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Large Seal Script

    Looking at large seal script is almost like looking at the early formation of Chinese civilisation itself.

    It has been in use for approximately three thousand years. And it still retains its distinguished, authoritative and innovative essence.

    Let’s take a closer look at this ground-breaking ancient Chinese script.

    What is large seal script?

    Large seal script (大篆 [dàzhuàn] – sometimes translated as great seal script) refers to a category and style of Chinese characters first used during the Zhou dynasty (1046 BC – 256 BC). 

    It was used throughout the subsequent Spring and Autumn period (770 BC – 467 BC) and Warring States period (475 BC – 221 BC).

    Persevered originals versions of it exist on bronze and stone inscriptions, as well as ink rubbings of them. 

    It was used for several centuries before being replaced by the small seal (小篆 [xiǎozhuàn]) script during the early part of the short-lived Qin dynasty (221 BC – 206 BC).

    Technically, large seal script is not a single, unified script like many other Chinese scripts. 

    Instead, it is more of a collection of similar characters used during the same approximate time period. On balance, these characters’ resemblance outweighs their differences and variations.

    Large seal script (above) alongside the same characters in modern regular script (below)
    Approximation of Large seal script (above) alongside the same characters in modern regular script (below).

    The lines here are from Confucius’ Analects: “Zi Zhang asked about government. The Master (Confucius) said: ‘Pondering it untiringly. Carry it out loyally.'”

    Where large seal script fits in with other Chinese scripts

    Large seal script and bronze script

    Large seal script clearly resembles and overlaps with bronze script. In fact, bronze script is largely seen as a type of large seal script.

    The slight difference between them is the materials used to create them. Bronze script is found engraved and cast on bronze objects such as pots, cauldrons, etc.

    These materials date back further than the stone, bamboo slips, etc that large seal script can be seen on.

    Large seal script and small seal script

    Large seal script was used to create small seal script during the Qin dynasty (221 BC – 206 BC)

    The empire’s prime minister, Li Si (李斯 [Lǐ Sī]), standardised about 3,000 large seal characters.

    In the process, he simplified them and changed their proportions, making them both longer and more balanced, as well as easier to write.

    Despite these differences, large seal script and small seal script are often grouped together simply as seal script.

    Seal script and subsequent scripts

    In turn, small seal script was itself quickly replaced by clerical script. And then a couple of centuries later, during the Han dynasty, a series of new scripts emerged out of this, including:

    • Regular script
    • Running script
    • Grass script

    These scripts’ usage quickly spread and continued for centuries. However, both large and small seal scripts have still been practiced by calligraphers and seal engravers ever since.

    The eight scripts of the Qin dynasty

    Large seal script was also one of the eight scripts used during the Qin dynasty. The other scripts are:

    • Small script (小篆 [小篆 [xiǎozhuàn])
    • Engraved seal script (刻符 [kèfú])
    • Bird and insect script (虫书 [chóngshū])
    • Imprint script (摹印 [móyìn])
    • Heat script (署书 [shǔshū]) used for plaques and inscriptions
    • Shu (or Spear) script (殳书 [shūshū])
    • Clerical script (隶书 [lìshū])

    Features of large seal script

    Many of large seal scripts’ features reflect the materials used to create it.

    Paper was invented in China in 105 AD, long after large seal script was the primary script in in use.

    Before it, animal bones, silk, and bamboo slips were often used. These all limited the style of characters considerably.

    But with paper, calligraphers could more fully and flexibly control their brushes, adding different shaped strokes and dots.

    And they could nimbly transform the overall feel of characters by the speed they wrote the characters and size of them, too.

    Example of large seal script

    Examples of well-preserved large seal script are relatively rare. 

    The best known examples of large seal script come from Stone Drum Inscriptions (石鼓文 [Shígǔwén]). These are named drum shaped stones that have engravings on them. 

    Some original stones have survived for thousands of years, others we know about because of preserved ink rubbings from later dynasties.

    (Ink rubbings are when paper is pasted to objects using water, and then ink is carefully placed on the paper to capture the object’s outlines).

    large seal script ink rubbing photograph
    Large seal script example

    Conclusion

    Large seal script, also known as great seal script, is a category and style of Chinese characters.

    It originated during the Zhou dynasty and continued to develop throughout Spring and Autumn, and Warring States periods. 

    It overlaps with bronze script and small seal script, too. 

    Large seal script reflects the materials used for writing before the invention of paper, such as engravings on stone, brass, and animal bones, and writing on silk and bamboo.

    The best examples of it can be found on stone