The Arts




A Baiwen name seal, read up-down-right-left: Ye Hao Min Ying (lit. "Seal of Ye Haomin").

A Baiwen name seal, read up-down-right-left: Ye Hao Min Ying (lit. "Seal of Ye Haomin").
Fig 1


SEE Also: Seal Script


A Chinese seal (Chinese: 印章; Pinyin: yžnzhāng) is a seal or stamp containing Chinese characters used in East Asia to prove identity on documents, contracts, art, or similar items where authorship is considered important.
Chinese seals are typically made of stone, sometimes of wood, and are typically used with red ink or cinnabar paste (Chinese: 朱砂; Pinyin: zhūshā). The word 印 ("yžn") specifically refers to the imprint created by the seal. The colloquial name chop, when referring this kind of seals, was adapted from a Malay word during the colonization of the Straits Settlements.
East Asia currently uses a mixture of seals and hand signatures, and increasingly, electronic signatures. But notably in Japan and China, seals remain commonly used instead of a signatures when doing business or other procedures, and in certain cases, only seals are acceptable.

Types of Seals

Zhuwen (朱文, lit. "red characters") seals imprint the characters in red ink, sometimes referred to as yang seals.

Baiwen (白文, lit. "white characters") seals imprint the background in red, leaving white characters, sometimes referred to as yin seals.

Zhubaiwen Xiangjianyin (朱白文相間印, lit. "red-white characters combined seal") seals use zhuwen and baiwen together.

Seals used by Government Authorities

A Zhuwen leisure seal; Read up-down-right-left; Ning Hai Bi Bo.

A Zhuwen leisure seal; Read up-down-right-left; Ning Hai Bi Bo.
Fig 2

Emperors of China, their families and officials used large seals known as xǐ (璽), which corresponds to the Great Seals of Western countries. Xǐ were usually made of jade (although hard wood or precious metal could also be used), and were originally square in shape. They were changed to a rectangular form during the Song Dynasty, but reverted to square during the Qing Dynasty, and officially renamed bǎo (寶, "treasure"). The Forbidden City in Beijing currently has a collection of 25 bǎo from the Qing Dynasty.
These seals typically bore the titles of the offices, rather than the names of the owners. Different seals could be used for different purposes: for example, Emperor Qianlong had a number of appreciation seals (乾隆御覽之寶) used on select paintings in their collection.

Xu Yong Yu Yin 徐永裕印, rotating character seal of Xu Yongyu.

Xu Yong Yu Yin 徐永裕印, rotating character seal of Xu Yongyu.
Fig 3

The most important of these seals is the Heirloom Seal, which was created by the first Emperor of China, Qin Shihuang, and was seen as a legitimizing device embodying or symbolizing the Mandate of Heaven. The Heirloom Seal was passed down through several dynasties, but was lost by the beginning of the Ming Dynasty.
The most popular style of script for government seals in the imperial ages (from Song to Qing) is the jiudie wen ("nine-fold script"), a highly stylized font which is unreadable to the untrained.

The government of the Republic of China (Taiwan) has continued to use traditional square seals of about 13 centimeters each side, known by a variety of names depending on the user's hierarchy. Part of the inaugural ceremony for the President of the Republic of China includes bestowing on him the Seal of the Republic of China and the Seal of Honor.

The seals of the government of the People's Republic of China today are usually circular in shape, and has a five-pointed star in the center of the circle. The name of the governmental organization is often arranged around the star in a semi-circle.

The Imperial Seal of China

The Heirloom Seal of the Realm (Traditional Chinese: 傳國璽; Simplified Chinese: 传国玺), is a jade seal carved out of the He Shi Bi, a historically famous piece of jade.


In 221 BC, the Seal was created when Qin Shihuang destroyed the remaining Warring States and united China under the Qin Dynasty. The He Shi Bi was a famous piece of jade stone which previously belonged to the Zhao state. Passing into the hands of the new Emperor of China, he ordered it made into his Imperial seal. The words ď受命于天,既寿永昌Ē (roughly translated as "The Mandate is received from Heaven, May He have Longevity and Prosperity") were written by Prime Minister Li Si, and carved onto the seal by Sun Shou.


