The Stele of Fu: the Best Fu in China

The Stele of Fu: the Best Fu in China

 

 

As the old saying in Beijing goes, “one who visits the Forbidden City could feel the nobility of the royal family; one who visits the Great Wall could experience the aggressiveness; and one who visits the Prince Kung’s Mansion should bring back some blessings and luck.” The blessings and luck in Prince Kung’s Mansion come from the Chinese character fu on the Stele of Fu, which was written by Emperor Kangxi and is known as the best fu in China. The stele also bears the seal of Emperor Kangxi.

 

 

Although Emperor Kangxi was very fond of calligraphy and excelled in it during his lifetime, he left few inscriptions. As the inscriptions by him were fewer than other emperors in Chinese history, there appeared the saying “one character written by Emperor Kangxi is invaluable”. According to the research, there are only three Chinese characters inscribed by Emperor Kangxi in today’s Beijing, apart from his writings in official documents. Besides the character fu on the Stele of Fu in Prince Kung’s Mansion, the other two characters are wu wei (meaning letting things take their own course) hung in the Hall of Union of the Forbidden City. Wu wei here has two implications. Firstly, it reminds the emperors not to over-interfere with the affairs of officials. Secondly, as Hall of Union sits between the court and the residential area of the empress and the concubines, it warns them not to interfere in politics. Even so, the inscription does not bear Emperor Kangxi’s seal, which highlights the value of the character fu on the Stele of Fu, which bears Emperor Kangxi’s seal.

 

 

Emperor Kangxi was enthroned when he was eight and his mother died a year later. So he was raised up by and became very attached to his grandmother Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang. While the ministers were suspicious and jealous of each other, the Empress Dowager was the most important supporter of him that he could count on. With the help of the Empress Dowager, Emperor Kangxi deposed and imprisoned Minister Oboi for having amassed too much power and captured the three rebellious feudatories (Wu Sangui, Shang Kexi, and Geng Jingzhong), ushering Qing dynasty into an era of peace and prosperity. However, while he was in high spirits and in his heyday the Empress Dowager became seriously ill, about which the doctors were at their wits’ end. It is said that Emperor Kangxi studied historical records and found the religious tradition of praying for blessings and longevity in the ancient times. According to the tradition, the emperor could beg blessings and longevity from the Heavenly Father as emperors are persons of blessings and longevity. Therefore, Emperor Kangxi decided to pray for longevity for his grandmother. After three days of bathing and fasting, Emperor Kangxi gathered his profound love for the Empress Dowager and wrote the Chinese character fu and stamped the words “by Kangxi” on it. This inscription was meant to bring about luck and blessings and to subdue evils and monsters. It seemed that the Heavenly Father was touched by the Emperor’s love for his grandmother because the Empress Dowager recovered after the Emperor wrote the character fu. Greatly moved by the deeds of the Emperor, the Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang asked her servants to inscribe the character on a stele so she could touch it whenever she wanted to and pray for auspiciousness, blessing and happiness. She did so also to preserve the inscription. The Empress Dowager died a natural death at the age of 75, which, according to Chinese people, should be attributed to Emperor Kangxi’s praying for blessings and longevity.

 

 

In terms of its character pattern, the character fu written by Emperor Kangxi was tall and thin instead of plump and square as we commonly see. As in Chinese “thin” is a homophone of longevity (shou in Chinese), the one by Kangxi is a symbol of longevity. As a Chinese saying goes, “when there is fu there must be shou, vice versa”. However, no calligraphers except Emperor Kangxi had ever combined the character patterns of fu and shou together because the patterns of these two characters are starkly different. Of existing calligraphic works in previous times, the fu by Emperor Kangxi is the only one that combines the character patterns of fu and shou, which is considered as a symbol of blessing and longevity at the same time. Also because of the official seal of Emperor Kangxi, this is the only fu in China, even in the world, that could not be hung or pasted upside down.

 

 

What is more amazing is the fact that this character by Emperor Kangxi contains the patterns of several Chinese characters, which is starkly different from what we commonly see (see the picture below). At the upper right corner there is the character duo (meaning many); below is the character tian (meaning land); on the left there are zi (meaning descendents) and cai (talent); and on the right there is shou (meaning longevity). Therefore, the character is considered as a symbol of descendents, talent, land, longevity and blessings. With great artistic value and important implications, this character is in a class by itself. The special writing of tian in the character also means endless auspiciousness, blessing and happiness. While Empress Dowager Xiaozhuang recognized the character as the root of all blessings, Chinese people considered it as the root of five blessings, i.e. descendents, talent, land, longevity and happiness.

