Chinese Seal: an Ancient Charm

Chinese seals perform a simple, uniform purpose. They serve as a personal signature of their owner, or more significantly, they serve as the symbol of legitimacy for a ruler or a high social status. The use of seals in China originated during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods (BC 770- 249). There was a need for a formal system to record and preserve records of economic, military, and administrative functions. The development of Chinese seals, either from function or artistic forms, went on from craftspeople and artisans to the emperors and all walks of life.

Until the end of Warring States period (BC 403-249), there was only one way of calling seals, both official and private, regardless of their use and material. This name was xi, which in the following periods gradually became the designation for imperial seals.

Official seals were conferred to officials to represent their rank and authority. These seals were usually small enough to be carried on the official's belt. Regulations existed as to the material and shape of the handle of these seals. Up to the Eastern Han Dynasty, the color of ink used to affix official seals was regulated depending on the position of each official. 

Private seals were not regulated by the governments and therefore they had the largest variety in content, shape, size, material and calligraphy styles. Despite of their varied characteristics, they can still be categorized based on their uses. Seals with names, pen names, pseudonyms, and etc on them were used as a signature by people in their private life. This is how artists signed their works and letters. Chinese literati commonly used a number of different pen names. So identifying an artist's name from a seal can be a profound skill.

Collector seals were mainly used for the purpose of authenticating pieces of art. Thus a seal of a famous collector or connoisseur would become an integral part of a work of art and could substantially raise its value. Thus in the course of several centuries, some Chinese paintings became covered by a dozen of different seals. 

A master seal engraver must be able to write different styles of the Chinese scripts and arrange all the characters in a perfect balance. Sometimes the artist has to exaggerate the thickness or thinness of a stroke, elaborately straighten or curve it, or even deliberately deform an ideogram to create an artistic effect. A perfect seal also relies heavily on the engraver's speed and strength of his wrist and finger movements as well as the particular tools used. The engraver should also be very familiar with different materials like jade, gold, brass, and stone, so that he can apply the tool with the right strength and rhythm.

A good seal stamp on a Chinese calligraphy or painting work will give the artwork a new look. A good Chinese painter or seal maker must be a good Chinese calligrapher because Chinese painting and seal making both have a strong root in Chinese calligraphy.