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The Past as Told by Seals--Periods in the History of Seal Cutting
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Political chaos and commercial developments led to the rise of seals in the Warring States period, with those of the states of Ch'i, Yen, Chin, Ch'u, and Ch'in each having their own characteristics. The variant characters and archaic writing made for a plethora of seal surfaces.

With the unification of China under the Ch'in dynasty followed by the Han, standardization emerged as the rule for seals. The shapes and knobs of official seals became more formalized and personal seals increasingly standardized, if not lacking a bit in liveliness.

Seals in the Wei, Chin, and Northern and Southern Dynasties period followed those of the Han, but knob seal forms underwent transformation. Animal-shaped knobs, such as camels and horses, added an exotic touch for a new and simple approach to the directness of seals.

In this era, the previous custom of using wood and bamboo strips as a medium for writing was gradually eclipsed by the rise of paper. Consequently, the custom of "sealing clay" to verify the writing on slips was also dropped in favor of impressions made in "seal red (paste)". The emergence of red paste and paper as media for seals therefore became the new format for using seals. In the Sui and T'ang dynasties, official seals became larger, and high official seals of the following Sung, Yüan, Ming and Ch'ing dynasties were even grander, as the history of official and private seals went on markedly different courses. This is an overview of official seals (mostly in the form of bronze seals).

Personal seals of scholars from the T'ang and Sung dynasties up to the Yüan dynasty were often first transferred (in seal script as the master copy) and then given to craftsmen to be cast or carved. In the late Yüan dynasty, Wang Mien began carving his own seals from Hua-ju stone, and Wen P'eng and Ho Chen of the Ming dynasty devoted considerable energy to the art of seal carving, developing by leaps and bounds the methods of seal character script, knifework, and seal borders. Along with the trend then of gathering ancient seals into manuals and having them printed, it gradually opened the floodgates for seal carving among literati.

By the Ch'ing dynasty, various schools of seal carving appeared, each with their own virtues. From the late Ch'ing to the Republican period, a generation of famous seal cutters appeared with precise knifework. Deriving inspiration for new from materials of old in terms of seals, even more variety was added to seal techniques for an unprecedented period of development. This, in general, is a synopsis of the history and schools of seals.

The former collection of bronze seals from the Ch'ing imperial house provides an invaluable source of historical information on the chronology of official seals. After transport to Taiwan, various benefactors have also donated and entrusted stone seals to the Museum. These treasures of modern seal carving help complete the history of Chinese seals from ancient times down to the present era.

The Grace of Official Seals--Seals of the Warring States

Official seals were conceived in the Shang and Chou dynasties, and rising political turbulence and the growth of commerce in the Spring and Autumn to Warring States period made requirements for "proof of authenticity" increasingly urgent. The so-called "seal worn by Su Ch'in as prime minister of the Six States" and "ancient official seal" were produced in large numbers under such conditions.
       

Refined seal shapes and cleverly designed seal surfaces became the fixture of official seals of the Warring States. Unusual texts found on these seals offers direct evidence for the historical descriptions of Warring States seals as "strange in writing, odd in character".

Li Mu official seal
Li Mu official seal
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Great wealth seal
Great wealth seal
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Ch'in Script as Unifier--Ch'in and Han Dynasty Seals

When the First Emperor of China, Ch'in-shih huang-ti, unified the country, he also brought an end to the confusion of written forms in the Warring States period. The writing of Ch'in was compiled into a dictionary known as Ts'ang-chieh's Book, which established the forms of seal script and was promulgated for use throughout the land. Since edicts issued by the authorities were often engraved for carving and distribution, their influence was widespread. Many Ch'in dynasty seals, although square and framed in the form of grids like the characters "t'ien 田" and "jih 日", are still quite unbridled and unrestrained in their naïve yet interesting animated manner.

The early Han dynasty followed Ch'in regulations and gradually developed more standards. The arrangement of four characters in a square was neat and orderly, becoming the greatest distinguishing feature of Han seals. Many seals with five characters were cast in the Hsin Interregnum, between the Western and Eastern Han, and seal knobs also became quite refined. Seal script of the Eastern Han is very dignified, with variations in the slightest of details. By the latter period, it became increasingly stiff or cursive, gradually leading to a new form of seal engraving known as "draft cursive".

Chih Ts'ai letter seal
Chih Ts'ai letter seal
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Chang Ts'an name seal
Chang Ts'an name seal
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A Variety Fine and Bold--Seals of the Wei, Chin, and Northern and Southern Dynasties

After the Wei and Chin period, regular script quickly became the style of writing in common use as archaic seal script lost its status for use in practical applications. Nonetheless, among those still admiring the ancients, the cursory and simplified as well as convoluted characters of seal script were still engraved as epitaph inscriptions and on seals.

In addition to the sharp and powerful as well as coarse and thick seal styles and other forms, various knobs, paired seal sets, and multiple seal surfaces also became features of this period.

Governor of Weihsin official seal
Governor of Weihsin
official seal
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Shuai shan chang [overseer] of Wuwan official seal

Shuai shan chang [overseer]
of Wuwan official seal

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Nine-Fold New Impressions in Red--Seals of the T'ang, Sung, Yüan, and Ming Dynasties

The spread of paper and printing techniques transformed the use of seals--from seal impressions in clay to those made with red paste. The surface of seals also increased in size. In addition to the rounded and convoluted "nine-fold" seal script, there also appeared official personal seals in clerical and regular script. In the Sung and Yüan dynasties, insignia seals producing impressions in the form of signatures were popular, adding even further variety.

