Chinese Seals History and Definitions





The earliest Chinese seals can be traced back to the late Shang Dynasty since bronze seals of that time already bore the prime features of seals. Early seals were associated with inscriptions on bronze vessels.

During the Spring and Autumn period and the Warring States, when local government structurs got complete and commercial economy developed, the seal played more roles in society.

Quickly craftsmanship advanced the high productivity of bronze seals. Seal engravings in the period were characterized by their various carved knobs and distinct seal characters, owing to the cutting apart of territory, bearing remarkable pecuilarity.

The effect of ancient pre-Qin seals could be achieved either through stamping seals directly on media or making impressions on sealing clay, thus leading to corresponding forms of seal engravings. PRIVATE SEALS valued convenience and artistic appearances and more types were introduced to them, such as pictorial seals, seals with idiomatic phrases and ornamental seals worn as pendants.

Characters on OFFICIA SEALS and PRIVATE SEALS during the Warring States period reflect their respective identities. E.g.: Characters on Qi seals were unaffected, bold and vigorous, seals of the Yan State varied in forms with neat and graceful composition……

Characters on ancient seals were in the manner of graceful disorder. The beauty that lay in an atmosphere of vivacity and the thick or thin spacing of characters, represented by various seal forms, reflected a maturity of technical and aesthetic practice.



In the QIN Dynasty rigid standards were set up for the material and design of official seals of different ranks. The sinuous seal script, or MOUZHUAN, was the only script for seals of the Qin and Han Dynasties and it was used for nearly eight centuries. Cultural relics of clay seals of this period remained in great quantity.

During this period shapes and strokes of seal scripts of OFFICIAL SEALS  turned to be simplified and bold, and new elements were added into the art of calligraphy on seal engraving. The once ubiquitous pendant seals became less popular during this period.

During The Qin and Han Dynasties, both OFFICIAL SEALS and PRIVATE SEALS were extensively used. Influences by the Han style, the strokes on seals of the Three Kingdoms and Western Jin Dynasty became square and angular. Jade seals and BIRD-OR-INSECT book seals prevailing in the Han Dynasty were magnificent and stylish.

A special office was set up during the Qin and Han Dynasties for the supervision over OFFICIAL SEALS. Different materials, knobs and ribbons were associated with different OFFICIAL SEALS: royal seal stamp and PRIVATE SEAL, in order to indicate official grades and ranks. The creation of PRIVATE SEAL enjoyed high freedom and unrestraint. Rich in literary meanings, PICTORIAL SEALS and seals with idiomatic phrases reflected certain social conceptions.

By the end of the Western and Eastern Jin Dynasties, in place of seal script and official script, regular script became the popular handwriting. Seal script of this period was characterized by the simplified strokes and the tendency to be square and angular.

In the Sui Dynasty hastily yet spontaneously engraved stamps exhibited a new style of being intricate and forceful, robust and dense. Tortoise-shaped knobs were exaggeratedly cast, and were infused with special cutting art, related to the development of sculpture at that time.



The Tang Dynasty inherited the regulations of the Sui Dynasty. Since then a new system of ancient Chinese OFFICIAL SEALS was formed. The management of the supervision over the seal making improved during the Northern and Southern Song Dynasties. The lively and sparse seal script in the Sui and Tang Dynasties gradually turned to be natural and neat, and under the Jin and Yuan dynasties the seal script was dominated by NINEFOLD SCRIPT. Ethnic characters of the Liao, Western Xia and Yuan dynasties were engraved on seals, but they were usually an imitation of the Han script.

During the Tang and the Song Dynasties both OFFICIAL SEALS and PRIVAT SEALS were composed in official and regular script, which brought an air of freshness and simplicity. The popularity of signatures in a cursive script affixing a seal from the Song and Yuan Dynasties enriched the seal script forms.

