The fragment of an official seal from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), known as the siyin half seal (Fig. 1), appears on 199 surviving or now-lost canonical Chinese paintings and calligraphies. (1) The seal impressions originally bridged the right seam of an artwork to a ledger on the right. Today, the ledgers have all vanished and only the left halves of the seal impressions remain, leaving two full and two partial characters arranged in two columns. While the existing half of the seal impressions clearly reads siyin. which literally means "office seal." the identity of the office remains unknown because of the missing characters. In addition, the governmental office's duration, function, operational mechanism, and rela?tionship to the imperial court are all obscure. Decoding the missing characters should reveal significant information regarding the legal system regulating the half seal and the imperial agency administering this system. By deconstructing the siyin historiography, this paper raises new socio-political questions about ownership, censorship, and imperial competition over the siyin-marked art pieces.
Over the past three centuries, discrepancies have arisen in academic studies of the siyin half seal. Several late Ming and early Qing dynasty (1644-1911) court officials deciphered the half seal as representing a jingli si (registry office). This recognition would later fall into disfavor, as Qing private collectors launched a new reading of the characters on the seal as "jicha si," an office which did not historically exist but would loosely translate to "Office of Regulations and Investigations." The Qing understanding is echoed by twentieth-century scholars of Chinese art, who have developed an alternate explanation of the first character and thereby assign the siyin seal to the eunuch-run Dianli jicha si (Office of Regulations and Investigations) between 1373-1384, during the reign of the first Ming Emperor Hongwu (r. 1368-98).
Through a forensic tracing of the siyin art pieces, Ming court diaries, official memorials, legal statutes, and other governmental seals ending with the characters si and yin. I demonstrate that the siyin seal was not used by the Dianli jicha si office. In contrast to twentieth-century scholarship, I argue that late Ming officials in fact correctly identified the jingli si registry office (1368-1644) as the seal user. This unstudied office was in charge of inventorying items; its branch offices were distributed empire-wide throughout the Ming era. Different branch offices marked their own jingli siyin seals on the art seized from multiple ledger on the right. Today, the ledgers have all vanished and only the left halves of the seal impressions remain, leaving two full and two partial characters arranged in two columns. While the existing half of the seal impressions clearly reads siyin, which literally means "office seal," the identity of the office remains unknown because of the missing characters. In addition, the governmental office's duration, function, operational mechanism, and relationship to the imperial court are all obscure. Decoding the missing characters should reveal significant information regarding the legal system regulating the half seal and the imperial agency administering this system. By deconstructing the xi yin historiography, this paper raises new socio-political questions about ownership, censorship, and imperial competition over the siyin-marked art pieces. regions, resulting in nuanced differences in seal dimensions and stroke configurations. This finding challenges the binary scholarly categorization of siyin impressions as either genuine or counterfeit. Instead of assuming that only a single siyin seal existed throughout the Ming dynasty, I contend that three types of seals can be considered authentic. By critically reviewing the siyin historiography, this paper builds the foundation for a forthcoming paper which will determine the alternative origins of the siyin seals and reconstruct the jingli Si branch offices through tracing intricate networks of art ownership.
JINGLI SIYIN: MING INTERPRETATIONS OF THE HALF SEAL
Siyin historiography begins around 1616, when the late Ming historian Shen Defu ' (1578-1642) encountered various types of siyin impressions on paintings and calligraphies, including two genuine and numerous fake types. According to Shen, the two authentic types of siyin seals were used by two prefectural jingli si offices on imperially confiscated art: thus the full names of these seals are Yuanzhou fit jingli siyin (Seal of the jingli office of Yuanzhou prefecture) and Jingzhou fu jingli siyin (Seal of the jingli office of Jingzhou prefecture).2 Shen's contemporary Wen Zhenhen (15851645), Secretariat Drafter and Supervising Secretary at the Wuying Palace Hall, gained special access to Ming court diaries and the imperial collection. Upon viewing Wu Daozi's (689-after 755) painting, Sandalwood Image of Deities (Zhantan shenxiang), Wen wrote a colophon to pinpoint the half seal impression on this piece as a jingli siyin. (3)
Although Shen did not specify which artworks displayed the half seals, and the Sandalwood Image recorded by Wen is now lost, we can still reconstruct the half seal's appearance. Crucial evidence can be found in Huang Tingjian's calligraphy, Transcribing Du Fu's Poem to Helan Xian, which survives and bears the siyin seal in the lower right corner (Fig. 1). When Emperor Qianlong's (r. 1735-95) officials compiled the Qing imperial catalogues in 1744, they defined the half seal on Huang's calligraphy as jingli siyin.4 These entries foreshadow later descriptions by Li E (1692-1752) and Chen Weizhen (18th c.). The two Qing historians reiterate that the siyin seals on art were the result of confiscating artworks from the residences of two deposed Ming ministers by two prefectural jingli si registry offices.5 Since several Ming-Qing historians acknowledge the half seal as jingli siyin, we can exclude the possibility of typos or misprints.