The sinified peoples of the Liao, Western Hsia, Chin, and Mongol Yüan dynasties all had their own distinctive written forms. The seals they made were often derivations of Chinese writing arrangements in seal script, providing more directions in the history of seals.

Morality is happiness seal
Morality is happiness seal
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Phags pa text seal
Phags pa text seal
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Yü ch'in yao yüan seal
Yü ch'in yao yüan seal
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Wielding a Knife Like a Brush--Seal Carving of the Ming and Ch'ing Dynasties

The custom of scholars carving seals rose in the middle to late Ming dynasty. Artists such as Wen P'eng and Ho Chen achieved fame in their pursuit of imitating the ancient simplicity of Ch'in and Han dynasty seals. Consequently, individual seal styles developed into such groupings as the Wu-men (Wen P'eng), Hui (Ho Chen), and Lü-tung (Wang Kuan) Schools.

During the Ch'ien-lung and Chia-ch'ing reigns of the middle Ch'ing dynasty, the study of bronze and stone inscriptions flourished, expanding the repertoire of material for seal carvers and yielding a major change in the styles of seals and their texts. Both the Che School (composed of the Eight Masters of Hsi-ling: Ting Ching, Chiang Jen, Huang I, Hsi Kang, Ch'en Yü-chung, Ch'en Hung-shou, Chao Chih-ch'en, Ch'ien Sung, and Yang Hsieh) and Wan School (including Teng Shih-ju and Wu Hsi-tsai) were influential in the late Ch'ing. Chao Chih-ch'ien exerted considerable effort with seals to boldly push the range of seals and open new fields for exploration.


Chang Yüan seeks longevity name seal
Chang Yüan seeks
longevity name seal
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The New Beauty of Bold and Pure--Seal Carving Trends of the Late Ch'ing and Republican Period

Various masters in the late Ch'ing had their own styles, and their forms of expression can be generally divided into two approaches--bold eccentricity and pure power.

The approach of pure power involved following Chao Chung-mu and Hsü San-keng of the Teng School to create the New Che School (Hu Chü-lin and Chao Shih-kang) and the brilliance of the I-shan School (Huang Shih-ling, Li Yin-sang, and Teng Erh-ya). Their influence challenged the refinement of the red-and-white text of such figures as Wang Fu-an, Chao Ho-ch'in, Fang Chieh-k'an, Ch'en Chü-lai, and Tseng Shao-chieh.

The approach of bold eccentricity was mainly represented by the two masters Wu Ch'ang-shih and Ch'i Pai-shih, marked by the simplicity of the Wu School (continued by Ch'ien Shou-t'ieh and Wang Ko-i) and the carefree manner of the Ch'i School. There were also the original manners of Chao Ku-ni and Teng San-mu, who emphasized variations of arrangement and are now represented by Wu P'ing.

In his early years, Wang Chuang-wei studied the I-shan School, but later he pursued the mature manner of the Wu School, achieving the virtues of both. T'ai Chin-nung, with the brushwork cultivation of a calligrapher and the manner of a literatus, was able to achieve divine inspiration and "dabble among the deities".


Read despite an old person's memory seal
Read despite an old
person's memory seal
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Of Both Heart and Mind--Seals of the Emotions

In addition to seals for names, studios, collecting, studies, and blessings, there are those generally referred to as "leisure seals", many of which take characters, phrases, or lines from poetry with special meaning to the user. They are meant to encourage, offer hope, invest feelings, or express emotions. The lines are often beautiful, the seal writing elegant, and the carving refined, combining the three arts of "poetry, calligraphy, and seal carving" all in one. These seals were therefore often used on works of painting and calligraphy, books and albums, and on letters, often giving the viewer a peek into the heart and mind of the person who used them. The variety of contents for carving such seals emerges from the different situations and conditions that gave rise to them. The experiences in life are indeed endless, as is the potential for carving the contents of seals; in other words, "that which we feel, we put in writing".


The Styles of Writing--Script Types of Seals

The term for "seal" carving derives from the main script type used for it--"seal script", and archaic seal has a history of three thousand years. In the past, a wide variety of styles emerged for seals, including ancient official, Ch'in and Han bronze seal clay impressions, Wei and Chin seals, T'ang and Sung "nine-fold" seal script, and Yüan dynasty red script. Looking beyond seals themselves, there are also the oracle bone and bronze scripts of the Shang and Chou dynasties; writing on slips and cloth, inscriptions on weapons and coins, and engravings on ceramics and stone of the Eastern Chou period; seal script stele tableaus of the Han dynasty; and seal script and transcriptions of ancient writing in the T'ang dynasty. The clerical and seal script forms on seals from the T'ang and Sung dynasties and afterwards is marked by the variety of regular, cursive, clerical, and seal scripts in the history of calligraphy. This complex of forms and styles was used on the surfaces and sides of seals, further adding to the depth and breadth of the world of "seal carving".
       
In fact, the history of seals and their carving reflects the three thousand years of Chinese characters, and it is also a history of the calligraphic art of casting and engraving the written form in metal and stone.

Da ch'ien's (bird and flower seal script) seal

Da ch'ien's
(bird and flower seal script) seal

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Chang yüan name seal (multi-angled script)
Chang yüan name seal
(multi-angled script)
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