Seal script

Seal script

Seal script has a very complex definition. Its name is somewhat related to the purpose it serves till today.

Seal script was and is mostly used for creating inscriptions and seals, be it for official or private purposes.

Despite its name, the seal script was not always used only for seal making. Its application during the ancient Xia (夏朝, 2070 B.C.E. – 1600 B.C.E.), Shang (商朝, 1600 – 1046 B.C.E.) and Zhou dynasties (周朝, 1046 – 256 B.C.E.) of China was extremely wide, spanning from carving it on bronze ware, weapons, stelae, official use, seals, and so on. Seal script is the oldest script in the history Chinese calligraphy, and it has been in use for at least 3600 years.

Seal script can be divided into two major groups: the great seal script (篆書) and the small seal script (小篆).

Alas, it is not so simple. For example, bronze inscriptions (金文) are often classified as a part of great seal script. Until 1899, the discovery of oracle bone script (甲骨文), it was a common knowledge that there were five core calligraphy scripts. So now, we face a dilemma of how to classify the oracle bone script. Should it be a part of the seal script family? In my opinion, yes it should. Oracle bone script shares a lot of characteristic features with the bronze inscriptions. Both scripts had a different purpose.

Oracle bone was used for divinations, whereas the bronze inscriptions were more of an ornamental script, serving the purpose of emphasizing the power of rulers, incised on massive bronze artifacts.


A photo of Chinese characters in small seal script by Wu Dacheng

A fragment of a folding book containing over 500 Chinese characters radicals in small seal script, by the outstanding scholar and calligrapher Wu Dacheng
(呉大澂, 1835 – 1902)

On the other hand, both scripts have similar structure, especially in the early stages of their development. If a given oracle bone script character does not exist, it can be reconstructed from its bronze inscriptions cousins. The character radicals also have similar forms in both scripts.

Consequently, one could risk a statement that if bronze inscriptions are part of the seal script family, so should be the oracle bone script.

Serious literature on the subject separates all of those and discusses them apart from one another, for the sake of avoiding confusion. After giving the matter some consideration, I believe that I will do the same. After all, each of those scripts has a long history, and lived (or still lives) its separate life.

Characters of great seal script had multiple forms, and there were many inconsistencies.

The history of China is long, and rich in external and internal wars.

Kingdoms competing for the supremacy over the huge area were contributing to creating local great seal script forms. It was the Prime Minister Li Si (李斯) of the Qin dynasty of China (秦朝 221 – 206 B.C.E.) who unified the great seal script forms under a small seal script in 221 B.C.E.

It could be said, that seal script is still in official use. Official seals in Japan, China, or Taiwan, are still made in seal script.

It is by far one of the oldest (if not the oldest) scripts on Earth, that remained in continuous use for such an astonishing period. It does make one think about how impressive and greatly respected is the tradition and culture here in the Far East, regardless of the passing time.


A photo of Ponte Ryuurui (品天龍涙)

Author of the above article:

Ponte Ryuurui (品天龍涙)
Japanese calligrapher, writer and co-creator of Ink Treasures project.

homepage: │ contact: ponte@ryuurui.comPonte Ryuurui on Google +



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