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A seal of Western Jin Dynasty, Shaanxi History Museum, XianAs a particular craft combining calligraphy and sculpture, sealcraft plays an important role in the Chinese heart. It has represented integrity and faith in China since ancient times. Anything big or small must be sealed after signing, in order to be guaranteed by law. Chinese calligraphers and painters also seal their names on their works to prevent forgery. When you draw money from a bank; when you buy something in the supermarket with bank or credit card; when you make contract with others; when you write letters, articles, and documents; when you go to transact affairs in government offices... you will often hear 'Please sign or seal your name!' in China.

Originally, all the seals were named 'xi'. After unifying the six states, the first Qin Emperor decreed that only the imperial seal could be called 'xi' and should be made of jade, while seals of the officers and the common people were to be called 'Yin' and could not be made of jade.

During the reign of Empress Wu Zetian, the seal was renamed 'bao', because the pronunciation of 'xi' is very similar to the word 'si' which means 'death' in Chinese. Later, Emperor Zhongzong of the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907) revived the word 'xi'. From the Tang to the Ming (1368 - 1644) and Qing (1644 - 1911) Dynasties, 'xi' and 'bao' were both used. On top of all this, seals of the officials were also named 'ji' in the Tang and Song (960 - 1279) Dynasties.

Another name of seal is 'zhang' used by the generals of the Han (206 BC – 220) and the Wei (220 – 265) Dynasties. The seals at that time were carved hastily on the march in need of field brevets, so they were random creations in a certain style. Additionally, there are many other names for Chinese seal such as 'guanfang', 'tuzhang', 'tushu', 'fu', 'qie', 'cuozi' and so on.

 Side Calligraphy
As the predecessor of printing, seals are made through the technique of seal cutting, which is a kind of art showing the beauty of letters and pictures through carving. Side calligraphy is an integral part of the seal carving, which generally refers to the letters and inscriptions carved on the side and back of the seals.

In the Sui (581 - 618) and Tang Dynasties, the seal artisans began to carve the seals with the date of manufacture, serial numbers and instructions, which can't be called art, but which were the rudiments of side calligraphy. To the Ming and Qing Dynasties, side calligraphy became a kind of art, of varied style and content. Side calligraphy then was a complex art form incorporating calligraphy, painting, literature and history. It can be used to record events, and to deliver accolades and opinions. What's more, the words must be elegant and felicitous, and the style of the side calligraphy had to match the seal.

An Emperor Seal, Beihai Park, Beijing 
Seal Stones
For a long time, seals were made of copper and jade which are hard materials and difficult to carve. Later, seals were carved of softer stone, and Balin Stone, Shoushan Stone, Qingtian Stone, and Changhua Stone are considered as 'four well-known seal stones of China'.

Balin Stone –mild, neither too hard nor too soft, and fine of texture, produced in Balin Right Banner, Inner Mongolia.

Shoushan Stone –the national stone of China in many artists' eyes, produced in the picturesque Shoushan Village, Fuzhou City of Fujian Province. Stones there are milky white or multihued and pure of texture. Quality stones have a pearl, creamy or vitreous luster, feeling greasy.

Qingtian Stone –produced in Qingtian County, Zhejiang Province. Stone there is mild, colorful and dense of texture. Pyrophyllite produced there is the earliest seal stone in China.

Changhua Stone – produced in Changhua Town of Lin'an City, Zhejiang Province, in great variety. Stone there is greasy, tenacious and mild of color, flecked with thin, white spots. Most are slightly translucent to semi-transparent, and a precious few are transparent.

 Seal Patterns
At present, most of the Chinese seals in the market are carved into or feature auspicious patterns or animals, including the twelve Chinese horoscope animals, dragons, phoenixes, tortoises, unicorns and fabulous wild beasts such as golden toads, magpies, cranes, eagles, bats and deer. These patterns and animals contain special messages.

Dragon – the totem of the Chinese nation, it is the symbol of strength, excellence, and wealth. Seals of its shape are fit to give others for gratitude, friendship, new marriage, new birth, and so on.

Phoenix – King of the birds, it is the symbol of beauty, auspicious, kindness, quiet, virtue, and brightness. Seals of its shape are good presents for new couples, wishing them a happy life.

Unicorn – strange-bodied, with dragon's head, deer's horn, horse's hoofs, ox's tail, wolf's forehead and colorful scute. Legend has it that unicorn can prevent disasters, exorcise evils, and bring wealth and promotion. Seals with unicorns are used to congratulate others on promotion, election, practice, and new marriage.

Tortoise – symbolizing longevity, safety and fortune.

The seals in the shapes of the other animals can also mean auspiciousness, good luck, success, health, brightness, wealth, longevity, festival, gladness, and other good wishes and meanings.

In addition, seals are also in the shapes of some auspicious plants such as the virtuous lotus, the flourishing chili, the safe and auspicious apple, the sweet pear, and the guava which symbolizes a family with many descendants. Others like sun, lock, and Buddha's hand are also used as the models of the seals, with good wishes.