A new seal system was established in the Sui and Tang Dynasties. The central and local governments now used office seals instead of those with titles and official positions. In the Northern Song Dynasty the backs of seals were marked with manes of the department in charge, and certain authoritative plates were utilized to be in exchange of OFFICIAL SEALS . OFFICIAL SEALS  in the Han Dynasty became to bear numbers. KNOBS if this period turned out to be simple and plain. Status indicating symbols became less important than in Qin and Han Dynasties.

OFFICIAL SEALS awarded to ethnic minorities were greatly influenced by those of the Tang and Sui Dynasties in shape. OFFICIAL SEALS of the Western Xia Dynasties used the NINEFOLD SCRIPT

As for PRIVATE  SEALS : In this period of the Song and Yuan Dynasties they were endowed with a variety of types and fresh styles. Signature seals with rectangular script were cast in great quantity. Due to this promotion of “new Mongolian characters” both Chinese and Phags-pa characters were used on PRIVATE  SEALS  of the Yuan Dynasty.



It was during the Ming Dynasty that the development of Chinese seals entered a new stage as literati seal engravings played a major role. Following the design of the Jin and Yuan dynasties OFFICIAL SEALS of the Ming dynasty left wide margins on four sides, with characters arranged more closely. Now many different kinds were used for seal carving. The seal engraving enjoyed a new trend of the renascence of seal-script calligraphy and the flourishing of archaism in that period. Along with calligraphy and painting, seal carving became an art of its own. Literati not only applied the traditional approaches but also explored new techniques and literary content in making seals, from which they enjoyed great pleasure and relaxation. Various regions and traditions formed different schools of seal engraving.

During the Ming and Qing dynasties palace literati and scholar-officials were keen on appreciating and collecting seals. Their particular concern of the exquisite materials and knobs created a better appreciation effect on seals.

The autocracy was intensified during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. Under the supervision of the Casting Bureau of the Ministry of Rites OFFICIAL SEALS had to follow certain standards in forms, materials and script types. In the Qing Dynasty an OFFICIAL SEAL was engraved with both Manchu and Chinese scripts. The style of PRIVATE SEALS and literati seal engraving influenced each other in the Ming dynasty. Two styles emerged and were either imitating ancient systems or initiating new ideas in the art of seal engraving.



After the Ming Dynasty scholars were enthusiastic about expressing their emotions and ideas through engraving their own stone seals in imitation of Qin and Han styles, thus leading to some new changes in engraving skills and aesthetic tastes.

In the late Ming expert seal engravers as Wen Peng, Su Xuan, Zhu Jian, Wang Guan and Liang Zhi not merely recaptured the essence of seal engravings in the Qin and Han Dynasties, but sought to make transformations and build up their own interpretations of the art. The Wu school founded by Wen Peng, the Hui school founded by He Zhen and the Loudong school founded by Wang Guan, all enjoyed high fame during the late Ming and early Qing.

After the Mid-Qing literati seal engraving entered its prime time. Various schools emerged one after another, characterized by distinctive and diversified flavor. The forming of the Zhejiang school and the sudden rise of Deng Shiru were the best representatives of those changes.

With the emergence of other regional schools all different styles and features created a spectacular period for the development of seal making.

The Zhejian school extended its influence till the late Qing Dynasty. Zhao Zhichen and others adhered to conventions, while Yang Xie and Qian Song, being edified first, finally succeeded in creating a new style. Also the influence of Deng Shiru continued strongly.

By and by regional and former master’s impact weakened. Xu Sangeng, Zhao Zhiqian, Hu Hue, Huang Shiling and Wu Changshuo were unsurpassable in the seal world with their distinctive styles and all of them hold significant influence till today.




TERMS and EXPRESSIONS used in the Art of Seal Engraving

刀法 (Cutting technique) also DAOQU 刀趣 The design of the characters and the seal character arrangement is carried out through the cutting technique. The seal carvers of the Ming and Qing Dynasties recognized about a dozen cutting techniques. 

But roughly speaking there are only two:

      – CHONG DAO 
重刀 (push cutting) Push cutting means cutting the seal face with the front edge or side edge of the graver and pushing the graver forward. The strokes are thereby cut neat and powerful.