Jingli Si literally means "registry office." This office attracted little attention in twentieth-century scholarship, yet played an essential role in the clerical systems of the Yuan (1279-1368), Ming, and Qing dynasties. Starting from the Yuan era, the palace library, six ministries, Bureau of Military Affairs, and myriad guard units all supervised their own jingli si offices that were responsible for cataloging official documents and property. (6) For example, the jingli si office of the Yuan palace library registered the imperial art collection and classical literature; its seal (jingli sun) was cast in 1285. (7)
Just as with the preceding Yuan clerical system, the first Ming emperor installed various jingli si offices after he established the dynasty. (8) Manned by trained clerks that registered the arriving items, rejuvenated Ming jingli si offices spread across the country. The six ministries, the Court of Judicial Review, the Censorate, the Embroidered-Uniform Guard, the Five Chief Military Commissions, the Office of Transmission, the Court of the Imperial Clan, the censorial departments, and many prefectures each opened their own jingli si offices. (9) Eachjingli si office possessed its own seal with varied first characters and dimensions according to their official ranks. (10) For instance, the Collected Statutes of the Great Ming stipulated that the jingli siyin seals used by the military guards measure 2.1 cun long, whereas a prefectural jingli siyin seal measures 2 cun. (11) Although half a century ago there existed debates on how to convert cun to centimeters, recent scholarship generally approximates 1 cun to 3.26-3.3 cm. (12) This conversion is not only consistent with the existing siyin impressions, which measure 6.6-6.9 cm, but also echoes Shen Defu and Wen Zhenheng's ascription of the siyin to the jingli siyin seal. Unfortunately, this identification was obscured by Qing private collectors, as presented below.
JICHA SIYIN: THE ALTERNATIVE INTERPRETATION OF QING MERCHANTS
Early in the Qing era, two theories concerning the fun names of the siyin seal held sway. The first, jingli siyin, promulgated by the Qing imperial court and Li E, was a holdover from Shen and Wen. The second, jicha siyin, was created by private collectors in 1692 and was advanced by art historians for three centuries. I argue in this paper against the second theory and in favor of the first.
In their catalogues published in 1692 and 1693, the two wealthy art aficionados Gu Fu gni (ca. 1662-1692) (13) and Gao Shiqi (1645-1704) observed that several artworks in their collections bore the same half seal. (14) Due to the paucity of precise information, Gu misattributed the siyin seal to a nonexistent jicha si office of the Song dynasty (960-1279). (15) However, twentieth-century scholars modified Gu's conjecture and argued that the siyin seal hailed not from the Song, but from the Ming dynasty, and that the so-called jicha si office never existed. Furthermore, Gu interpreted the characters to be ji and cha (both literally mean "surveillance"), but in fact the phrase does not designate any particular office, but rather refers to any office charged with censorship, policing, or adjudicating. Both Ming- and Qing-era legislators customarily referred to such offices as jicha, (16) jicha. jicha, (17) jicha, jicha, or similar terms. (18) In Hongwu's edicts, the characters that make up jicha are interchangeable with other homophonic synonyms, such as jicha.(19) Similarly, the renowned Ming novel, The Plum in the Golden Vase (1580s-1600s), employs homophones of jicha to ridicule the ubiquitous spy agents, who terrorized officials and commoners under the emperors' mandates. The novel's author sarcastically relates jicha to secret services like the Embroidered-Uniform Guard and Eastern Depot.
The Qing period also saw the frequent use of jicha and its homophones; private collectors such as Gu Fu, Gao...