A seal of quality, art and tradition

Seal engraving has a long tradition in China and carries deep meaning and significance. Today, seals are still often considered more official than signatures.
A seal of quality, art and tradition

Seal engraving is common in many countries around the world, but only in China has it become a fine art in itself.

For centuries, seal engraving has been deemed as one of the four traditional Chinese arts, along with painting, calligraphy and poetry.

In 2009, when Chinese seal engraving was added to the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, it was described as “a cornerstone of Chinese fine arts,” which “expresses an entire culture’s ideas about humankind and nature.”

Seals first appeared in China in the Shang Dynasty (about 1600-1046 BC), when they were used mainly in government offices as a sign of authority.

The three earliest seals in existence today were unearthed in 1928 from An’yang in central China’s Henan Province. An’yang was the capital of the Shang Dynasty. The three copper Shang seals are now housed in the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

A seal of quality, art and tradition

The patterns on the three seals unearthed from An'yang in central China's Henan Province. 

During the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), seals began to be used as an indispensable instrument for signing important legal documents for government offices, institutions and individuals as well.

This tradition has continued ever since. In many cases, seals are still deemed more important and authentic than personal signatures.

Artists also stamp seals on their works to help identify themselves and to add interest.

Especially during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), with flourishing of the so-called official- and scholar-artists, seal engraving became more popular and as a special art form, seals also became an essential element of any art works of painting and calligraphy.

One art researcher once pointed out that “no appreciation of Chinese painting or calligraphy is complete without an understanding of the aesthetics and cultural significance of seal engraving.”

Seal materials

People used to use materials such as animal bones, bronze and pottery to make seals. Later, materials such as crystal, jade, ivory, wood and particular soft and semi-precious stones were introduced.

A seal of quality, art and tradition

Seals used by government offices and institutions are usually made of rubber, wood or metal. 

Today, seals in China fall into two main categories. Seals used by government offices and institutions are usually made of rubber, wood or metal. And to stamp a seal, people use a simple ink pad of mostly red but sometimes blue or black ink.

But seals used by individuals and artists fall into a much larger and more complex category.

These seals are made chiefly from soft and semi-precious stones such as Changhua and Qingtian stones from the eastern province of Zhejiang, Shoushan stone from Fujian Province and Balin stone from Inner Mongolia.

The most precious seal stones are tianhuangshi (field-yellow), jiexueshi (oriental jasper) and furongshi (rose quartz.)

People love these stones mainly because of their rarity as well as the beauty of their quality and texture.

For instance, jixueshi (chicken-blood stone) usually features red texture looking like a drop of chicken blood gradually dissolving in clear water.

Today, a thumb-sized chicken-blood stone can easily sell for more than 10,000 yuan (US$1,500) and some large stones that contain more bright red “chicken blood” could have a mind-boggling price tag up to several hundred million yuan.

A seal of quality, art and tradition

A seal made of Jixueshi, which features red texture looking.

A seal of quality, art and tradition
Lu Jun / SHINE

Most seals in the personal and art category are carved on the bottom of a small stone block, with each side stretching about 1-5 centimeters.

Scripts of seals

Most seals in the personal and art category are carved on the bottom of a small stone block, with each side stretching about 1-5 centimeters. The shapes are mostly square or rectangular, but can also be round, oval or irregular.

More than 3,000 years ago in the Shang Dynasty, seals were carved in jiaguwen, or the Shell-and-Bone Script, the earliest known form of Chinese writing. Later, jinwen, or Bronze Script, and dazhuan, or Greater Seal Script were introduced.

After China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, introduced a uniform Chinese written language during the Qin Dynasty (221-210 BC), xiaozhuan, or the Lesser Seal Script, became the standard style for seal engraving.

A seal of quality, art and tradition

From left: Shell-and-Bone Script, Bronze Script and Lesser Seal Script of the Chinese character of water

Types of seals

There are chiefly four types of seals used in traditional Chinese calligraphy and painting. They are xingmingzhang, or personal name seal, stating the family name or given name or both of a person; xianzhang, or leisure seal, containing a person’s personal philosophy or literary inclination which are usually expressed in an idiom or a favorite line of poem; zhaizhang, or studio seal, carrying the name of a person’s private studio, which often suggests a person’s artistic persona and the creative realm of their inspiration; and, tuxingzhang, or graphic seal, which is carved with an image of Buddha or deities, flowers, dragon, phoenix and zodiac animals.

Some seals, including those used at imperial court and in ancient government offices, have small decorative relief work at the top or side, called yinniu, or seal knob.

Also, an art seal usually has side carving, called biankuan, which are small characters carved on one or all four sides of a seal indicating the date and place of making the seal, the name of the engraver, or even the content of the main carving on the bottom surface.

A seal of quality, art and tradition
Lu Jun / SHINE

Seal carving

Seals can be divided into three groups: zhuwen (red character); baiwen, (white character) and zhubaiwen xiangjian (red-white.)

Zhuwen seals employ cameo carving, so it imprints the Chinese characters or images in red ink. Baiwen seal is made by intaglio carving and prints characters or images in white. The so-called red-white seal uses both cameo and intaglio techniques.

A seal of quality, art and tradition
Lu Jun / SHINE

From left: zhuwen, baiwen and zhubaiwen xiangjian

Artists don’t use ordinary ink pads for their seals, instead they use a special ink paste made from finely pulverized cinnabar, mixed with castor oil and silk strands or moxa wool, a loose herb. The ink paste usually is red or vermillion in different shades.

As a perfect combination of calligraphy, composition and carving, seals have been a favorite art form for so many generations, especially for their capability of displaying grand spectacles and profound thoughts in just a square inch.

The Ming (1368-1644 AD) and Qing (1644-1911 AD) dynasties were the heyday of China’s seal history, when the country produced many great masters of seal engraving.

They include Wen Peng (1498-1573), widely regarded as the founder of China’s modern seal engraving. He was also the son of Wen Zhengming, a leading Ming Dynasty painter, calligrapher, poet, and scholar. 

Other noted seal engravers of this time include He Zhen (1515-1604), Ding Jing (1695—1765), Deng Shiru (1743-1805), Wu Xizai (1799-1870), Zhao Zhiqian (1829-1884), Wu Changshuo (1844-1927) and Qi Baishi (1863-1957).

For centuries, the Chinese seal engraving art has also become very popular in its neighboring countries, especially in Japan and Korea.

In China, the art of seal engraving is still practiced by professionals and amateurs.

Many art organizations, such as the century-old Xiling Seal Art Society, based in Hangzhou, capital of east Zhejiang Province, are vigorously promoting the tradition of seal engraving.

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