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Chinese Seal

Chinese seal is a kind of stationary used to authorize. The materials of seal are various, including metal, jade, stone, and wood and so on. Chinese seal is regarded as a part of Chinese culture, and plays an important role in Chinese culture. It has been used for official and private in the past 3,000 years. The earliest example of seal comes from the Shang Dynasty (1600 B.C. - 1100 B.C.) ruins at Anyang. It’s a combination of carving and Chinese calligraphy.

Legends about Chinese Seal

According to a Han Dynasty legend, the first seal was given to the Yellow Emperor by a yellow dragon with a chart on its back. The other says that the seal was given to Emperor Yao by a phoenix as Yao was sitting in a boat. In ancient China, 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. Hence, the seal is regarded as the symbol of power.

Chinese seal

Three Types of the Seals

Seals can be divided into three categories, the imperial seal, the official seals and the private seals according to their usage. Different Dynasties have different styles of their seals, including the inscription, design and so on.

•The Imperial Seals
During the Warring States (476B.C.-221B.C.), there was only one way of calling seals, both official and private, regardless of their usage and material. The name was Xi, which in the following periods gradually became the name only for imperial seals. And the imperial seals is always made of jade.

According to the historical records of Tang Dynasty, Empress Wu Zetian changed the name of seal ‘Xi' into ‘Bao', meaning treasure in Chinese, because she disliked the pronunciation of Xi which sounds like death in Chinese.

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 used alternatively.

In Han Dynasty, the emperor had six seals. During the Tang Dynasty, the number began eight, during the Ming Dynasty, the emperor had more than a dozen, and by the time of the Qing Dynasty, there were several dozens of official imperial seals.

Chinese seal

The inscription on these seals usually refers to receiving the Mandate of Heaven or being the successor of Heaven. Another type of imperial seal was the seal the emperor used to issue certain document written in his own handwriting. Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795) in Qing Dynasty, for example, was famous for his literary talent and calligraphy, so he left a large amount of articles and writings affixed with his seal.

•The Official Seals

The official seals were served as a token of office and authority. These seals were usually made small so that the officials could carry on their belts. The seal were made of gold, copper or jade with the handles shaped of turtle, camel and so on. Up to the Eastern Han Dynasty ( 25 A .D. -220A .D.), the color of ink used to affix official seals was depending on the official ranks of its owner, some used green ink, some purple and some yellow, etc.

The calligraphy of the inscription had changed a lot as the civilization advanced. In the Han Dynasty, the characters on the seal are thick and angular. In the Sui Dynasty (581A.D. – 618 A.D.), they became round and thinner, and during the Song and Yuan Dynasties, the spectacular nine-folded script came into being.

Chinese seal

When it moved on to the Qing Dynasty, most official seals are bilingual with the Chinese inscription on the right side and the Manchu inscription on the left.

•The Private Seals

As to the private seals, they show the great diversities in content, shape, size, material and calligraphy. Despite their differences, the private seals can be divided according to their different usages. Seals with names, pen names and others were used as a signature. This is the way artists sign their works and letters.

For many Chinese artists usually used different pseudonyms on their works, identifying the authors from the seal is not that easy. Collector seals were primarily used for authenticating pieces of art masterpieces. Thus, a famous collector’s seal would become an integral part of a work and could substantially raise its value. So it’s common to see some Chinese paintings or calligraphies covered by a dozen of different seals.

The rest of private seals can be regarded as leisure seals. The inscriptions on these seals usually quote from a famous writing or saying, which can show the owner's taste.