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All in a Small Square--Seal Shapes and Contents
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Ancient bronze seals was mostly square (approximately 2.3 cm), so the square became the shape most often representing the world of seal surfaces.

Seal surfaces were either cast or carved, with bronze seals mostly cast and other materials mainly carved. Seals also come in many shapes, both square and round as well as rectangular and oval. The range of personal seals is especially diverse. Seals can be made to produce impressions of text appearing in white (engraving the text on the seal surface) and text appearing in red (carving away the background to leave the text). Some seal surfaces have grid demarcations and edges, making impressions of either text or imagery limited only by the artist's imagination. All this is possible within the small space of the seal surface.

Many Chinese characters derive from linear pictures of the things they were meant to represent, which is why pictographic forms are often found among Shang and Chou dynasty characters. The use of seals began for the purpose of making designs on pottery, and many seals have been archaeologically excavated and testify to the origins of such decorations found on early ceramics and bronzes. The "Ya-ch'in" seal in the Museum collection is such a pictographic form and represents a fountainhead for text seals.

Pictorial seals from the Warring States to the Han dynasty often reveal animated subject matter, enriching our understanding of society at the time as well as the immense range of text seal contents. Official seals, for example, can provide documentation of administrative regions. Name seals can be used to trace the origins and development of names through history. Seals of reminder and auspicious phrases can reveal the customs and beliefs of the ancients, and lines of poetry can offer a glimpse into the feelings of people in the past. The variety is unlimited, and, in this tiny space, almost anything becomes possible. As the Buddhist saying goes, "the universe is contained within a mustard seed", which is also an appropriate metaphor for seals and their contents.

Kneading Clay, Pressing Seals-The Origins of Seals

Three knobbed bronze seals were said to have been excavated from the ruins of Yin, capital of the late Shang dynasty. Two are in the collection of the National Palace Museum in Taipei--the "Ya-ch'in" and "Fu-hsün i-chih" seals.

The nose knob is similar to that found on bronze mirrors of the Hsia and Shang dynasties, while the seal text can be verified against clan symbols cast on Shang dynasty bronzes and characters engraved on oracle bones, indicating without a doubt that they are ancient objects from more than 3,000 years ago.

"Fu-hsün i-chih" seal
"Fu-hsün i-chih" seal
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"Ya-ch'in" seal
"Ya-ch'in" seal
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Dragon Clouds, Tiger Wind--Pictorial Seals

Pictorial seals are also called "seals resembling forms", and their origins can be traced back to the impressed molds used in producing pottery and casting bronzes in the Shang and Chou dynasties. They flourished in the period from the Warring States and into the Ch'in and Han dynasties. The forms most commonly seen include those of the dragon, phoenix, crane, fish, and mystical beast. Later, they were combined with characters to form pictorial-text seals, and the repertoire was expanded to include such imagery as figures on horseback and the Four Spirit Creatures (dragon, tiger, phoenix, and tortoise), creating for a lively variety. In more recent times, seals have even been used for portraits, representing an innovative application of this art form.

Ch'un Yü-chi double bird and fish design double ended seal
Ch'un Yü-chi double bird and
fish design double ended seal
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Warring states tiger design seal
Warring states tiger design seal
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Good Fortune Without End--Seals with Auspicious Phrases

Health, happiness, wealth, peace, and longevity are common desires of all people. For this reason, auspicious phrases offering blessings to this effect are often found in the texts of seals, including "happy old age", "venerably ancient", "years without end", and "longevity" blessings for old age; "great wealth", "uncountable gold", "daily profit", and "prospering" for material wealth; and "lucky and auspicious", "health and happiness", "peace and wellness", and "safe and sound" for overall well-being. There are not only blessings to "always be on the receiving end of good fortune", but even hopes that one would have "fitting sons and grandsons", for nothing can take their place as one's descendants. A short auspicious message in the text of a seal reveals common feelings and values that run deep in Chinese culture.

Beseeching longevity seal

Beseeching longevity seal

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Glorious Impressions of Red--Literati Studio Seals

With the Yüan and Ming dynasties, the use of seals as records by literati became increasingly widespread. Not only did they record their names with seals, they also had seals for style names and sobriquets as well as studio seals. There were also seals to record their studies, the inscriptions they made, proofreading, book collecting, the collecting of painting and other artworks, reaching a particular age, and for personal letters. They appear on a variety of works of painting and calligraphy, books, and other antiquities. The impressions of these seals for their names, studios, studies, and book collections all explain details of the emotions, life, and existence of the people who applied them.

Double ended seal with letter closing seal and Li Wei-sun's comparative edition seal
Double ended seal with letter
closing seal and Li Wei-sun's
comparative edition seal
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Stone seal of authentication and collection of "Yü ch'i yao yüan Studio"

Stone seal of authentication
and collection of "Yü ch'i yao yüan Studio"

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