At the death of the second Emperor of Qin, his successor Zi Yin proffered the seal to the new emperor of the Han Dynasty, where after it was known as the "Han Heirloom Seal of the Realm". At the end of the Western Han Dynasty in 9 AD, Wang Mang, the new ruler, forced the Han empress dowager to hand over the Seal. The empress dowager, in anger, threw the Seal on the ground, chipping one corner. Later Wang Mang ordered the corner to be restored with gold.
This seal passed on even as dynasties rose and fell. It was seen as a legitimizing device, signaling the Mandate of Heaven. During turbulent periods, such as the Three Kingdoms period, the seal became the object of rivalry and armed conflict. Regimes which possessed the seal declared themselves, and are often regarded historically, as legitimate. At the end of the restored Han Dynasty in the 3rd Century AD, Sun Jian found the Imperial Seal on the body of a court servant who had committed suicide by diving into a well. His son Sun Ce gave the Seal to Yuan Shu in return for 3000 soldiers, which he used to found the Kingdom of Wu. When Yuan Shu was defeated, the Seal came into the hands of Cao Cao, whose son Cao Pi proclaimed the Wei Dynasty as the legitimate successor state to Han and the other rival dynasties Shu-Han and Wu to be illegitimate.


The Seal was passed through the Wei Dynasty, Jin Dynasty, Sixteen Kingdoms period, Sui Dynasty and Tang Dynasty, but was lost to history in the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period.

Three theories exist as to how it was lost:

1. At the end of the Tang Dynasty, when the last Emperor died by self-immolation.

2. In 946 CE when the Emperor Taizu of Liao captured the last Emperor of the Jin state.

3. The Seal came into the hands of the Yuan emperors. When the Ming armies captured the Yuan capital in 1369, it captured just one out of the eleven personal Seals of the Yuan emperors. The Heirloom Seal was not found. In 1370, Ming armies invaded Mongolia and captured some treasures brought there by the retreating Yuan emperor. However, the Heirloom Seal was again not among these.

In any case, the Seal was known to be lost by the beginning of the Ming Dynasty. Both the Ming and the Qing dynasties did not have the Heirloom Seal. This partly explains the Qing Emperors' obsession with creating numerous imperial seals, in order to reduce the significance of the Heirloom Seal.

Recent Developments

In recent years, several seals have been claimed to be the lost Heirloom Seal. However, none of these claims have been confirmed by experts. In at least one case, the seal concerned was found to be a personal seal of an Emperor, rather than the Heirloom Imperial Seal.

Personal Seals

There are many classes of personal seals:

Name Seals 名印

Denote the person's name.
These are almost always square.

Chinese Pinyin English Example Use
姓名印 Xingming Yin Personal Name Seal 李小狼 or 李小狼印 State the family and personal name of a person


表字印 Biaozi Yin Style Name Seal 字矗昊 or 矗昊 State the style name of a person


臣妾印 Chenqie Yin Subject Concubine Seal 臣美櫻 Used in imperial times by concubines or officials


書簡印 Shujian Yin Simplified Word Seals 如佩信印 Used in letters, instead of writing well wishes by hand, the seal takes its place


總印 Zong Yin General or Combined Seal 大英伯明皇龍正之章 States the personal name and the place name where he/she is from


迴文印 Huiwen Yin Rotating Character Seal 徐永裕印 Same as the personal name seal, but characters are read in an anti-clockwise direction, rather than from the top-down, right-to-left. Sometimes used in writing (i.e. to sign a preface of a book, etc).


Free Seals 閑印

Are the equivalent of today's online signatures, and can contain the person's personally philosophy or literary inclination.
These can be any shape, ranging from ovals to dragon-shaped.

Chinese Pinyin English Example Use
肖形印 Xiaoxing Yin Portrait Seal   Has images with no words to express the users character


吉語印 Jiyu Yin Lucky Sayings Seal 日就富貴 Has lucky sayings and proverbs


黃神越章 Huangshen Yuezhang Exceeding Seal of the Yellow God 黃神越章天帝神之印 Used in ancient times on letters as a protective charm on letters to ward off wild beasts and demons of the recipient. Now used mainly as a well-wishing convention on letters to people who travel abroad


封泥 Feng Ni Sealing Stamp   Used to seal letters or packages, often after the sealing tag/strip has been stuck on the flap


Studio Seals 齋印

Carry the name of the person's private studio 書齋, which most literati in ancient China had, although probably in lesser forms. These are more or less rectangular in shape.

