The Seal was created in 221 B.C. when Qin Shihuan destroyed the remaining Warring States and united China under the Qin Dynasty. The He Shi Bi was a famous piece of jade stone which previously belonged to the Zhao state and was found in the State of Chu by a mythical man named Bian He. Passing into the hands of the new Emperor of China, he ordered it made into his Imperial Seal. Prime Minister Li Si, who was an accomplished calligrapher in the clerical (li) 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."
According to Wu shu of 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.
The Imperial Seal has been in possession of many emperors and warlords. When it came 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, he sent to require the Seal of her, and the Lady Wang, in disgust, threw the Seal on the ground, 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. During the Three Kingdoms period, the seal became an object of rivalry and armed conflict. Regimes which possessed the seal declared themselves, and are often regarded historically, as legitimate. During the Campaign against Dong Zhuo, a battle during the prelude of the Three Kingdoms period, the seal was found by Sun Jian, an officer of the minor warlord Yuan Shu, when his forces occupied the Han Imperial Capital of Luoyang. Sun Jian handed the seal over to his warlord, who used it 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, or actually 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. 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.
Dating back to 191 A.D., when Sun Jian claimed to have found the Seal in a well, some say that finding the Seal in such a place is too much of a coincidence. Some historians believe that Sun Jian did not find the Seal, but instead made a replica. Could this be true?
- Though finding the Seal in a well, presumably on the body of a drowned woman who hid there to escape the fires of the burning capital, is indeed strange and suspicious, it seems more likely to be true then the theory of the historians. Sun Jian hardly had a good opportunity to arrange the carving of an acceptable forgery in the middle of a hard-fought campaign or in the confusion of its aftermath. Moreover, a convincing copy of the seal would require some craftsmanship. And if we postulate the argument that Sun Jian, or more plausibly Yuan Shu, prepared the item in advance and pretended to discover it at Luoyang, then the technicalities of the plot, and the risk of embarrassment if something went wrong - as it easily could - make the whole business remarkably complex. It seems easier to believe that Sun Jian found the Seal, or was given it by someone who knew the hiding place.
Other theories of when it was lost are:
- At the end of the Later Tang Dynasty, when the last Emperor died by self-immolation.
- In AD 946 when the Emperor Taizong of Liao captured the last Emperor of the Jin state.
- 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.