      – QIE DAO 切刀 (press cutting) Press cutting means cutting the seal face with the angle of the edge by pressing it down, then lifting the graver and pressing it down again. The strikes so cut are of ancient simplicity and bold.

Seals carved with a design of figures, creatures, vehicles and architectures belong to a special type of private seals. It was popularly used as auspicious whishes or design mould stamps in the Warring States Period and Han and Jin Dynasties (475BC-AD 420).

Being a special type of ancient Chinese seals, horse brand stamps look similar to ordinary seals but were only used to brand horses for their identification.

Ancient Chinese seals were mainly made of metal, Jade, stone, ceramics, bone or ivory. In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) stone seals became popular and became the most prominent material in the iterati’s seal carving.

The most common stones are:

      – QINGTIAN STONE 青田石 It is the most common seal stone, coming from Qingtian county in Zhejiang province. The ones with translucent jelly-like grains of “dengguangdong” (lamp light jelly) and “fengmengdong” (seal door jelly) are the best in quality.

      – CHANGHUA STONE 昌化石 Comes from Changhuam Lin’an county, Zhejiang province. The ones with pure and translucent jally-like grains of “oufendong” (lotous-root powder jelly) and “manaodong” (agate jelly) ate the best. The ones with red grains, known aa “jixueshi” (chickenblood stone) are the most famous of this kind.

     –  SHOUSHAN STONE 寿山石 The stone from Shoushan, Fuzhou city, Fujian province vary greatly in quality. The yellow TIANHUANG soap stone is the most expensive. “baifurong” (white cottonrose hibiscus) and “yunaodong” (fish brain jelly) are famous too. Some 30-40 different kinds exist and are sometimes hard to tell.


OFFICIAL SEALS In ancient China, official seals, as a kind of certificate, were offered ti the officials at the time when they were appointed to posts. So their seals vary in size, material and shape with their posts. Different ages have different styles. The Qin and Han seal characters were made by carving or casting; the Sui and Tang characters were carved in low relief; the Song seals have fate marks; and the Jin Yuan; Ming and Qing seal characters are mostly carved in JIUDIE seal script with multiple and parallel strokes. Furthermore seal knobs also vary with ages. OFFICIAL SEALS were used for the exercise of political power and functions.

PRIVATE SEAL私印 In ancient time private seals were taken as a kind of credit of a person’s identity. They could have different contents for different functions, such as seals of a person’s name, a studio name, an auspicious phrase, a zodiac animal, an idiom and a collection appraisal mark. PRIVATE SEALwere used for associations and contacts among the members of society as evidence of trustworthiness.

(Seals were divided into OFFICIAL SEALS and PRIVATE SEALS as early as the Spring and Autumn Period because of their uses on different occasions).

RED LEGEND 红文and WHITE LEGEND 白文 Seal characters carved in relief are called the RED or POSITIVE LEGEND as they are in red when stamped on paper; otherwise they are called the WHITE or NEGATIVE LEGEND.

BIANKUAN 边款 (Characters on Seal Sides) In addition to the seal characters some seals also have inscriptions in the top and on sides. The Sui, Tang, Song and Yuan (581-1368) seal inscriptions usually give the date and content explanation. And the Ming ands Qing (1368-1911) ones have more contents as an art component of the seals.

Most ancient Chinese seals have a pierced knob in shape of a nose, an arched tile, a trapezoid, a serpent, a turtle, a camel or a horse ion the top for handling and stringing. It could also be regarded as rank marks of official seals. Private seal knobs have more varieties.

The most common ones are: BI NIU 鼻纽 (nose knob), TAI NIU ( table knob) and FUDOU NIU ( covered container knob).


      – DAZHUAN 大篆 (Large seal script) is a style of calligraphy, developed in the Zhou Dynasty and used up until the Qin Dynasty, Different versions if this script existed in different states. It is an unrestrained and natural style.

