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Chinese Seal

Chinese Seal


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Chinese seals

When foreigners negotiate, or register in certain areas of China, they may be surprised at Chinese' special fondness and preference for seals. To Chinese, seals are an art of deep cultural roots, which combines the essence of both calligraphy and engraving and inspires generations to study, to appreciate and to collect.

It is believed that seals came out as early as 8,000 years ago after our ancestors could make pottery wares and had private property. They were assumed to make marks on their own possessions to prevent theft. When the first dynasty was established, the king began to use seals to empower and to show lordly credits. Only the king's special seal was then called 'Xi', which represented the highest authority. The first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, had his 'Xi' made out of the invaluable and beautiful jade 'Heshi Bi'.

Then followed the local governments who needed seals for similar function. Simultaneously private seals were carved in a variety of auspicious characters and vivid animal patterns. Gradually the sphragistics came into being. Now many collectors' favorites are of that kind.

The heyday of seal history was during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties when the feudal arts flourished. As wash paintings thrived, artists stamped their seal on the 'xuan,' a special kind of high quality paper used for painted scrolls in order to identify themselves and to add interest. Various sects of carving were erected by noted seal cutting sculptors.

The title, "Father of Seal Engraving" definitely belongs to Wen Peng, the son of Wen Zhenming, one of China's most famous calligraphers and painters. The charm of Wen Peng's engraving lay in the dainty mellowness of the cut and the elegant, flying characters. Although a master of his craft, what makes him the 'Father of Seal Engraving' was his ingenuity in introducing a longer lasting more durable material for seals. One day, the story goes, Wen Peng met an old man selling stones for women's headdress. The man was having a difficult time selling the stones; potential buyers had all proposed unreasonably low prices. When Wen Peng saw the stones, it suddenly occurred to him that they could be used as seals. He bought the stones at a high price, helping the old man out of his predicament. When he returned home, he cut the stones with great strength, producing the most delicate of seals. The first stone seal emerged. Until that time, seals had been made of bronze or pottery.

Another noted seal engraver was He Zhen of the late Ming Dynasty. He used the graver steadily and neatly with strength and vigor, and the curves of each character were quite clear and harmonious. His works stopped the vogue of affectation and influenced the engravers of the Qing Dynasty.

The genre of seal is greatly determined by the strength and speed of wrist and hand. Seals, like a person's character, are distinctive from each other. A sanguine seal engraver makes deft and buoyant strokes while a sober person makes careful and neat ones.

Seal carving also requires choice materials like metal, jade, animal teeth and horns, pottery, bamboo, fruit-pits, and stones. A good material should feel slippery, smooth, cool at first but warm after a second; when cut, it should have certain flexibility. Qingtian stone, Tianhuang stone, Balin stone and 'chicken's blood stone' (Jixue shi) are all first-class materials among stones used for seal cutting. Tianhuang stone features its translucency; 'chicken's blood stone, the red dapples.


The role of seals in Chinese culture

The role of seals in the Chinese culture can hardly be overestimated. For the last 3,000 years they have been used in official, private, even magic spheres. The earliest examples of seals come from the Shang dynasty (BCE 16-11 c.) from the archeological sites at Anyang. Very little is known, however, about their usage at this early stage, it is only starting from the Spring and Autumn period (BCE 722-481) that we begin to see an increased quantity of seals paired with textual references to them. According to a Han dynasty story, the first seal was given to the Yellow Emperor by a yellow dragon with a chart on its back. Another story says that it was given to Emperor Yao by a phoenix as the emperor was sitting in a boat. In any case, the receipt of the seal signifies the conferral of the Mandate of Heaven. He who has the seal possesses the Mandate of Heaven, in other words, he has been given the right to rule the empire. So when Tang, the first ruler of the Shang dynasty overthrows the last tyrant of the previous Xia dynasty, he seizes the royal seal and thus establishes his power.