 

 

The life of Emperor Kangxi best demonstrates the five implications of the character fu, i.e. descendents, talent, land, longevity and blessings. Firstly, having made great achievements such as suppressing the revolt of the three feudatories, forcing the Kingdom of Tungning in Taiwan to submit to Qing rule, determining borderline with Russia and leading the troops to Junggar Basin twice to overawe the subjects there, Emperor Kangxi greatly expanded the territory of China, which is a demonstration of vast land. Secondly, throughout his lifetime Emperor Kangxi had dozens of descendents which also coincides with the implication of fu. Thirdly, Emperor Kangxi had a long life because he and his grandson Emperor Qianlong were the only two emperors in the Qing dynasty who had been in office for over sixty years. Fourthly, Emperor Kangxi ushered in a prosperous area when the country was strong and the people rich, a reflection of wealth (in Chinese wealth is a homophone of talent). In that era of great peace and prosperity, people were considered as blessed. Therefore, this character fu not only brought about blessings to the Empress Dowager but benefited Emperor Kangxi through his lifetime. For this reason, there appeared a Chinese saying, which goes “one who prays for blessings amasses blessings, and one who gives blessings gains blessings”.

 

 

For the above reasons, the Stele of Fu had been considered the most valuable treasure by the royal families and had been treasured up in the Forbidden City until it went missing during the reign of Emperor Qianlong. As Emperor Qianlong always considered Emperor Kangxi as his role model, he certainly was extremely upset about the loss of the Stele of Fu. Many years later when Emperor Jiaqing asked his father about the Stele, Qianlong said one sentence after a moment’s silence, “it will bring about blessings to the people”. Since then, the whereabouts of the Stele has become a mystery.

 

 

After the founding of People’s Republic of China, with the approval from the State Council the former Department of Cultural Relics Protection decided to renovate Prince Kung’s Mansion. In 1962, Premier Zhou Enlai and a number of experts went on an tour of inspection of the Mansion when the Premier asked to pay great attention to the protection and preservation of the Mansion in order for future opening to the public. Later, while checking and clearing up the cultural relics, the antiquarians accidentally found the Stele of Fu in Miyun Cave (The Cave of Secret Clod) of Dicui Peak (The Verdant Peak) in the backyard garden. After careful research and verification, it was confirmed that the Stele was the one that went missing during the reign of Emperor Qianlong.

 

 

While there is still no official answer to why the Stele of Fu appeared in the Garden of Prince Kung’s Mansion, there appeared many interpretations among the common people. Some people thought Emperor Qianlong gave this Stele of Fu to his beloved daughter Gurun Princess Hexiao as dowry. Some others believed that Emperor Qianlong bestowed it on his favorite official Heshen who ordered his servants to bring several thousand pieces of stones from the Taihu Lake to build a giant stone dragon. When the dragon was finished, Heshen put the Stele of Fu into the dragon cave and enshrined it, calling it Dong Tian Fu Di (literally meaning earthly paradise). Probably thanks to this Stele of Fu, Heshen began a successful political career, amassed incredible wealth and led a happy life ever since.

 

 

The discovery of the Stele of Fu soon raised other questions. Have Emperor Jiaqing and the emperors after him looked for the Stele on earth now that the Stele was on the mind of them and that the place where the Stele is was not too difficult to find? If they had ever found the Stele, why did not they bring it back to the Forbidden City? Considering the above questions, Chinese people came up with another interpretation, i.e. the Stele of Fu was inlayed into the character pattern of shou (meaning longevity) formed by the stones from the Taihu lake. To take out the Stele of Fu would definitely break the character shou, which contradicts with people’s wish for longevity. Besides, as the stone character shou was the base of Dicui Peak, to take out the Stele would certainly bring damages to the rockery, which formed the head of the dragon. Therefore, to take out the Stele would also mean break the head of the dragon, which is strictly forbidden in Chinese folk culture. More dramatically, the direction the Stele of Fu faces coincides with the idea of “dragon vein” in Chinese geomantic culture. To take out the Stele means to break the dragon vein, which is a taboo in Chinese culture. To sum up, none of the emperors would like to take out the Stele of Fu at the cost of damaging the dragon head, breaking the dragon vein, and losing blessings and shortening their life span, which may, to a great extent, help explain why the Stele of Fu has been preserved in Prince Kung’s Mansion until today.

 

 

The Stele of Fu became widely known among common people whatever the interpretations as to why it was found in Prince Kung’s Mansion. It is said that one who brings the rubbing of the fu back to his or her home would bring about blessings to and prolong the life span of the aged in the family. However, following rules should be obeyed once the rubbing is brought back home. One should put up the rubbing on New Year’s Eve and store it away on the 15th of the first lunar month. On each of these 15 days, one should burn incense and pay respect to the rubbing and stroke it from top to bottom at night. It is said that the higher one strokes, the longer one will live. Such customs are known as stroking the fu and prolonging life span. The rubbing cannot be put up again except on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month (Dragon Boat Festival), the 15th day of the 8th lunar month (Mid-autumn Day), the 9th day of the 9th lunar month (the Double Ninth Festival), Winter Solstice, and New Year’s Eve of the following year. All of a sudden, celebrities both at home and abroad came to Prince Kung’s Mansion to pray for blessings and to get a rubbing for the sake of their parents. During their visit to China, leaders of foreign countries also came to the Mansion to pay respect. The rubbings of the Stele certainly became important national gifts for the national leaders and distinguished guests abroad.

 

 

The Stele of Fu: the Best Fu in China

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