Chinese Pinyin English Example Use
齋館印 Zhaiguan Yin Studio or Study Seal 雅目齋 States the name of the studio or body. This includes society and company seals


別號印 Biehao Yin Alias Seal 白石道人 States aliases that the user uses. These include artistic names, painting names, pen-names, etc


收藏印 Shoucang Yin Storage Seal 松雨彗齋圖書印 Used on books or paintings that are kept by the user. This includes appreciation seals used on paintings and books that the owner admires


詞句印 Ciju Yin Poetry Seal 問松消息 Has poems or proverbs inscribed, used on paintings, etc. Size can range from big to small depending on how long the inscription is
花押印 Huaya Yin Flower Signature Seal   A mark used in place of a signature. Often small, sometimes with images, the design can be varied in style


Seal Paste

Chinese seal and red seal paste.

Chinese seal and red seal paste.
Fig 4

There are two types of seal paste depending on what base material they are made of. One is silk based (mixed with cinnabar et al.) to form a very thick substance. The other is plant based to form a very loose substance.

Silk: The red paste is made from finely pulverized cinnabar, mixed with castor oil, and silk strands. The silk strands bind the mixture together to form a very thick substance. It has a very oily appearance and tends to be a bright red in color.

Plant: The red paste is made from finely pulverized cinnabar, mixed with caster oil, and moxa punk. Because the base is a plant one that has been pulverized, the texture is very loose due to the fact that it doesn't bind. The appearance is sponge like and not oily and tends to be a darker shade of red.

Plant based paste tends to dry more quickly than silk based pastes because the plant extract does not hold onto the oil as tightly as silk. Depending on the paper used, plant pastes can dry in 10 to 15 minutes. The more absorbent the paper is, the faster it dries as the paper absorbs most of the oil. Also, plant pastes tend to smudge more easily than silk pastes due to the loose binding agent.
The paste is kept covered after it has been used, in its original container (be it plastic or ceramic). It is kept in an environment away from direct sunlight and away from intense heat lest it dry out.
When the seal is pressed onto the printing surface, the procedure differs according to plant or silk based paste. For silk based paste, the user applies pressure and rocks it about slightly. For plant based paste, the user simply applies light pressure. As lifting the seal vertically away from its imprint may rip or damage paper, the seal is usually lifted off one side at a time, as if bent off from the page. After this, the image may be blotted with a piece of paper to make it dry faster, although this may smudge it.


Most people in China possess a personal name seal. Artists, scholars, collectors and intellectuals may possess a full set of name seals, leisure seals, and studio seals. A well-made seal made from semi-precious stones can cost between •400 - •4000.
Seals are still used for official purposes in a number of contexts. When collecting parcels or registered post, the name seal serves as an identification, akin to a signature. In banks, traditionally the method of identification was also by a seal. Today, personal identification is often by a hand signature accompanied by a seal imprint. Seals can serve as as identification with signatures because they are difficult to forge and only the owner has access to his own seal.
Seals are also often used on Chinese calligraphy works and Chinese paintings, usually imprinted in such works in the order (from top to bottom) of name seal, leisure seal(s), then studio seal.
Seals are usually carved out by specialist seal carvers, or by the users themselves. Specialist carvers will carve the user's name into the stone in one of the standard scripts and styles described above, usually for a fee. On the other hand, some people take to carving their own seals out of soapstone and fine knives, which are widely available and is cheaper than paying a professional for expertise, craft, and material. Results vary, but it is possible for individuals to carve perfectly legitimate seals for themselves.

As a novelty souvenir, seal carvers also ply tourist business at Chinatowns and tourist destinations in China. They often carve on-the-spot or poor translations of foreign names on inexpensive soapstone, sometimes featuring Roman characters. Such seals are simply trinkets and are unsuitable for any functional purpose.
Determining which side of the seal should face up may be done in a number of ways: if there is a carving on top, the front should face the user; if there is an inscription on the side, it should face to the left of the user; if there is a dot on the side, it should face away from the user.
Once seals are used, as much paste as possible is wiped from the printing surface and the edges off with a suitable material. The seals are kept in a constant environment, especially seals made of sandalwood or black ox horn. Tall thin seals are best kept on their sides, in case it should wobble and fall down. More important seals, such as authority and society seals are encased or wrapped in a silk cloth to add more protection.




The Arts :: Painting

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