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Overview of Seals--Assorted Materials and Knobs
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Also known as a chop in English, a seal is comprised of the body itself and a surface for making an impression. Making copies of the seal (by repeatedly affixing the seal for its contents) serve as proof of authenticity or evidence. Regardless of variations in use or appearance, such objects are all called seals.

Throughout the world, seals have a history of five thousand years. Stamps were used in the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and India. However, only in Chinese culture does the seal have an unbroken history of three thousand years. Not only that, Chinese culture brought the art of seal carving to a pinnacle and popularized its use among the people, eventually influencing the social customs of Japan and Korea. In the elegant understanding of the traditional scholar, the art of seal carving has long been recognized as one of the four cultivations required in literati life, the others being poetry, calligraphy, and painting.

A variety of materials has been used for producing seals. In addition to bronze, ceramic, and glass, which must be cast or fired, other materials include jade, stone, ivory, bone, bamboo, wood, and rhinoceros horn. All have been extracted from nature and processed into seals.

The knob forms part of the seal body. Early varieties involved adding a ribbon loop so that the seal could be affixed. Later, the seal body was heightened to make it easier to grasp and to decorate the knob with animated forms. Late stone seals were carved with flat knobs, in relief, or with shallow engraving to lightly decorate the body and enrich its lyrical features.

Mastering All Forms--Seal Materials

When Chinese seals emerged more than three thousand years ago, they initially were made from such common materials as clay and stone, the engraved stamp repeatedly applied to form designs and marks. Later, the range of materials was expanded to include various kinds of jade and stone, ivory and horn, and bamboo and wood. Down into the Ming and Ch'ing dynasties, Shou-shan stone of Fukien, Ch'ing-t'ien stone and "chicken blood" stone from Chekiang, became favorites among seal carvers and collectors.

The production of bronze seals required several steps, involving the creation of a mold, engraving, and casting of the metal. This complex process, and the need for proof of authenticity and forgery prevention, led bronze to become a major material for official seals from the Warring States period down to the present day. The use of ceramic for seals emerged with the rise of kilns in the Sung and Yüan dynasties, and this material is sometimes seen among the personal studio seals of literati.


Bronze seal
Bronze seal
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Jade Seal
Jade Seal
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Tying the Knot--Seal Knobs
The size of bronze and jade seal knobs prior to the Wei and Chin period differed according to the rank of the official who used them. The knobs were also accompanied by seal ribbons for suspending and applying the seals to wet clay. Knobs came in various forms, including nose, altar, tile, tortoise, and camel. In the Sui and T'ang period, the method of using seals changed, as they were increasingly pressed into red paste before application. As a result, the body of the seal became larger. Seals were also no longer suspended, meaning that the knob could be transformed into tall and straight or columnar forms. Seals used by scholars gradually became marked by longer bodies, and knobs were flat or carved in the forms of various animals, beasts, or figures. Later came clever decorations of shallow engraving on the body, including landscapes, flowers, pines and rocks, and fishing in reclusion, which added considerably to the visual content.

Stone seal
Stone seal
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Yüan-chin yün-chang permutating seal with lion knob signifying first permutation
Yüan-chin yün-chang
permutating seal with lion knob
signifying first permutation
see larger image 1