      – XIAOZHUAN 
小篆 (Small seal script) was adopted in the Qin Dynasty after the First Emperor if the Qin Dynasty unified China. His Prime-Minister Li Si compiled a list of standard characters for use all over the new empire. It is also known as
QINZHUAN. It is smoother, more fluent and better balanced as DAZHUAN and the shape and structure are even and symmetrical.

      – MOYIN
Style 摹印体 This style evolved on the basis if the XIAOZHUAN as a special script for seal cutting in the Qin Dynasty. It was the standard script for OFFICIAL SEALS at that time. It was adopted to meet the needs of the seal carvers. As it was nit widely used for seals until mad- and late-Western Han Dynasty it is sometimes called HANZHUAN.

      – MOUZHUAN  
缪篆 (Sinuous seal script) Is a variant of the MOYIN style. MOU means twisting or winding.

鸟虫书 (Birds and Insect Characters). This decorative seal character style has lines which remind of shapes of birds and insects. It was popular in the Han Period and is hard to read.

      – XUANZHENSHU 悬针书 (Suspended Needle Characters) This style was popular during the Three Kingdom Period. It prolongs the vertical strokes of the MOUZHUAN characters and ends them with a needle-like point. It is a week style and thus not used for a long time.

      – JIUDIE
(WEN) 九叠文 Nine-folds Writing. Seal faces were enlarged during the Tang and Song Dynasties. In order to fill up the extra space on the seal face, the strokes of the characters were wound and coiled. JIU (nine) means “too many” here, not necessarily “nine”. This style was used throughout the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties for official seals and was not abandoned until the beginning of 20th century.

玺 It is one of the Chinese names for seals, referring to both official and private seals before the Qin-Dynasty (221 BC), but only to emperors’, empresses’ and princes’ seals after Qin, Other officials’ seals were called YIN the, Empresses’ seals were also called BAO in and after Tang-Dynasty (618-907).

YINPU 印谱 (Seal albums) Books for source material for copying or reference. They may feature seals made in a certain period, of a certain school, by a certain seal cutter, on a certain subject or collected by a certain collector.

YINZHANG 印章 Since the Han Dynasty new names for seals have appeared one after another but YIN and ZHANG have remained as basic names and therefore. YINZHANG has become a general term.


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Chang Chung-yan: Tao, Zen und schöpferische Kraft. Diederichs Verlag, 1985

Deng Jing: Xi Yin. (Seals and Chops) Shandong Meishu chuban-she, 2009 : . 出版

Deng Jing: Deng Jing tan Ming Qing yinzhang. (Deng Jing about Seals of the Ming- and Qing-period) Shandong Meishu chuban-she, 2010 : 明清印. 出版

Leaflet by Education Department of the Shanghai Museum.

Fang Zhongwa: Shou Shan-shi pinjian yu shoucang (Shou shan-Sones Identifying and Collecting), Commercial Press, Hong Kong 2008 方宗硅: 寿山石品鉴定与收藏

Niu Kecheng. Chinese Seals. Foreign Languages Press, Beijing 2008

T. C. Lai: Chinese Seals. University of Washington Press. 1976

Pan Guoyan: Zhuanke Zidian (Seal-Dictionary), Changchun, Jilin wenshi chuban-she, 2009 潘国彦:篆刻字典,春吉林文史出版社

Deng Sanmu: Zhuanke-xue (The Art of Seal Carving).

Renmin Meishu chuban-she. Beijing 1978 散木篆刻学.人民美出版

Shanghai buowuguan cang yin xuan (Selected  Seals of the Shanghai Museum). Shanghai shu hua chuban-she, Shanghai 1979

上海博物藏印. 上海画出版社

Shanghai Museum Chinese Seal Gallery. Booklet by Shanghai Museum.

Zhu Hongxiang: Zhuanke yishu chutan (Rudimantary talk on the Art of Seal Carving), Jiangxi meishu chuban-she, 2005 朱鸿祥: 篆刻艺术初探,江西美术出版社

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