Seals represent a crucial component in the production of Chinese art. The history of seals can be traced back to the Shang dynasty (1600 – 1046 BCE). Before the Song and Yuan dynasties (11-14 th centuries), the materials used were mostly hard materials such as metals, jades, ivory, bamboo, and hardwoods. Stones became increasingly popular after the Yuan Period due to their fine and smooth textures, beautiful colors, natural patterns and suitable hardness for carving. The four types of stone most popular in making seals are Qingtian (青田石), Changhua (昌化石), Balin (巴林石) and Shoushan (寿山石). Originally, seals served as proof of power or permission, in lieu of official signatures. Coupled with an increasing popularity among literati (educated elite) in the Ming and Qing Dynasties (15 th -19 th centuries), seals began to exhibit different aesthetic functions, reflecting a variety of personal artistic sentiments and ideals. The aesthetic value of a seal can be determined from the appreciation of two aspects of the seal, the body and the content. The type and quality of the stone, the decorations carved on the surface, and the form and shape of the seal are all important factors for evaluating the seal’s body. As for the content on the bottom, it can be evaluated on its meaning, the calligraphy, the format of the letters and the skill of the carving. Various types of seals on display can be found in this section. Some have names of individuals but most contain some type of poetic content.

If you would like to listen rather than read, please click below.

Buddhist Seal

This seal serves an artistic rather than administrative purpose because its inscription is that of a poem rather than a person’s name. Notably the seal also features imagery carved on its front side, depicting the folktale of the Four Sleepers, about three Buddhist monks – Fenggan 豐干, Shide 拾得, and Hanshan 寒山 –  and their friendly tiger, who together symbolize ideas of peace, calm contemplation, and meditation. In the top-right quadrant is the lead monk Fenggan, a physically distinct character known for using the tiger as his steed. In the bottom-right quadrant is the back view of a sleeping monk, with a straw hat leaning against him. In the bottom-left quadrant is a lounging tiger, with a monk laying alongside it. Of these two monks, it is hard to tell which is Shide or Hanshan – they are often depicted as nearly identical. In the top-left quadrant is a traditional incense burner from which smoke curls upwards. The burning of incense in Buddhist practice symbolizes purification, especially of the area where it is being burned. The translation of the text on the bottom reads: “the sea of suffering is boundless, in repentance there is salvation.”

Immortals in the Mountains

The seal, sized 3 x 1.75 x 1.5, titled “Immortals in the Mountains”, is a leisure seal crafted around Qing or post-Qing period. On the surface is a scene from a Chinese novel, Journey to the West, in which Stone Monkey and two buddhas are domesticating a tigerlike monster in the mountains. The decoration reflects the function of leisure seal: it is usually a small pleasure object people held between their hands. On the bottom, an inscription,written in large seal script(大篆), is from a poem in “The Book of Songs”, translated as “I miss old persons a lot, since only she/they can capture my heart”(我思古人, 实获我心). The old person could mean the dead wife or the past literati. Both interpretations express nostalgia towards the past, which also reflects the maker’s or owner’s yearning of escape from reality.

Steatite Seal with Carved Dragons

This seal is called “Ju San Stone”, meaning “getting together and then separate”. The type of this seal is called “Xian Zhang”, meaning an unofficial personal seal, usually containing an idiom or quotation from poems. This steatite seal is made of dark yellow soapstone. It has a semi- circle front carved with a picture of “Wu Long Xi Zhu”, which means “five dragons fighting for a pearl”, and symbolizes the desire for a wealthy and happy life.

The bottom is carved with a sentence “Ru Jin Shi Yun San Xue Xiao Hua Can Yue Que” in a traditional Xiaozhuan style. The sentence says, “Now, the clouds wear away and flower fall, only the moon is left”, and is from renowned Chinese calligrapher, seal carver and painter in late Qing Dynasty, Zhao Ziqian. This dragon seal expresses missing the good time with friends and family.

Seal with Three-clawed Dragons

This object is an irregular-shaped leisure seal made of soapstone. It is probably a product of the commercialization of decorative arts during Qing Dynasty. The three-clawed dragon motif on the body suggests that the owner of this seal may be a low-ranking official because low- ranking officials were only entitled to use three-clawed dragons. The inscription on the bottom, written in simplified Chinese, is from a poem by a patriotic poet, Wen Tianxiang, from the late 12 th century. The two lines say “[n]one since the advent of time have escaped death, may my loyalty to the country forever illuminate the annals of history.” The use of simplified Chinese in the inscription suggests another possibility: that maybe this seal was made during the modern times for pleasure purposes. On the back, a side inscription indicates the title of the poem and its author, and side inscriptions started to appear since the 16th century.

Seal carved with Lion and Cub

The object is a steatite lion seal with a sleeping cub lying on its leg. Its material and the shape indicate that it is most likely from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). This was one of the golden periods for seal carving, which explains the seal’s irregular shape. Most seals prior to the Qing dynasty were half-oval shapes with designs carved into the seals, but with Qing seals take on the actual shape of the animal. This seal design was modeled after shi shi or “guardian lion”, a symbol of protection. The subject is the interaction between the lion and the cub. The top part of the seal takes the form of an actual lion with extreme detailing of the face and body.

“Learn Benevolence” Seal

This seal is made of steatite, a common material for Chinese seals. Normally used to designate ownership of a document, seals held great importance in China. A number of materials would have been used to make seals, including bronze, jade, and ivory. A seal authorized documents and could be used to verify possession. Most were inscribed with a name but this item is only carved with學仁(xue ren), “learn benevolence.” This inscription is not in the traditional “seal script” common for official seals. Instead it uses writing more similar to standard script, suggesting a Qing dynasty date. At this time, image carving became highly developed and round seals grew in popularity alongside traditional square ones. These elements indicate this seal’s function as an object of personal artistic expression, taking prime concern with the aesthetic of the seal itself rather than a more traditional use as signature.

Set of Three Seals with Poem by Tao Yuanming

Chinese seals were generally used as printing stamps for personal signatures on documents or on art works like paintings and calligraphy. These three seals are made of soapstone. Because of its texture and beautiful color, soapstone was widely used for seals. These seals are carved according to the natural forms of the soapstone. On the surface typical Chinese landscape paintings are engraved. The uncommonly long content of these three seals combined together is a poem from the poet Tao Yuanming (365 – 427 CE). These seals are examples of Free seals which were made for scholars to play with in their leisure time. They had free formats and natural shapes, and their content is very extensive, ranging from lines of poetry to a simple word. Free seals are manifestations of the owner’s ideology and reflect the artist’s character. The poem on these seals praises a eremitic lifestyle in nature and advocates a reclusive and self-sufficient life.

Seal with Cranes

This seal presents a carving of three cranes surrounded by wildlife. The cranes are perched on a number of rocks, either overlooking a mountain range, or on ground level. In Chinese art, cranes were associated with longevity. A seal can convey immortality itself by preserving a mark even when the owner has died. This seal’s material is soapstone, an easily manipulated and inexpensive material. The seal’s characteristic red stamp falls under the distinct of zhuwen, imprinting its characters in red ink. Scholars were known to possess seals that corresponded to different tasks. With their increased use in the Song and Yuan periods for painting and calligraphy, scholars started noticing their aesthetic value and became more involved in the seal-carving process. Artisans adhered to strict guidelines on behalf of these scholars. Though most scholars did not make the seals themselves, they still managed to alter the artistic threshold for accepting certain objects as art with seals cementing their place within this framework.