Chinese seals were initially a
symbol of political power, and were used to authenticate a signature
on document for the appointment or removal of governmental officials
in the past. All the official documents should be affixed with an
official seal. Later on the literati and officials also used seals
as identification to show their social status, ownership, and authorship.
The use of seals in the beginning was quite similar to the wax sealing
of today. Before paper was invented, people could only write on
bamboo slips. In order to keep the government documents and personal
letters from being peeped at by others people used to tie the bamboo
slips with strings. They cut a square hole at the knot, filled it
with a stick clay ball, and pressed their seal on it. When drying
up the clay ball became hard and was called “sealing clay”. After
paper and silk were used seals were affixed on them.
For the last 3,000 years the seals played an important role in Chinese
culture. The emperors, officials, and private people have used them
widely. It is hard to say when the seal first appeared in China.
The earliest examples of seals came from the Shang Dynasty (1,600BC-1,100BC),
which were found from the archeological sites at Anyang, Henan Province.
According to some funny stories, the first seal was given to the
Yellow Emperor (2,600BC-1,600BC) by a yellow dragon and the one
was given to Emperor Yao (2,600BC-1,600BC) by a phoenix. In any
case, the receipt of the seal signifies to be given the mandate
by Heaven to rule the country.
After China was unified by Emperor Qinshihunag in 221BC, he ordered
to carve a piece of fine jade into one imperial seal, which was
called xi. The seal with a handle in the shape of dragon and it
was engraved with the inscription: “receive the order from heaven,
enjoy long live and prosperity”. The imperial seal became the token
of supreme imperial power and authority. According to the History
of Tang Dynasty, Empress Wu (624AD-705AD) issued an order to change
the word "xi" for imperial seal into "bao" because
she disliked the fact that the word "xi" was close in
sound with the "si" (death). But when Emperor Zhongzong
resumed the throne in 705AD, he changed the name for imperial seals
back to "xi". In subsequent dynasties the two words were
alternately used. For the common people their seals were called
"yinzhang" or "tuzhang".
Today seals are still used officially and privately. Many business
people use specially designed seals as their Chinese name stamp,
to indicate their reliability as business people and to confirm
The categories of Chinese seals
In the Han Dynasty, the emperor had six imperial seals, during the
Tang he had eight, during the Ming (1368-1644AD) over a dozen, and
by the time of the Qing (1644-1911AD), there were several official
imperial seals. In the Forbidden City exhibited 25 pieces of imperial
seals collected by Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795AD) for different
Another type of imperial seal was a seal that the emperor used to
indicate that a certain document was written in his own handwriting.
Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795) for example, was famous for his literary
achievements, including calligraphy, and had produced a large amount
of works stamped with his seal. When his calligraphy was carved
into stone steles, the seal was also copied onto the surface of
Yet another special seal was used by the emperors to appraise and
appreciate art. It was customary for collectors and connoisseurs
of art to stamp their seals on the surface of a scroll painting
or calligraphy work. The imperial seal was always affixed on the
art collected by the imperial household. Many famous paintings from
the Forbidden City have seals of different emperors on them.
Official seals have been conferred to officials as a token of their
office and authority. These seals were usually small enough to be
carried on the official's belt. There were regulations as to the
material and shape of the handle of these seals: some had to be
gold, some copper, some with a handle in the shape of a turtle,
some of a camel. Up to the Eastern Han dynasty (25AD-220AD), the
color of ink used to affix official seals was regulated depending
on the position of the owner, some officials had to use green ink,
some purple, some yellow and etc.
The calligraphy of the inscription have changed a great deal over
the long span of Chinese history. Approaching the Han dynasty, the
characters on the seal inscriptions tend to become thicker and more
angular. From the Sui dynasty (581-618), they become rounded and
thinner, and during the Song and Yuan periods we can witness the
spectacular jiudie (nine-folded) script. In the Qing period, most
official seals are bilingual with the Chinese inscription on the
right side and the Manchu on the left.
Private seals are naturally unregulated; therefore they show the
largest variety in content, shape, size, material and calligraphy.
Despite of their varied characteristics, they can still be categorized
based on their use.
Seals with names, pen names etc on them were used as a signature
by people in their private life. This is how artists sign their
works and letters. Chinese literati commonly used a number of different
pen names so identifying a person's name from a seal can be a profound
and interesting work.
Collector seals were mainly used for the purpose of authenticating
pieces of art. Thus a seal of a famous collector or connoisseur
would become an integral part of a work of art and could further
raise its value. Thus in the course of several centuries, some famous
Chinese paintings were stamped by many different seals.
The rest of private seals can be categorized “leisure seals".
The inscription on these seals is usually a short text quoted from
famous poems, aphorisms, and idioms to indicate the owners’ spirits,
wishes and ambitions.
Chinese seals carving
There are three ways to make a seal: carving, casting and clay-baking.
The materials used range from gold, copper, iron, jade, ivory, stone,
wood, porcelain to crystal and glass. Characters carved on seals
could be in relief or in intaglio. The script on the seals developed
with the evolution of Chinese characters over the past 3,000 years
and displayed different features of different times.
In the Qin and Han dynasty, zhuan or curly script was widely applied
on seal carving. That explains why the art of seal carving is still
called zhuanke anb also why zhuan script is also known in English
as “seal character”. From the Sui dynasty (581AD-618AD), they became
rounded and thinner, and during the Song (960AD-1279AD) and Yuan
(1271AD-1368AD) periods jiudiezhuan carving (nine-folded curly script)
became popular. This kind of script was spectacular but so complicated.
In the Qing (1644AD-1911AD) period, most official seals are bilingual
with the Chinese inscription on the right side and the Manchu on
the left. Now there are many seal carving styles in China.
People always combined the three forms of art: calligraphy, painting
and seal carving into one. Seal carving contains three aspects:
calligraphy, composition and handwork. A master seal engraver must
be able to write different styles of the Chinese scripts and arrange
all the characters in a perfect balance in a limited space. Sometimes
the artist has to exaggerate the thickness or thinness of a stroke,
elaborately straighten or curve it, or even deliberately deform
an ideogram to create an artistic effect. The engraver’s speed of
carving, the strength of wrist and finger movement rhythm is very
important to the artistic value of the seal. The engraver must be
familiar with the materials of the seal. Then he can give a full
play his skill on carving to create the aesthetic artwork.
Seal carving is an integration of limitation and infinity. The seal
carving is a condensed art form and the spiritual content of which
is more beyond the seal itself. The meaning expressed is very delicate
and abstruse. Under the carving knives of outstanding seal engravers,
dots, lines, raises, concaves, sparsity, density, punching, and
cutting have all become demonstrative elements in a highly abstract
A good seal stamp on a Chinese calligraphy or painting work will
give the artwork a new look. A good Chinese painter or seal maker
must be a good Chinese calligrapher because both Chinese painting
and seal carving have the same origin in Chinese calligraphy. However,
a good Chinese calligrapher does not necessarily need to be a painter
or seal maker.
If you have interest
in carving your personal seal we can help you. Please tell us your
English name and we can translate it into Chinese and carve it on
the seal. Personal Seal A and Personal Seal B are 3x3x7cm big. They
are made of Shoushan jade stone. It costs 50USD to carve your name
and including shipping.