Political message in a box

China’s art market continues to grab headlines, it would appear. This must have caused a wave of European travellers looking at the Great Wall of China, and visiting the now legendary site of Qin Shi Huang di’s army, built to protect him during the life of the next world.

Qin Shi Huang di had, of course, unified all China after the political uncertainties of the so called Warring States which had lasted from about 475-221BC. He took the name ‘First August and Divine Emperor of Qin’; nobody across China was now left in any doubt as to who controlled power and prosperity. However, there was one greater power that Qin Shih Huang di had to acknowledge, prior to convincing the people of his rightful mandate. This process entailed a pilgrimage to the Sacred Site of Daoist belief, located at Mount Tai in Shandong Province. Failure to make this journey satisfactorily and to complete the necessary observance, would allow the new Emperor’s enemies to undermine his power and to question his mandate.


The Qin Emperor duly set off to make his tribute, and thereby to set the seal on Imperial power. It was not to be. A storm on the mountain prevented the Imperial party from making the ascent, a catastrophic moment for the Emperor and a clear message that his political message was not entirely acceptable. His Confucian  opponents took note, but worse was to follow for the Qin Legacy. The Great Emperor Wu, whose long reign from 141BC to 87BC was characterised by an interaction between those of Confucian and Legalist belief, was able to visit the Jade Emperor’s Peak on Mount Tai. Some say that Emperor Wu made the visit on Eight occasions, a special number in Chinese thought which echoes the fact of Eight Daoist Immortals.

We have an exciting Chinese Art section in our next big sale on 28-3-2017, but we do not have a member of The world famous Qin Army for sale. What we do have, however, is an offertory or altar box, estimated at £100-200,  which tells the story of The Qin Emperor’s failure to reach the summit of Mount Tai. It is an object that was probably carved for one with Confucian belief, but it carries nevertheless a profound message to those who would follow a path towards centralised government and unsympathetic bureaucracy. A date for the box is probably early in the 19th Century at the conclusion of the great reign of The Qianlong Emperor. Perhaps the true importance of this sacred object, therefore, was that 1800 years after the death of Qin ShI Huang di, the Chinese were anxious to recall beliefs and ideals which transcended the secular ambition of the Emperor who gave his name to China.


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