizong of Liao was captured by the Later Jin state’s last emperor in 946 AD. Yet another theory says that the seal was lost when it went into the hands of the later Yuan emperors.
However, there is no clear evidence as to when and how the Heirloom Seal of the Realm went missing. There is no clue as to where it is today. While a number of seals have been presented and claimed to be the lost Imperial Seal, none of them could be proved as the original seal.
Most of the seals that survive or have been uncovered were the personal seals of the emperors but not the Heirloom Seal of the Realm. The loss of the Heirloom Seal of the Realm remains a mystery that is yet to be solved.
Top Image: A surviving golden seal of the Emperor of China. The Heirloom Seal of the Realm was said to be entirely made of jade, and would be priceless today. Source: velitchenko / Adobe Stock.
Milner, R. 2022. The Mystery Of The Heirloom Seal Of The Realm. Available at: https://www.grunge.com/844988/the-mystery-of-the-heirloom-seal-of-the-realm/
Ancient Origins, 2019. The Lost Heirloom Seal of China’s First Emperor. Available at: https://www.ancient-origins.net/artifacts-other-artifacts/heirloom-seal-0012904
Warehouse 13, 2022. The Heirloom Seal of the Realm. Available at: https://warehouse-13-artifact-database.fandom.com/wiki/The_Heirloom_Seal_of_the_Realm