Ancient Chinese Seals, a Treasured National Art Form

Small seal script epigraph on the standard weight prototype of Qin dynasty. Made from iron, this prototype was unearthed in 1973 at Wendeng, Shandong Province.

The first basic Chinese seals have been dated to the Shang and Zhou dynasties, whose rulers had their identification marks etched on bronze implements. The scripts of the Bronze Age were irregular and complicated, and it was not until the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC) unified China after the Warring States Period that Chinese script began to develop a standardised form. At the time, the need for a more functional written form was largely driven by the increasing use of seals.

The Earliest Official Seals

The style of writing that evolved in China – neither too round nor too square – was designed to suit seal application, which emerged as the means of validating and affirming high-ranking authority. The implements were by this stage most commonly made of stone, but jade, ceramics and bone were also used.

The simplified seal script of the Qin dynasty and its successor the Han was produced by casting or carving, depending on the material used. Differences in seal size and shape denoted the position and rank of users as much as the written messages did. While their imperial use remained paramount, seals were presented to officials appointed to senior roles as a form of certificate authenticating their right to the positions.

Rather than using script for their seal signatures, early private owners would often depict animals or other significant symbols on their seals. These were some of the earliest personal applications, and they became known as ‘design seals’.

Evolution of Chinese Seals and Script

During and following the Han dynasty, Chinese character script continued to evolve and many new styles came and went. One common application was the use of clay pressed across the opening or joint of the bamboo strips then used as writing material. When bundled with string, the document would be ‘sealed’ with an application of clay into which was pressed a sign or character to denote authority.

By the Tang (618-907), carving was the standard means of producing seals, which by then had become widespread in their use. Private users were following the trend set by rulers and officials. The jiudie (nine-fold) script emerged in the Tang, a style that would survive right through until the Qing (1644-1911).

As well as the carved content of the seal that would be applied to documents and artworks, the seal knob was often carved into an ornamental shape to denote the owner’s status. The knob also generally contained a hole for stringing. Later, inscriptions and artwork were placed on the sides of seals, making the complete implement a thing of interest and beauty.

Seals Conveyed the Mandate of Heaven

Emperors owned a variety of seals, each one with its own unique purpose. For instance there would be an imperial seal affirming a document as written in the emperor’s own handwriting, and another serving as the stamp of approval and possession of fine works of art. Each imperial seal would include script conferring the Mandate of Heaven on its owner.

From the Song dynasties (960-1279), Chinese painters and poets began affixing a seal on their works, not only for indentification, but also to make a comment about their art. In this way, seals themselves developed into an art form. By the Ming (1368-1644), many celebrated seal carvers operated in Chinese society, each known for his own style and artistry. The soft and relatively easy to work talc mineral soapstone became the predominant material for high-quality seals.

Today many Chinese museums house collections of fine seals. The use of seals by the emperors and their senior officials is of historical significance, and famous artists who turned their hand to seal carving, such as Wen Peng (1498-1573) and Deng Shiru (1743-1805), are recognised as much for their use of seals as an expression of their art as for their paintings and calligraphies.