Imperial seals

16Until the end of Warring States period (BCE 403-221), there was only one way of calling seals, both official and private, regardless of their use and material. This name was xi, which in the following periods gradually became the designation for imperial seals. According to the History of Tang dynasty, Empress Wu (634-705) issued an order to change the word xi, which was up until then used for imperial seals, to bao (treasure). Apparently, she disliked the fact that the word xi was close in sound to the si (death). But when Emperor Zhongzong resumed the throne in 705, he changed the name for imperial seals back to xi. In subsequent centuries the two words were alternated, depending on the period.

At the time of the Han dynasty, the emperor had six seals, during the Tang he had eight, during the Ming over a dozen, and by the time of the Qing, there were several dozens of official imperial seals. The inscription on these official seals usually refers to receiving the Mandate of Heaven or being the successor of Heaven.

17Another 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 ambitions, including calligraphy, and had produced a large amount of texts affixed with his seal. When his calligraphy was carved into stone steles, the seal was copied onto the surface of the stone too.

Yet another seal was used by the emperors to appraise and appreciate art. It was customary for collectors and connoisseurs of art to affix their seals on the surface of a scroll of painting or calligraphy. The paintings acquired by the imperial household were affixed by the imperial seal. Many famous paintings from the Forbidden City have seals of generations of subsequent emperors on them.

Official seals

18Official 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 golden, some copper, some with a handle in the shape of a turtle, some of a camel. Up to the Eastern Han dynasty (25-330), 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 etc.

marriageThe calligraphy of the inscription had 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

20Private 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, pseudonyms 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 tricky business.

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 substantially raise its value. Thus in the course of several centuries, some Chinese paintings became covered by a dozen of different seals.

21The rest of private seals can be conveniently categorized under the umbrella term "leisure seals". The inscription on these seals is usually a short text which is either a quote from a famous writing or just some saying that the owner thought important. Typical inscriptions are "Respect fate", "Attain wisdom", "Respect", "Use loyalty and humanity in your affairs" etc. One could compare these seals to signatures with a quote at the end of email messages where the people append some saying they consider valuable at the end of their message.

Seals in Ancient Chinese Magic -
How to avoid tigers and wolves using a seal

22This is a translation from Baopuzi (Master Embracing Simplicity), one of the most important works in the Taoist Canon. The book was written by Ge Hong (250-330) who called himself the Master Embracing Simplicity. This passage describes the use of seals in dealing with wild animals. The image to the left is an impression of a historical Yellow Spirit Seal.

Someone asked, "Those engaged in cultivating the Dao are all in the mountains and woods. The mountains and woods are dangerous because of tigers and wolves. How can one avoid them?"

Baopuzi said, "In ancient times, those who entered the mountains all wore on their belt the 'Yellow Spirit Leap' seal. It was four inches wide and had a hundred twenty characters on them. They stamped with it the ground in the four directions a hundred steps from their abode, the tigers and wolves could not come within the imprints. When they saw footprints of a new tiger, they stamped it with the seal in the direction of the tiger's path and the tiger immediately left the area. If they stamped it in the opposite direction and the tiger immediately returned. If you carry this seal while walking in the mountains, you will not be afraid of tigers and wolves. And not only tigers and wolves, if there is a blood-sucking evil spirit from a mountain or river shrine who can harm you, by stamping on the ground you will cut off its path and it will not be able to act as a spirit anymore.

"In the past, there was a turtle in the water in caves. It usually was in a deep pool and, because of it, people called this pool 'Turtle Pool'. This creature could become a bogy and inflict illness on people. There was a Taoist monk in Wu who had a halo over his head, occasionally he could see it. Using his 'Yellow Spirit Leap' seal he made a few hundred imprints on dirt and, sitting in a boat, threw them into the pool one by one. After a long while a large turtle ten feet wide came up to the surface and floated there not being able to move. Then he killed it and all those who felt ill got well. Beside this, a lot of small turtles came out too and died one after the other on the shore.

"If you unexpectedly run into a tiger in the mountain, promptly do the three-five spell and the tiger will leave at once. The three-five spell can be only transmitted orally, you cannot describe it using a brush. One way is to simply imagine yourself as a vermilion bird, thirty foot long, sitting on the tiger's head. Because you block his qi, the tiger will leave at once.