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
Official imperial seal
from the Qing dynasty
inscription in Chinese
(right) and Manchu (left)
Seal of the Handwriting
of Emperor Qianlong
Until 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.
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 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 seal of
the Coach Attendant
Eastern Han period
Official seal with
the so-called "nine-fold"
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 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.
The 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 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.
The 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.
Written by Imre Galambos © 2000 Logoi.com. All Rights Reserved
Seals in Chinese Magic
Origins of Chinese writing
The Chinese alphabet
Pictographs versus alphabet
Language Learning: Chinese CD-ROM